Argentina, Budapest, and Paris (1928–1933)
By Robert S. Nelson
We . . . long to touch the dark grey marble, whose patina you describe in a way that makes me thirsty.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler,
February 14, 1931
Although this section covers a period two years shorter than the preceding one, the quantity of correspondence surveyed is nearly three times greater. While it is difficult to compare the letters as a group, many in these years are particularly long, detailed, and expressive of their authors’ enthusiasms for their careers, travels, and art collecting activities. Among the several reasons that may explain the different character of this correspondence, surely a primary one is the great distance that separates these old friends and necessitates frequent writing to maintain their relationships. During this period, the Blisses remained largely in Argentina and the Tylers in France and Hungary, and their letters took two, even three, weeks to travel between the two hemispheres, although short telegrams were used for critical exchanges. Other factors include their burgeoning interests in collecting Byzantine art and Royall Tyler involvement in art exhibitions in London and Paris. Finally, there simply was much to write about, as these were the years surrounding the Great Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany, with serious consequences for international finance and diplomacy, the professions of Royall Tyler and Robert Woods Bliss.
ambassadorship to Argentina was stable, beginning in September 1927 and continuing until his retirement from the Foreign Service in April 1933. Royall Tyler, in contrast, changed jobs twice between 1928 and 1933. On September 6, 1928, he informed Mildred Bliss that he was leaving the League of Nations to accept a position with the Hambros Bank of London. From a base in Paris, he was to serve as the bank’s European representative, reporting on the business and political affairs of the countries of southern and southeastern Europe from Portugal to Turkey and including Germany and potentially Russia. He also joined the boards of banks in which Hambros was invested. This new position involved near constant travel. Many of his letters, composed on business trips, report on people, situations, and art that would interest the Blisses.
Royall Tyler, Hambros Bank, and the League of Nations
The Depression had a strongly negative effect on the Hambros Bank, especially in the early 1930s.Andrew St George, “,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Although Royall Tyler must have felt the stress of the situation, it rarely shows in letters to his friends, except for an occasional remark, such as this one at the end of 1930: “They tell me they don’t expect me to bring them business—but it wouldn’t hurt if I did, and anyway, in the meantime, I must keep on the job they have set me and try to give them useful dope on the countries I know something about.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, December 6, 1930. In the fall of 1931, he voluntarily left the bank to return to the League of Nations, where he joined a delegation of the Finance Committee to the government of Hungary. Working through the Bank of England, the Hungarian government had specifically requested his services, and Hambros Bank granted him a leave of absence to take up the post.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, September 26, 1931. A year later, they wanted him to return to the company, but by that point, Tyler had found that “a national stage, even a small one, has its attractions, especially at such a time as this.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 1, 1932.
Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss in Argentina
While is the much more loquacious correspondent, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss’s letters provide clues as to their life in Buenos Aires. In a letter from 1928, Mildred Bliss complains of the dullness of life in Buenos Aires, and of the Argentinean people’s lack of interest in events in Europe.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, September 12, 1928. Matters changed, however, when she and Robert returned after a long trip to the United States and Europe that lasted from January until the summer of 1930. In September, General Uriburu led a successful coup against the elected government in Argentina, thereby beginning the Década infame (Infamous Decade) of political and economic turmoil in the country. Argentina had previously abandoned the gold standard in 1929, and in the early 1930s, it negotiated new treaties with its trading partners, especially Great Britain, in an attempt to retain markets for its agricultural products.Daniel K. Lewis, The History of Argentina (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001), 83–86. Great Britain supplanted the United States as Argentina’s principal trading partner, and Ambassador Bliss struggled to persuade his government to better its trading position by reducing tariffs on Argentinean products.Harold F. Peterson, Argentina and the United States, 1810–1960 (Albany: State University of New York, 1964), 357–63. His efforts were thwarted by various other agencies of the United States government, and he faced constant antagonisms from within Argentina itself until relations improved under the conservative Uriburu regime, as Robert Woods Bliss summarized in a report of his experiences to his Harvard classmates.Walter Muir Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks: The History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800–1966 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 67–68.
Mildred Bliss long and informative letter of February 14, 1931, describes the political situation from her point of view. The new government has managed to rid the country of “graft, back-sheesh, and bureaucratic inertia. But honesty alone is not enough to cope with the contemporary situation, and here the problems are extremely difficult.” Her husband wrote to Royall Tyler in October of the same year that “[h]ere one eats, drinks and sleeps politics except for the occasional diversion of asking the latest quotation of the pound and dollar.”Robert Woods Bliss to Royall Tyler, October 3, 1931. There were compensations, however. In the same February letter, Mildred Bliss mentions that they had moved into their new embassy in the preceding November with a round of lavish, if exhausting, parties. Now in the middle of the South American summer, life was good. Robert Woods Bliss was off on holiday horseback riding in Patagonia, and she was relaxing in her jasmine-scented garden, a premonition of what her life would someday be at Dumbarton Oaks. The embassy, which is mentioned so casually, was a grand affair, designed in an eighteenth-century French palatial style by the French architect René Sergent (1865–1927). Robert Woods Bliss had been instrumental in persuading the United States government to acquire the mansion for the American embassy, and the Blisses paid for some of its furnishings.On the Palacio Bosch, which is listed on the Register of Culturally Significant Property, see Fabio Grementieri, The Bosch Palace: Residence of the Ambassador of the United States to Argentina (Buenos Aires: Pablo Corral, 2001).
The Depression and Nazism
What might appear surprising is how little the Great Depression affected the lives of the Blisses and the Tylers, at least according to the correspondence. Robert Woods Bliss, of course, enjoyed the security of government service, but his and Mildred private wealth was at least as important to their annual income. Conservatively invested, their assets survived the Wall Street crash reasonably well. Nonetheless, Mildred Bliss expressed some concern in the fall of 1930: “Although we’ve come through the crash unscathed there is a temporary shrinkage.”Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, October 20, 1930. In the letters of this period, the Tylers betray no financial problems, save a request from Elisina to the Blisses for a temporary loan to buy the house next to their Antigny property for their gardener,Elisina Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, May 29, 1928; and Elisina Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, July 30, 1928. but this came in 1928, before the Depression. Her awkward entreaty does, however, reveal details of the Tyler’s private resources and how they were invested.
Though wealthy, the Tylers and Blisses were not unaware of the world around them. Royall Tyler position involved maintaining close watch over the finances and governments of a number of European countries, and his letters are filled with long disquisitions about current developments. After returning from a trip to Berlin in early October 1930, he wrote Mildred Bliss about the “Hitlerites’ success”—the National Socialists had won a stunning electoral triumph the preceding month. While his analysis of the social and economic situation was reasonable, Tyler’s talents as a prophet were more limited: “As for the future, it is difficult to take seriously Hitler’s confidence that his party is going to develop into an actual majority of the Reichstag.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 4, 1930. Two years later, he continued to underestimate Hitler’s significance: “Hitler’s day is past, and I’m not sure that it’s a bad thing that he should have been shown up by events to be the yellow warbler he is.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 1, 1932. Royall Tyler’s abilities better served art and economics than politics.
His missives were appreciated by the Blisses, starved as they were for news and gossip from European capitals. Mildred Bliss wrote: “All you write about the League is greedily devoured by us, and we have found it exceedingly useful in steering us through the maze of printed matter, which is so little discussed here that one has no exchange of ideas to clarify one’s own.”Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, September 12, 1928. After so many detailed epistles from Royall Tyler, the Blisses felt the need to respond in kind: “Robertasked me to say that one of these days he is going to send you a political treatise himself.”Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, March 4, 1931. But he never did, evidently saving his political analyses for reports to the U.S. secretary of state. It is questionable how much Royall Tyler would have been interested in the intricacies of Argentinean affairs, given his disdain for the Western Hemisphere generally. For his part, he often commented on the depressed state of business or on how some person or bank was in trouble.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, November 3, 1930: “Business is very bad here; there have been a couple of middle-sized bank failures, and there are more coming. France hasn’t been hit as badly as other countries yet, but she’ll be feeling it soon.” See also Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 1, 1931: “Conditions are very bad here financially, ruin on all sides. Octave Homberg has gone up the spout. His things are going to be sold in June.” Royall Tyler’s own career, in contrast, appears to have been secure. In one sense, the crisis probably created a greater demand for his expertise in dealing with troubled national economies, in much the same way that bankruptcy lawyers flourish during recessions. Indeed, it was Royall Tyler’s choice to leave Hambros for the League of Nations and the challenging problems of Hungary.
But economics and politics, though important, are not the main subjects of these letters. Art is the passion that unites the Blisses and the Tylers and brings forth their greatest enthusiasms. Throughout the period, the Blisses’ art purchases continue with the aid of their knowledgeable friend, who, thanks to the Hambros position, is fortuitously based in Paris, the capital of the art market between the two wars. The letters provide insight into the actual mechanics of the acquisition process. Not only are prices and dealer negotiations discussed but the financial arrangements between the Blisses and Royall Tyler are revealed. The Blisses would generally send Tyler funds with which he bought art, especially items at auctions, on their behalf. For more expensive objects at dealers, Robert Woods Bliss would wire or mail a check from Buenos Aires. Once purchased, the art was stored in the Bliss’s Parisian apartment, which was presided over by their secretary, Thérèse Malye.
Royall Tyler naturally kept the Bliss account at the Hambros Bank. According to a report on transactions included in a letter of May 16, 1930, a fund was established on December 24, 1929, with £1500. Tyler withdrew smaller amounts from it to purchase a carpet, a Spanish table, Pre-Columbian gold artifacts, and various early medieval objects. He also charged expenses for travel and telegrams against the fund. As before, all these efforts, like those in earlier years, were without remuneration. Royall Tyler was the friend and peer, not the agent or representative, of the Blisses in their art dealings. Thus, his arrangement, it should be emphasized, is not similar to that of Bernard Berenson, who advised wealthy American collectors while under secret contract with Joseph Duveen, from whom Berenson received a percentage of sales made.Ernest Samuels and Jayne Samuels, Bernard Berenson: The Making of a Legend (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), 146–48. Royall Tyler simply took pleasure in helping his friends. Sometimes he bought for himself and for his friends, which included Hayford Peirce. All had complete confidence in him, even when Tyler acted quickly and bought without consultation. At one point, Royall Tyler even borrowed from the Bliss fund to purchase a textile for Hayford Peirce, writing Mildred Bliss: “I’m acting without [Hayford Peirce] asking me, as the catalogue didn’t reach him in the wilds of Maine in time for him to wire me, but I’m pretty sure he’ll want it. As I haven’t got enough in hand to try for the textile, I’m wiring Robert asking him to transfer $2,000 to my account at Hambros, and we’ll straighten out the accounts when we meet in Paris.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, April 28, 1930.
The Stroganoff Dish
The exchanges around one object, known to them as the Stroganoff dish, illustrate the personal attachments as well as the connoisseurship and expertise of this group. At the beginning of 1928, Royall Tyler was alerted to a silver plate and wasted no time in writing Mildred Bliss: “Five minutes ago I received from Jean Babelon (Cab. des Médailles) the enclosed photo.” It was of a silver plate that he recognized as the Stroganoff dish, which she “certainly ought to buy, if it stirs you as I think it will. Please wire me if you want it en principe. . . . Having it and the BZ.1924.5. you would possess the two capital pieces of Christian plate of the early Byz. ages.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, January 8, 1928. Very much aware of the great distance that separated them from the best objects on the Parisian market, Mildred Bliss responded on January 31, 1928:
What have you done to us, dearest Royall? We are in a hyper-excited state over the Stroganoff dish! How came you not to cable about that? I am familiar with it, and should have leapt at the chance, and am now terror-stricken lest, during the lapse of time required for the arrival of your letter, it should have escaped. It seems hardly credible that Babelon should not have recognized it, and also that it should be in Paris more than a day without being snatched up. Your forthcoming cable is most eagerly awaited. We dread what the price is almost certain to be, but an object of that kind is worth a sacrifice.
As you know by our telegram, we are unable, alas!, to go for the other things. This Argentine chapter is simply ruinous, and we would rather barter our souls for such a majestic object as the Stroganoff dish than acquire four or five lesser pieces, however alluring they may be. . . .
Mind you get that Stroganoff dish! and when you do, won’t you keep it with you & enjoy it for a bit? It is a magnificent & solemn piece of reverence & to be drunk in. I know how much you covet it & am moved that you let us take it instead of pulling yr last shoe string to place it by the ’sBZ.1955.18. side.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, January 31, 1928.
Royall Tyler next wrote from Budapest on February 11, 1928, that he had still not been able to get to Paris to see the plate, but that Hayford Peirce had examined it and was satisfied that it was the same as the one that had been published. A problem, however, was that Peirce had noticed that the dish was part copper and not pure silver. A week later came the deal breaker. Royall Tyler reported that Peirce had concluded that the plate was a fake and in the process implicated the infamous Russian collector Botkin.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 17, 1928. The latter was associated with a number of fraudulent Byzantine enamels that are still occasionally found in museums today.See Rosalind Polly Gray, “Muscovite Patrons of European Painting: The Collections of Vasily Kokorev, Dmitry Botkin, and Sergei Tretyakov,” Journal of the History of Collections 10, no. 2 (January 1998): 191–92; and Mikhail P. Botkin, Collection M. P. Botkine (Saint Petersburg: Tovarishchestvo R. Golike i A. Vil’borg, 1911). On forged Byzantine enamels, some of which are presently in American museums, see David Buckton, “Bogus Byzantine Enamels in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 46 (1988): 11–24. But no one had expressed doubt about the authenticity of the published plate, which the Hermitage acquired from Stroganoff in 1911.Alice V. Bank, Byzantine Art in the Collections of Soviet Museums (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1978), 283–84, pl. 78. What ultimately became of the “Stroganoff dish” that so excited Tyler, Peirce, and the Blisses is not known.
If certain details of Hayford Peirce conclusion about the Stroganoff dish do not stand, his basic instincts about the plate were sound, as they were evidently based on a close examination of the object and scholarly investigation. In the days before large libraries and photographic databases, not to mention the internet, such detective work was not easy. Royall Tyler put it more colorfully in the February letter, describing Hayford Peirce as “working like a little terrier at the Stroganoff mystery.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 17, 1928.Elisina Tyler went to see the plate in March, and Royall Tyler went in April when he returned from Budapest, but Mildred Bliss could not seem to let go of the plate and asked about it one last time in September.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, September 12, 1928. Nonetheless, Royall Tyler never sanctioned the purchase of what evidently was a copy of the original in the Hermitage, for Hayford Peirce solved the mystery to his satisfaction and thereby saved the Blisses a great deal of money and Dumbarton Oaks future embarrassment.
The Sanguszko Carpet
Also unsuccessful in spite of considerable enthusiasm was the quest to purchase a large Persian rug known as the Sanguszko carpet, a work of great significance. Royall Tyler “was knocked breathless by it. It is the most beautiful carpet in the world, or at any rate the most beautiful I’ve seen.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, June 26, 1928. He showed a photograph of it to his friend Eric Maclagan, then the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, who “agreed that it was out of sight finer than any other he had ever seen.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 11, 1928. As with the Stroganoff dish, the Bliss response was visceral and palpable:
Royall, you are a demon! You have completely demoralized us, and we don’t know if we are afoot or on horseback about that rug! Now, you know perfectly well that no bits of wool are worth getting as upset about as you and we are over that Sanguszko carpet, Robert is even worse than I am. It is the only thing which rouses him, and when your note came from London he went right up into the air, and is cabling you. . . . Well, what are we going to do about it? Are you going to have first chance? and do you suppose it will be within the realm of possibility for us to acquire the thing? . . . When you get the cable, go to it, and let us know what to expect when I go to Paris the first days of November.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, September 12, 1928.
Mildred Bliss remained in Paris until early December, to judge from Royall Tyler letter of December 8, 1928; during that time, they must have examined together the Sanguszko carpet and had discussions about it with Isbirian, the dealer, who was handling matters for Sanguszko and coincidentally had offered the Stroganoff dish as well. What happened in the case of the carpet is not known. It surely was authentic; it was later displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before it was bought by the Miho Museum in Japan.Carol Vogel, “Inside Art,” New York Times, March 18, 1994. The most likely explanation is that the asking price of the carpet was too high or that it was of a size difficult to accommodate at Dumbarton Oaks.
Nonetheless, the Paris trip was successful in other respects, even if the evidence for this success is not initially forthcoming from these letters. It was the nature of the medium that correspondence was cursory when the Blisses and the Tylers were together in the same city. Royall Tyler letter of December 8, 1928, only alludes to their activities in the preceding days. After seeing Mildred Bliss at the train station, he went to two dealers to discuss the prices of objects that they had seen together: at Bacri Frères, an ivory, and at Kalebdjian Frères, some jewelry. On January 30, 1929, Tyler responded to a now lost letter from Mildred Bliss that they have bought the ivory, a Crucifixion,BZ.1929.2. which he extolled here and in subsequent letters. While some art historians have doubted the authenticity of this panel, the annotators of this correspondence side with Tyler and regard it as a genuine tenth-century work.The ivory is not included in Kurt Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1972) because Weitzmann doubted it, as did Susan A. Boyd and Gary Vikan in Questions of Authenticity among the Arts of Byzantium (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, 1981), 24–25. Anthony Cutler argues that it is genuine in The Hand of the Master: Craftsmanship, Ivory, and Society in Byzantium (Ninth–Eleventh Centuries) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 13–14. The annotators of this correspondence are inclined to regard it as genuine. The ivory has a strong dark streak down its center, a feature that troubled those who doubted its authenticity, but this detail suggests a medieval origin. Cutler showed other Byzantine ivories with this trait. Something that offends modern taste is not likely to be a chosen by a forger. Moreover, the streak is compositionally important and defines the central axis of the ivory and thus emphasizes the figure of Christ. In the same letter, Royall Tyler also congratulated the Blisses on the purchase of late antique jewelry from the Piazza della Consolazione in Rome.BZ.1928.8–17. Two months later, he alerted them to a yet more important piece of jewelry of the period, an exquisite necklace with a standing golden figure of Aphrodite set against a dark blue lapis shell.BZ.1928.6. Tyler called it “perfectly ravishing,” and wrote, “Cable me only if you don’t want it, as otherwise I shall not let it escape.” Showing that there are degrees of loyalty in these matters, he concluded, “I have no doubt Hayford would jump at it if he had the chance.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 27, 1929.
The Persepolis Relief
The other object from this period that provoked a reaction as strong as the Sanguszko carpet was a relief from Persepolis, and this time the Blisses succeeded in buying it.BZ.1931.1. Royall Tyler wrote Mildred Bliss about the sculpture on December 13, 1930, enclosing a photograph of the relief “which strikes me as the most beautiful I have ever seen. . . . The close-grained, dark gray marble has a patina like that of the finest early Chinese bronze containing an alloy of antimony, and has perfectly kept its surface, its skin, which is most delectable to the touch.” Mildred and Robert Bliss wasted no time in responding, evidently cabling to Royall Tyler to secure the relief, whereupon he promptly replied that the object was theirs. These exchanges are lost but can be assumed from Mildred Bliss’s letter of February 14, 1931, which also records their responses:
You threw us into a flutter of excitement over the Persepolis relief. It was a crazy thing to do to take you up so promptly, but it hit Robert in the pit of the stomach luckily, for I saw the photograph first and it had done for me exactly the same. So when your answering cable came we were profoundly pleased, and long to touch the dark grey marble, whose patina you describe in a way that makes me thirsty.
The El Greco Visitation
At the same time, another non-Byzantine object that excited all parties was “an astonishingly beautiful El Greco”HC.P.1936.18.(O). that Royall Tyler had heard about in Barcelona. The painting was closely guarded by a dealer in Madrid. Because of business duties, Tyler had no opportunity to go there for some time; thus, he enlisted his son, William Royall Tyler, to study it. The latter dutifully sent his “Aunt Mildred” a report, which Royall Tyler enclosed with his letter of February 5, 1931. William Tyler earnest visual record reads much like the descriptions of college students, and he was, of course, of that age. But it is an accurate, carefully observed description that betrays more than a little of his father’s aesthetic enthusiasms. Now it was Royall Tyler who was overcome by a work of art known only from a letter: “I’m so excited about this thing that I can’t attend to business, and it’s torture having to wait till this reaches you by post—but of course one can’t explain it all by cable.” In the end, it is not known if Royall Tyler was able to see El Greco’s Visitation when it was in Madrid, but the Blisses did purchase the painting later in 1936 from M. Knoedler & Co. of New York. At that time, William Tyler had another chance to see it, as he described in a note that he added in the 1970s to the edition that he was planning of these letters:
Some years later after this letter [of February 6, 1931] was written, my wife and I were living in New York at 14 East 90th Street. One day, Mrs. Bliss telephoned from Washington to tell us that Knoedler & Co. would shortly be delivering at our apartment a painting which would remain with us for two or three days.Would I please examine it very carefully, and let her know whether I could satisfy myself beyond any shadow of a doubt that it was the painting I had seen in Madrid?The following day the El Greco indeed came to stay with us, and was welcomed as an old friend whom I recognized instantly. The Blisses bought it shortly thereafter, and it now hangs in the Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks. The El Greco will hopefully always remain in the Music Room.
The Cross Reliquary and Miniature Mosaic
Two other objects that are discussed in the letters of the early 1930s eventually entered the collection at Dumbarton Oaks. The first is an enameled reliquary cross, decorated with an image of the crucified Christ on its front side.BZ.1936.20.Royall Tyler first mentions it in a letter of December 30, 1929, in which he reports the death of Walter Burns, an American financier and collector of medieval art. Burns had also owned the Crucifixion ivory,BZ.1929.2. and Royall Tyler thought that if the enamel were for sale, the Blisses would probably never again be able to purchase something as fine. In due course, Drey, who had sold the reliquary to Burns, repurchased it, and Hayford Peirce saw it at Drey’s gallery in New York. Tyler urged the Blisses to work through Peirce to obtain it. The matter was not straightforward, however, since Peirce was “sorely tempted” by the cross, even though Royall Tyler thought it was “beyond his means.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 30, 1931. In their circle, only the Blisses could compete for the finest Byzantine objects, and Hayford Peirce did indeed abandon the quest.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, April 13, 1931. Yet in spite of Royall Tyler’s repeated praise of the cross, Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss did not make up their minds to buy it at this time.The cross was acquired in 1936. The previous year, Robert Woods Bliss wrote to Hayford Peirce in Bangor, Maine, to check on the price that Drey had earlier asked for the cross. Hayford Peirce to Robert Woods Bliss, January 24, 1935, Byzantine Collection dossier file, Dumbarton Oaks Archives.
Hayford Peirce played a more active role in the second object that Royall Tyler recommended to the Blisses, a fourteenth-century miniature mosaic of the Forty Martyrs of Sebasteia.BZ.1947.24. In the spring of 1931, the Louvre curator Georges Duthuit first showed Royall Tyler a photograph of this small icon. Tyler sent the photograph to Peirce (who presumably was in Maine), as he wrote Mildred Bliss. Again, he recommended that Hayford Peirce not try for it because of its price, and if he did not want it, Tyler would send Mildred Bliss the photograph.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 30, 1931. Some weeks later, Royall Tyler saw the panel and confirmed its quality,Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 7, 1931. but on June 8, 1931, Robert Bliss responded that they were undecided about both the Burns cross and the mosaic. This time, Hayford Peirce pursued the latter, and “after a few days of furious comedy [he] got it for £880,”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 12, 1931. a substantial discount from the prices that Tyler had suggested would be required (£2500 or 3000), but a considerable sum nonetheless.According to the conversion calculator of the Economic History Association, £880 in 1931 was the equivalent of $63,900.00 in 2010 dollars.
The Nereid Textile and the Langobard Enamel
Two final acquisitions complete the Blisses’ collecting in 1928–1933. In 1931, Royall Tyler wrote his friends about a five-foot-long textile of two “Nereids riding marine monsters, on a full red ground, with a golden-rod yellow ground in the border, a perfect marvel, and, after your big ECTIABZ.1929.1. the finest Byz-Coptic Tapestry known.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, July 10, 1931. It took Mildred Bliss some time to respond, but on November 11, 1931, she reacted strongly to it: “Kelek’sDikran G. Kelekian. NéreïdesBZ.1932.1. completely unnerved us, and after seeing our lawyer and gaining some idea of what one’s income is likely to be for 1932, we will cable you.”Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, November 11, 1931. The Blisses purchased it, although details are not forthcoming from the correspondence.
Less successful was the pursuit of a Langobard enamel with translucent colors, a type that had long attracted Mildred Bliss. An Italian dealer, Giorgio Sangiorgi, had brought this enamel to Royall Tyler and Hayford Peirce. Tyler describes the lushness of its color: “The enamel is slightly iridized. When one moistens the surface, the colours come out wonderfully. The gold is lovely.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 21, 1933. After a few months and a price drop of a third, Robert Bliss made an offer that the dealer accepted. Unfortunately, the enamelBZ.1933.5. has not been on display at Dumbarton Oaks because of doubts about its authenticity.The enamel was displayed at the Worcester Art Museum exhibition; see The Dark Ages: Loan Exhibition of Pagan and Christian Art in the Latin West and Byzantine East (Worcester, Mass.: Worcester Art Museum, 1937), 42, cat. no. 122. Marvin C. Ross doubted its authenticity; see “Letter to the Editor of the Art Bulletin,” The Art Bulletin ): 72. The Blisses may have bought something that had been created for the tastes of their day.
The Dark Ages and Byzantine Art Exhibitions
In 1929, while advising Hambros Bank and its affiliates on international economics, Royall Tyler was asked to become involved with two art exhibitions. The first invitation came in July from George Eumorfopoulos, a Greek merchant and art collector of mainly Chinese, but also medieval, art. He asked Royall Tyler to participate in the exhibition Art in the Dark Ages in Europe (circa 400–1000 AD) held in the spring of 1930 at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. Tyler agreed to serve on the organizing committee, but his duties appear to have been minimal and his influence even less. He complained to Mildred Bliss about the exclusion of Byzantine material due to the geographical restriction to Western Europe and about the inclusion of objects that he did not regard as art:
The more I think of the scope of that show, the surer I am that it is badly chosen, and I think I’ll have another go at EumoGeorge Aristides Eumorfopoulos (1864–1939), a Greek merchant and art collector of mainly Chinese, but also medieval, art. on the subject. But it won’t be any good. The British Museum has spoken—and all art is Dark Ages where they are concerned. What people! All one can say is that works of art are so hidden away among junk and rubbish there. . . . Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 11, 1929.
More satisfying was the second proposal that came later that same year, for this exhibition excited him more, absorbed more of his energies, and brought him to the attention of a wider scholarly world. In the fall of 1929, Georges Salles, a junior curator at the Louvre, and Eustache de Lorey, the director of the French Institute of Archaeology in Damascus, came to see Royall Tyler, “all dressed up and very solennels,” as he recalled to Mildred Bliss in a letter dated October 23, 1929. They sought his support for an exhibition devoted solely to Byzantine art to be held at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in the spring of 1931. Royall Tyler was immediately convinced that it would “be a far, far finer show than this Dark Ages affair we’re trying to do at the Burlington.” Hayford Peirce was to be included in a preliminary meeting. Losing no time, Royall Tyler immediately asked the Blisses for the loan of their finest objects from their newly formed and heretofore little known collection, much of which was conveniently still in Paris.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 23, 1929.
Negotiating the loans was challenging, even though this would be the first international exhibition of Byzantine art and was to be staged in a prestigious venue. As it came closer to the opening of the show, Royall Tyler reported that the Vatican had decided not to lend,Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 17, 1931. and even Tyler’s old friend, Eric Maclagan, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, petitioned a higher government authority to request that his museum not have to lend objects abroad.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, January 6, 1931. In this case, Royall Tyler was able to work through back channels and successfully lodge an appeal, so that the English loans did come in the end. As a result, he made special efforts to mollify his friend at which he also succeeded.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 7, 1931; Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 27, 1931; and Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 30, 1931. For other countries, Tyler’s letters to Mildred Bliss provide a running commentary on what was in or out. Through good connections, important objects came from Spain.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 3, 1931; and Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 27, 1931. Germany was “very generous.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, March 27, 1931. Russia looked promising through most of March until late April, when they “turned us down flat.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, April 30, 1931. He excitedly reported: “But Italy is sending a most astounding loan, things I’d never dared hope for, such as the Rossano Codex, the Job Codex from Naples, the Job and Offian [sic] Codices from the Marciana, and the pick of the Castello Sforzesco, the Bargello, the Kircheriano, a lot from Ravenna—etc etc.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, April 30, 1931.
Closer to the opening of the exhibition, Royall Tyler was “frantically busy with the Catalogue of the Show. Preface for the Catalogue, articles for the Press etc.,” as he wrote Mildred Bliss on May 9, 1931. Five days before the opening on May 23, the strain on Tyler could no longer be contained, and he offered frank, even rude, opinions of others:
Forgive me, dearest Mildred, but I’ve been working day and night at the Show, as well as my business, and my nerves are getting ragged, and every time I pass by the Case at the Arts Décs, containing the rubbish those poor boobs have made us pay carriage and insurance on, my blood boils.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 23, 1931.
Tyler anger was here directed against Americans, who, in his opinion, overinsured some objects. Elsewhere, he railed against American scholars, who Tyler believed knew objects only from reproductions, which to Tyler meant not at all. He had a particularly low regard for Charles Rufus Morey of Princeton University, calling him an “Elmer,” clearly an unfriendly, if humorous epithet, whose more precise connotation, however, is now lost.
In the same letter, Royall Tyler began by thanking Mildred Bliss for her check for $1,000, which represented the Bliss contribution to the exhibition. Towards the end of that letter, Tyler mentions another contributor, the art dealer Joseph Duveen. In the fall of the previous year, Tyler had explained what the Duveen gift entailed. The organizers would “have to exhibit as Byzantine some indifferent Italian paintings which belong to him, but one must not look a gift horse in the mouth.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 4, 1930. In subsequent months, Mildred Bliss expressed concern about this commitment: “The canny Duveen! I wonder what he will foist upon you.”Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, February 14, 1931. The answer came in the letter of May 23, 1931: they had “to exhibit his celebrated Byz. Madonna, vetted by B.B.,Bernard Berenson. which is a vile daub and heavily repainted at that. We had to resort to subterfuges in order to avoid reproducing it in the Catalogue.” Later bought by Andrew Mellon, the painting is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Through a process of rehabilitation that has been described elsewhere, the panel has come to stand for Byzantine icons in general books on the history of art.Robert S. Nelson, “A Painting Becomes Canonical: Bernard Berenson, Royall Tyler, and the Mellon Madonna,” Renaissance Studies in Honor of Joseph Connors, ed. Machtelt Israëls and Louis A. Waldman (Florence: Villa I Tatti, 2013), 696–701 and 969-70. Royall Tyler’s highly negative opinion of the painting ensured that it never had a chance of being added to the Bliss collection and, hence, to Dumbarton Oaks.
The Bliss Loans
I have just been viewing it with Metman, Guérin, Alfassa, Salles and Duthuit. Their enthusiasm knows no bounds. Alfassa, who was inclined to be doubtful about our ability to get together a Byz. Exhibition of the first order, simply boiled over with delight, and proclaimed that it beat all the Gothic tapestries in the world into a cocked hat. . . . I believe your ECTIA ΠOΛUOΛBOC“Hestia Polyolbos.” tapestry will be considered the finest thing in the Show.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, April 30, 1931.
But other important Bliss objects went on display as well, including the Riha paten,BZ.1924.5. the Aphrodite necklace,BZ.1928.6. and the Crucifixion ivory.BZ.1929.2. In total, the Blisses loaned fourteen, Hayford Peirce fifteen, and Royall Tyler eighteen objects to the exhibition.
None of these Americans styled themselves the same way in the catalogue. Characteristically, only the Blisses listed an American address. Their objects were “Coll. R.W. Bliss, Washington,” since—although they currently lived in Buenos Aires and their collection mainly resided in Paris—their permanent home was in Washington, specifically at the “Oaks” or Dumbarton Oaks. Tyler and Peirce, expatriots at heart, gave their addresses as Paris, although Tyler considered his principal residence to be the historic estate that he had bought at Antigny in 1923. By the date of the exhibition, Peirce was spending the majority of his time in Bangor, Maine, although at least a portion of his art collection remained in Paris, where he evidently kept an apartment,After his death, his widow, Polly Brown Peirce, wrote to her sister-in-law, Ada Peirce McCormick, on October 15, 1947, that she had packed up many boxes of her husband’s books, art objects, and coin collection in France for shipment back to the United States. The coin collection was purchased by Dumbarton Oaks in 1948. and he often traveled to France to work with Royall Tyler on their joint projects, one of which was this exhibition.
Royall Tyler appears to have been the principal in the Byzantine exhibition endeavor. In addition to his general work on the show, he wrote for the catalogue a preface and a history of Byzantine art with references to objects in the show.Exposition internationale d'art byzantin, 28 mai–9 juillet, 1931 (Paris: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1931), 25–29 and 45–53. His efforts were well received. Large crowds greeted the opening of the exhibitionRoyall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 28, 1931. and the reviews were positive.In his review of the exhibition (“The Byzantine Exhibition in Paris,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 59, no. 340 [July 1931]: 27–29, 32–33), Robert Byron wrote: “The organizers of the exhibition of Byzantine art deserve a lasting gratitude. Byzantine art has been called by those cognizant only of its most hackneyed manifestations a static art, confined within rigid and unchanging formulas. Not only have the organizers of the exhibition succeeded, with immense persistence, in transporting to Paris the treasured and little-known possessions of cathedrals and monasteries that have laid undisturbed for hundreds of years. But they have assembled a collection of objects which illustrate the innumerable modifications of taste and technique that in fact overtook East Christian art from the fourth to the fifteenth centuries. . . . And since this is the first exhibition of its kind, it is necessarily the first time that any of them have been placed in their evolutionary background.” See also Louis Bréhier, “L’Exposition d’art byzantin au pavillon de Marsan,” Formes 15 (May 1931): 79–81; René Dussaud, “Les monuments syriens à l’Exposition d’art byzantin,” Syria 12, no. 4 (1931): 305–15; Comte J. de Borchgrave d’Altena, “Orfèvreries mosanes à l’Exposition d’art byzantin (Paris 28 mai–4 juillet 1931),” Revue belge d’archéologie et d’histoire l’art 1, no. 4 (1931): 309–14; and Guillaume de Jerphanion, “Le calice d’Antioche à l”Exposition d’art byzantin,” Byzantion 6 (1931): 613–21. It was recognized that this “spectacular event . . . to a considerable extent reflected Tyler’s taste: it was extraordinarily rich in the minor arts, goldsmith’s work, ivories, and such, while it neglected icons.”Kurt Weitzmann, Sailing with Byzantium from Europe to America: The Memoirs of an Art Historian (Munich: Editio Maris, 1994), 144. After it was all over, the Blisses’ and Tylers’ mutual friend, Edith Wharton, wrote Mildred Bliss:
You will have heard so much about the Byzantine Exhibition and its overwhelming success, that there is little left for me to tell you. Royall has received all the credit which he so richly deserves, for Metman and the other members of the Arts Décoratifs have outdone each other in saying that the whole thing was due to his initiative and his energy. The objects were most beautifully arranged by Jacques Guérin, and your vitrine with the lovely jewels attracted a great deal of attention. The whole thing was really a triumph for everyone concerned.Edith Wharton to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 31, 1931, Edith Wharton Archives, Beinecke Library, Yale University, box 65.
The mention of the Bliss jewelry must refer to the several objects from the Piazza della Consolazione horde that the Blisses bought in 1928 with Tyler aid.BZ.1928.8–17. These were grouped together in the catalogue,Exposition internationale d'art byzantin, 28 mai–9 juillet,1931 (Paris: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1931), 371–74, nos. 367–69. and, as Edith Wharton usefully documents, displayed in the same exhibition case to great effect.
Hayford Peirce involvement in the exhibition had been comparatively minor; the principal reason was that his personal circumstances began to change beginning in 1928. In that year, his mother died suddenly, and he returned to the family home in Bangor, Maine. In February, Royall Tyler wrote Mildred Bliss that he did not expect that he would be away long,Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 11, 1928. but matters were no longer so simple. Hayford Peirce had to look after his octogenarian father and especially to learn from him the family timber and property business. His brother Waldo, a painter, who had also spent years abroad in Spain and France,See William Gallagher, “Waldo Peirce: Brief Life of a Vibrant Artist: 1884–1970,” Harvard Magazine (January–February 2002). and his married sister, Ada Peirce McCormick, Her papers are collected at the University of Maine, Orono, and at Arizona State University. The former collection has materials on the Peirce family generally. were not in a position to help. Expressing a self-interested perspective, Tyler wrote Mildred Bliss, “I’m sure Hayford was right to go and tackle the business squarely and learn it from the inside—but it’s a nuisance having to interrupt our collaboration. Fortunately we got the Encycl. Brit. articleThis entry on Byzantine art was published in 1929 in the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. finished just before his mother died.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, April 29, 1928. Royall Tyler hoped that his friend would be “able to spend 3/4 of his time over here, but while his father lives he’ll have to go back for several months every year.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 10, 1928.
The proportion of time spent in France and America may have been reversed in some years, but the two friends remained dedicated to their scholarship. In July 1928, they began work on a project that would continue for many years. Royall Tyler wrote: “Hayford is coming over next month, and we’ll start work on another book on Byz. which we’ve agreed to do for a French publishing house (Librairie de France): 350 plates comprising 500 reproductions, and about 100 p. of text in big octavo.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, July 30, 1928. This was L’art byzantin, the first volume of which appeared in 1932 after numerous delays. Already by the summer of 1931 and the end of the Paris exhibition, Royall Tyler wrote that volume two was
mostly written—but there remains a lot of work to be done on it. I’m glad you thought the prospectus inviting. We’ve reluctantly decided to have an English edition—that will be a plague, but I hope Elisina will be able to help, and perhaps even Bill.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 12, 1931.
In spite of the Depression, their publisher was making plans to bring out an expensive second volume, although the English edition had to be eliminated.Hayford Peirce to Ada Peirce McCormick, June 6, 1932, Ada Peirce McCormick Papers, University of Maine, Orono, box 2665, folder 15. The history of Byzantine art was to be surveyed in five volumes. In a letter of October 1932, Royall Tyler outlined the division of material in subsequent volumes. Volume two would deal with the sixth century, three the seventh to ninth centuries, four the tenth and eleventh centuries, and the last volume would cover “the rest,” although the authors would “not deal with much that comes after 1200.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 1, 1932. By December 1932, the second volume needed only “a week’s solid work done on it before the text can be sent in to the clamourous publishers . . . ,” and Hayford Peirce was in Maine working on the notes for volume three.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, December 10, 1932. In a letter of February 11, 1933, Royall Tyler reported that he was planning a trip to the United States to study objects for the latter volume.His trip was a topic of practically every letter in the spring of 1933, and until late May, Hayford Peirce was still hoping to sail back with Tyler in the summer, but the press of duties for the League of Nations led Tyler to cancel the trip; see Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss and Robert Woods Bliss, June 12, 1933. See also Hayford Peirce to Ada Peirce McCormick, May 24, 1933, Ada Peirce McCormick Papers, University of Maine, Orono, box 2665, folder 16. Finally, if these ambitious plans were not enough, Royall Tyler wrote Mildred Bliss that after he and Hayford Peirce finished their five books, he had arranged for them “to do a catalogue illustré and raisonné of the Treasure of S. Marks and of the Byz. parts of the Pala d’Oro.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 13, 1933. The fate of L’art byzantin will be discussed in future sections, but the grand catalogue of the Treasury of San Marco in Venice remained only a dream, albeit a very good one that would be realized on just this model several decades later by other scholars.Hans R. Hahnloser and Wolfgang Fritz Volbach, Il Tesoro di San Marco, 2 vols. (Florence: Sansoni, 1965–). Nothing else is reported in the correspondence about their research in 1933, although Royall Tyler does describe in vivid detail his trip to Mount Athos in November.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, November 27, 1933.
The scholarly agenda that Royall Tyler and Hayford Peirce set for themselves was bold and grand for a university professor with free summers and sabbaticals, but these men were not professors. Peirce managed a timber and property business during the Depression, and Tyler advised the troubled economy of Hungary and negotiated the politics of the League of Nations. Thus, it is only natural that Royall Tyler would express reservations about his plans for L’art byzantin:
There are moments when I feel that I am crazy to have undertaken this Byz. book on the present 5 vol. scale at a time when I am quite fully occupied with other things, and when I doubt whether I shall be able to see it through, or doubt whether the quality of the Byz. work won’t be marred by haste. But, on the whole and on balance, I think I can do it.Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 1, 1932.
Edith Wharton remarked on Tyler two lives to Mildred Bliss: “With all the terrible business anxieties of the last months, I marvel that he should have been able to keep his mind sufficiently detached to go on with the work whenever he has a moment to spare.”Edith Wharton to Mildred Barnes Bliss, August 31, 1931, Edith Wharton Archives, Beinecke Library, Yale University, box 65. The reason was that research for Tyler and Peirce was not an added burden. Royall Tyler put it more emphatically: “Thank God for Byz. Art! I think I’d go crazy in this present economic and financial world if I hadn’t that refuge.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, December 10, 1932. Art and scholarship played a similar role for Hayford Peirce. After his return to Bangor, Peirce, according to his brother Waldo, would go in the mornings to “the timberland office overhanging the Penobscot [River] where his father and grandfather had worked before him,” but would spend his “evenings on Byzantine art . . . deep in getting out books . . . with Royall Tyler.” Shy and aloof, Hayford was a businessman whose “face lighted up over a coin with the head of an ancient king on it as if it were the face of his beloved.”Eulogy by Waldo Peirce at Hayford Peirce’s funeral, March 7, 1946, Bangor, Maine, in the Ada Peirce McCormick Papers, University of Maine, Orono, box 2663, folder 14.
Pleased with the warm responses to the first volume of L’art byzantin, Elisina Tyler wrote Mildred Bliss: “I hope dearest Mildred you feel satisfied too with it, as your help was of the very greatest use, enabling all the most valuable photographs to be taken.”Elisina Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 15, 1933. She was referring to the photographic reference library for which the Blisses continued to send donations and encouraged others to contribute, the project they affectionately called the O.L.P. (“Old Lady Photographer”).See Washington, D.C., and Stockholm (1920–1927). By 1928, Royall Tyler estimated that they had ten thousand photographs,Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 10, 1928. but he hastened to add that many vital objects were still missing. It was from these photographs that Peirce and Tyler chose key examples of Byzantine art for their books. Good photographs were a constant preoccupation of Royall Tyler, and a topic that often crops up in his letters. Knowing well his interest, Mildred Bliss politely inquired about the progress of the photographic library.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Royall Tyler, February 14, 1931.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection
It was another type of library, however, that was on Royall Tyler’s mind when he wrote Mildred Bliss on May 15, 1932. When they had met in London and Paris the previous March, she had told him of Robert Bliss and her plan to make Dumbarton Oaks “a place of work for students, with a library.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, May 15, 1932. During five weeks of hard work in Budapest, had continued to mull over those aspirations. Now liberated and in Lyons on Pentecost Sunday, his mind working a bit feverishly, he admitted, he presented his vision of the library at The Oaks. It should not duplicate other scholarly libraries, but should concentrate on primary sources, especially from the great seventeenth- and eighteenth-century compilations, because much of this material has not been exploited by art historians, who have not gone back to the sources. As for a name, it might be called the Du Cange Society, after the great French Byzantinist and antiquarian. In October, Tyler met with Paul Sachs of Harvard’s Fogg Museum and, as Royall Tyler wrote Mildred Bliss afterwards, he “had a very interesting and I think useful talk with him about The Oaks. He said he was going to write to you in full about our talk, so I won’t risk crossing wires by giving you a detailed account of it.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 26, 1932. Tyler was anticipating the meeting in his letter of October 1, 1932: “I am hoping to be able to get away for a few days towards the end of this month, to Paris and perhaps London, and I shall try and get hold of Paul Sachs and talk with him about the Byz. Lib. idea.” The last is regrettable, because Sachs’s letter to the Blisses has not survived and this was the crucial period in which the basic notion of Dumbarton Oaks as a research institute was being formulated. More frustrating still is the inevitable gap in the Bliss-Tyler correspondence, occasioned by the Blisses’ European visit in March 1932 and the absence of a record of the oral discussions with Royall Tyler about The Oaks. To judge from his letter of May 15 written “in the state of exaltation,” he must have been powerfully stimulated by the potential of what Sachs would later that summer refer to as the “Bliss Institute.”Paul Sachs to the lawyer Alfred Gregory, July 19, 1932, Dumbarton Oaks History, Sachs correspondence, Dumbarton Oaks Archives.