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Washington, D.C., and Stockholm (1920–1927)

James N. Carder
Sta Sophia far surpassed all I had expected. It is the grandest building man ever made; altogether unimaginable and incredible.
Royall Tyler, October 24, 1927

The correspondence of 1920–1927 coincides with Robert Woods Bliss and Royall Tyler entering the mature phases of their respective careers. Bliss, after working at the State Department in Washington, D.C., was rewarded with top diplomatic postings to Sweden (1923) and Argentina (1927), thereby fulfilling his 1905 prophecy to Mildred Barnes Bliss that “I shall mount steadily until someday an ambassadorship will be given me.”Robert Woods Bliss to Mildred Barnes Bliss, January 2, 1905, Bliss Papers, HUGFP 76.8, box 2. Royall Tyler was chosen to represent the United States as a member of the Reparation Commission (1920–1924) before being appointed as deputy commissioner general to Hungary for the League of Nations in 1924. Throughout this period, the Blisses and the Tylers also matured as collectors and connoisseurs. In collaboration with Hayford Peirce, Tyler began to publish studies on Byzantine art, and he continued to educate and advise the Blisses on art from a wide spectrum of cultures—e.g., Egyptian,HC.S.1921.001.(B) and BZ.1927.2. In addition to these acquisitions, on May 3, 1927, in the continuation of a letter begun on March 9, 1927, Royall Tyler wrote Mildred Barnes Bliss: “The more I think over Brummer’s black diorite Old Empire head, the more it sinks into me. Do see it again I feel pretty sure it’s first rate, and it’s of extreme rarity, I don't think it’s dear at the price mentioned. Do try and find time to go to the Louvre and see the Old Empire things, in the light of the diorite head. And do look at their hard-stone vases, and let me know whether you want me to grab for you any really superlative ones that may turn up. If you really like them, now’s the time, for there are still some to be had, but not very many, and they're still cheap.” Chinese,HC.C.1921.003.(EW), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1923.01.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1923.03.(J), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1923.04.(B), HC.P.1924.01.(WC), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1924.01.(W), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1924.02.(J), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1924.04.(S), HC.S.1925.005.(S), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1925.02.(TC), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1925.03.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1925.04.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.J.1926.02.(G), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1926.03.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1926.07.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.C.1927.03.(TC), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1927.04.(TC), and Ex.Coll.HC.S.1927.05.(TC). In September 1924, the Blisses also had acquired an important owl-shaped tsun or wine vessel (HC.S.1924.003.[B]), now attributed to the Shang dynasty, ca. fourteenth century, from C. T. Loo in New York. Robert Woods Bliss wrote Royall Tyler on January 12, 1925: “There is a new member of the family whom I am very keen to introduce to you. He is at present in the Metropolitan Museum where I think he will cause much interest. It is a splendid bronze owl, of the Chou dynasty, 40 centimeters high, and is much finer than either the one of the Eumorfopoulos or Peytel collections. You would delight in it and he was one of the finest pieces in a collection which Loo showed in New York just before we sailed. That collection, by the way, was very remarkable showing the finest bronzes that have ever come out of China.” Scythian,BZ.1923.7, BZ.1923.8, and BZ.1926.4–5. Sasanian,BZ.1923.5 and BZ.1923.6. and Islamic.BZ.1921.2, Ex.Coll.HC.C.1922.06.(TC), and BZ.1926.1. In 1922, Royall Tyler acquired a fourteenth-century Hispano-Moresque vase and was impressed with its then undeciphered Arabic inscription. In October 1926, the Blisses acquired a silk turban (BZ.1926.2), also with an Arabic inscription, from the Parisian dealer Paul Mallon. The Blisses, for their part, continued to be avid collectors of this art, and for the first time, with Tyler’s expertise and encouragement, they began to acquire significant Byzantine art objects,BZ.1921.6-9, BZ.1921.10, and BZ.1924.5. In June 1923, the Blisses gave Royall Tyler a tenth-century ivory (BZ.1972.21) representing the archangel Gabriel, now at Dumbarton Oaks. establishing the foundation of what would become one of their core collections. They also continued to acquire Old Master paintings and drawings,Ex.Coll.HC.P.1920.04.(O), Ex.Coll.HC.P.1927.06.(O), HC.D.1921.04.(Cr), HC.D.1921.05.(Cr), HC.P.1922.01.(T), HC.P.1922.02.(O), HC.P.1922.03.(O), HC.P.1922.04.(O), HC.P.1922.05.(O), HC.P.1922.07.(O), HC.P.1923.01.(O), HC.D.1924.02.(P), and HC.P.1926.06.(O). albeit two of which—a “Rembrandt” and a “Watteau”—turned out to have overly optimistic attributions.HC.P.1926.08.(O) and HC.P.1926.22.(O). The latter painting was thought then to be a study for the left half of the Watteau canvas in the Musée du Louvre. The Blisses’ renewed interest in Old Master paintings was, no doubt, engendered in large part by their desire to furnish “The Oaks,” a mansion in Washington, D.C., that they purchased in 1920 and subsequently renovated and enlarged as their permanent residence.Unfortunately, no correspondence between the Blisses and the Tylers is preserved from 1920, the year the Blisses purchased Dumbarton Oaks, and there is otherwise no mention of either the house, its renovation in 1921–1923, its gardens (begun in 1922), or its significant additions (such as the Music Room addition of 1926–1928) in any of the preserved letters of the 1920s. Lost letters and the Blisses’ frequent trips to France and, thereby, their direct contact with the Tylers may account for this. The Blisses had entered into a sale agreement for The Oaks on June 20, 1920, and the sale was finalized on October 15, 1920. For the history of Dumbarton Oaks, see James Carder, “The Architectural History of Dumbarton Oaks and the Contribution of Armand Albert Rateau,” in A Home of the Humanities: The Collecting and Patronage of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. James N. Carder (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010), 93–115. About the same time, in 1923, the Tylers purchased their permanent home, Antigny-le-Château,According to a letter Royall Tyler wrote to Mildred Barnes Bliss on September 5, 1923, the Tylers paid less than $3,000 (about $38,000 in 2009 dollars) for the property, which they had first seen in 1913. See Elisina Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, December 1, 1913. a historic Burgundian property that they also set about to restore and furnish.

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Robert Woods Bliss, Career Diplomat

Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss standing, with a dog on a table between them
Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Stockholm, ca. 1923–1927. Bliss Papers, HUGFP 76.74, box 6, Harvard University Archives.

The Blisses moved to Washington from France, arriving on October 8, 1919, and in February 1920, Robert Woods Bliss became chief of the Division of Western European Affairs at the Department of State. In April, President Woodrow Wilson sent Bliss to San Diego as his personal representative during the Prince of Wales’s stopover there. The prince was en route to New Zealand and Australia on a goodwill voyage to thank overseas colonists for their contributions to the defeat of Germany during the First World War and to strengthen ties with the mother country.Benjamin Sacks, “The Duchess of Windsor and The Coronado Legend, Part I,” The Journal of San Diego History 33, no. 4 (Fall 1987): 165–74. A year later, on March 15, 1921, Bliss was appointed third assistant secretary of state. In that capacity, he would serve as chairman of the department's Board of examiners and he would be in charge of protocol and ceremonies at the Conference on the Limitation of Armaments (November 12, 1921–February 6, 1922). When the French prime minister Aristide Briand (1862–1932) arrived at the conference, his first order of business was to greet Robert Woods Bliss, telling reporters that Bliss was the man who had informed him in 1917 that the United States would enter the First World War on the side of the Allies, a report which “gave me the supreme emotion of my life.”“Briand and Bliss Hold First ‘Political Talk of Conference,’” New York Times, November 8, 1921.

On January 30, 1923, Robert Woods Bliss was appointed United States envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Sweden. That this appointment was due to Bliss’s achievements rather than to political favor was noted two days later in the New York Times: “The nomination of Robert W. Bliss as Minister to Sweden furnishes a good illustration of what the proposed reorganization of the foreign service should make generally possible—the promotion of experienced and technically competent men . . . to the highest diplomatic posts.”“Our Foreign Service,” New York Times, February 1, 1923. Bliss presented his credentials in Stockholm on August 8, 1923, and the next month the Blisses moved into a palace in Stockholm that they rented from the Swedish Prince Carl.Prince Carl of Sweden and Norway, Duke of Västergötland (1861–1951), the third son of King Oscar II of Sweden-Norway. Built in 1844, this house had been extensively renovated inside and out in a neoclassical style by the architect Ferdinand Boberg (1860–1946) when Prince Carl acquired it in 1905. The house quickly became a showplace for much of the furnishings and art—especially paintings—that the Blisses had acquired.The Blisses’ friend Geoffrey Dodge, an expatriate American antiques dealer and designer living in Paris, was simultaneously helping the Blisses with the interior design of The Oaks, their apartment in Paris, and their rented house in Stockholm. On November 23, 1923, he wrote Marton Blomsted, Mildred Barnes Bliss’s secretary in Stockholm: “There are three sets of furniture for the different bedrooms in the envoy. All of the chairs painted green with green covering go in the double guest room Louis XV. The Louis XVI furniture painted gray and blue with blue and yellow covering go in the corner guest room. The small set of Directoire furniture painted gray with ‘cretonne’ covering go in the small guest room. The two Renaissance arm-chairs covered in red velvet go in the entrance-hall. The large Louis XVI secrétaire goes in the double guest room. The Louis XVI bois de rose commode goes in the small guest room. The Louis XV commode with gilt bronzes goes in Mr. Bliss’s bedroom. One Louis XVI large commode goes in the corner guest room. One ‘chaise-longue’ Louis XV three parts upholstered in red goes in the double guest room. The Louis XVI chaise longue goes in the corner guest room. The bergère Louis XIV upholstered in blue in Mr. Bliss’s bedroom. The Louis XV bed painted and upholstered in blue goes in Mr. Bliss’s bedroom, as well as two chairs.” Geoffrey Dodge to Marton Blomsted, November 23, 1923, Blissiana files, Dodge correspondence. As was typical for American diplomats in this period, the Blisses paid the considerable expenses of the house and its staff from their own funds. Indeed, before leaving for Sweden, Bliss delivered an address at the Town Hall of New York City advocating higher salaries for American diplomats in order to offset their living expenses abroad.“Favors Higher Pay for Our Diplomats; Robert Woods Bliss, Minister to Sweden, Says Salaries Were Higher a Century Ago,” New York Times, February 18, 1923: “An increase of the salaries of Ministers, Ambassadors and Secretaries to foreign countries was advocated yesterday by Robert Woods Bliss, newly appointed Minister to Sweden, at a meeting in the Town Hall.” During this diplomatic posting, in May–July 1926, the Blisses were in the United States to accompany the Swedish Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Princess Louise on a month-long tour of America.“Envoy to Sweden Visitor Constant Companion to Swedish Prince and Princess on American Tour; Precedes Royal Pair Here,” Los Angeles Times, July 15, 1926. While in Washington, they also inspected the progress that had been made on The Oaks—which they were now also calling DumbartonIn 1922, the Blisses engaged the historian J. C. Fitzpatrick of the Library of Congress to research the history of “The Oaks.” From him, they learned that the original eighteenth-century land grant to the property had been patented as the Rock of Dumbarton. They considered renaming the property Dumbarton House, as “it would be appropriate and much more distinctive than ‘The Oaks,’” but by 1925, they referred to it simply as “Dumbarton,” and by 1933, they decided on the name “Dumbarton Oaks.” Robert Woods Bliss to J. C. Fitzpatrick, August 24, 1922, House Collection files, Fitzpatrick correspondence, Dumbarton Oaks Archives.—including its new outbuildings and its gardens. With their architect, Lawrence Grant White, they discussed the problematic siting of a new music room and finally settled on its present location at the northwestern side of the house.On July 17, 1926, the landscape architect Beatrix Jones Farrand, who was also consulting on architectural improvements at Dumbarton Oaks, wrote the architect Lawrence Grant White: “The news of the possibility of the music room at the northwest end of the Bliss house in Washington is so splendid that I have been pinching myself to make sure it is true. Do send me whatever rough sketch you may have as to its approximate placing. It all looks quite possible, and the survey shows only a group of small trees which do not seem likely to be worth considering.” McKim, Mead & White Papers, New-York Historical Society, New York, 396.

On February 17, 1927, Robert Woods Bliss was appointed ambassador extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Argentina, and his appointment as minister to Sweden ended on March 15. He wrote Royall Tyler: “Shortly after this reaches you, my appointment as Ambassador to Argentina will probably be announced. Until then, please keep it strictly confidential. It has come as a complete surprise and we are very sad at having to leave Stockholm, where we are so completely happy, but we must play the game.”Robert Woods Bliss to Royall Tyler, January 31, 1927. Before traveling to Buenos Aires, where he would present his credentials on September 9, the Blisses again returned home to Washington and then visited their parents at Casa Dorinda in Montecito, California. Summarizing their activities during this period, Mildred Barnes Bliss wrote to her friend Blanche HerkomerBlanche Herkomer (born ca. 1873), the wife of the American artist Herman Gustave Herkomer (1862–1935). on July 22, 1927:

We finally got off from France the end of March . . . interrupted by several business trips to London, which was delightful as we spent all our time with museum and collector friends. . . . After reaching America, we went straight to Washington . . . to plan the work on the grounds and for the new room [Music Room] we are building to our house, so that it could carry on for a year and a half, as we are unlikely to return to North America until the winter of ’28. . . . There is no embassy building there [in Buenos Aires], so we will have to hunt for, rent and perhaps furnish one until we are able to prevail upon Congress to vote an appropriation to either purchase or build. . . . We leave here [California], alas, Tuesday morning for Washington and will be at the Mayflower Hotel for ten days and sail August 13th for Buenos Aires.Mildred Barnes Bliss to Blanche Herkomer, July 22, 1927, Bliss Papers, HUGFP 76.8, box 22.

The Blisses arrived in Argentina on August 31, 1927.

Royall Tyler, Financial Advisor

Royall Tyler’s career also flourished during this period, and his letters to the Blisses chronicle what was an unexpected sea change in his life: his increasing expertise in international financial matters, particularly his work in war reparations and economic reconstruction in the aftermath of the First World War. He amusingly explained this to Mildred Barnes Bliss on September 3, 1924, stating: “God evidently intended me to have a go at a variety of trades, and this one pleases me particularly. State budgeting, monopolies, railways, etc. are my daily fare and I eat thereof with delight.” Tyler had served in 1919 as a member of the United States delegation to the Paris Peace Conference,The Paris Peace Conference involved the Allied victors following the Armistice of 1918 at the end of the First World War. Having representatives from more than thirty countries, the conference established a series of treaties (“Peace of Paris Treaties”) that reshaped the map of Europe and imposed guilt and financial penalties on Germany and other defeated countries. where he participated in discussions on German reparations. Because of this work, he was appointed in 1920 to the Reparation Commission (Commission des réparations des obligations de l’Allemagne), where he served for four years. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles,The Treaty of Versailles (Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany) was one of the “Peace of Paris Treaties” that ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed at the Palace of Versailles on June 28, 1919, and became effective on January 10, 1920. the Allied Reparation Commission (as it was also known) was directed to estimate damage done by Germany during the First World War and to formulate methods of collecting the reparations that Germany would pay to the Allies. In 1921, the commission fixed the German liability at 132 billion gold reichsmarks (then equivalent to 33 billion U.S. dollars) to be paid in annual installments. But inflation and growing unemployment forced the German government to default on its reparation obligations. Therefore, in 1923, the commission created an “Expert Committee,” headed by the American banker Charles G. Dawes,Charles Gates Dawes (1865–1951), an American banker and politician who was the thirtieth vice president of the United States. For his work on the Dawes Plan for establishing reparations after the First World War, he was a cowinner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925. which was asked to investigate the various payment problems. The Dawes Plan, published in April 1924, was initially considered successful because it helped to stabilize the German currency, to bring inflation under control, and to lower unemployment in Germany.See Rufus Cutler Dawes, The Dawes Plan in the Making (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1925). Tyler reported to Mildred Barnes Bliss on February 20, 1924: “The work of the experts is going really well—rather slowly, which is a good thing, but well. There is a prospect of an agreed settlement, which the world is badly in need of.”

Portrait of Arthur Salter
Arthur Salter.

Through his work on the Reparation Commission, Tyler became a life-long friend of Arthur Salter. Salter was a British politician who joined the British Civil Service in 1903 and who, in 1919, was appointed secretary of the Supreme Economic Council in Paris.The Supreme Economic Council was established at the Paris Peace Conference in February 1919 to advise the conference on economic measures to be taken pending the negotiation of peace. On June 30, 1923, he became director of the Financial and Economic Section of the League of Nations Secretariat at Geneva, where until 1931 he would work for the stabilization of the currencies of Austria and Hungary and, later, for the resettlement of refugees in Greece and Bulgaria.See Baron Arthur Salter, Memoirs of a Public Servant (London: Faber and Faber, 1961). In August 1923, Tyler, as a member of the Reparation Commission, visited him at Geneva and was “very much interested in comparing the organization of the only other big international body with our own.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, undated [5] (Winter 1923). Because of this association, the League of Nations appointed him deputy commissioner general to Hungary (Commissaire adjoint de la Société des Nations à Budapest) to help oversee the economic reconstruction of Hungary as part of the league’s reconstruction scheme. He held this post between May 1924 and June 1926 before becoming the league’s trustees representative of the Reconstruction Loan of the Finance Committee between June 1926 and the end of 1928. The commissioner general to Hungary was Jeremiah Smith Jr., a Boston lawyer who also had been a member of the United States delegation to the Paris Peace Conference as an adviser on financial questions. As commissioner general, Smith refused any compensation for his services.Joseph H. Beale, “Jeremiah Smith, Jr. (1870-1935),” Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 71, no. 10 (March 1937): 549–50.

In February 1924, the Hungarian Bethlen government secured a fifty-million-dollar reconstruction loan from the League of Nations, granted partly in order to restore the confidence of foreign creditors.“Agree on Loan for Hungary; Reparations Commission Takes Final Action and League Will Move to Float It. Under the Plan Hungary Will Pay 10,000,000 Kronen Yearly for Twenty Years,” New York Times, February 22, 1924. The loan protocol was signed on May 14, 1924. See also Alzada Comstock, “The Technique of Reconstruction as Applied to Hungary,” Political Science Quarterly 40, no. 2 (June 1925): 201–16. Tyler wrote enthusiastically to Mildred Barnes Bliss about his work in Hungary, telling her on July 18, 1924, that “the loan has been successfully floated and very considerable progress has been made with the Reconstruction programme. The exchange is stable and everything is really shaping well. But this language, which I am trying to learn!” And on September 3, 1924, he added: “I’ve had a most interesting time here running the Loan Account (yes, me!).” The results of Smith’s and Tyler’s first-year management of the loan somewhat surprisingly helped the Hungarians create a surplus instead of a predicted deficit, a fact that was reported at the meeting of the council on June 9, 1925.In his dissertation, “Jeremiah Smith Jr. and Hungary, 1924–1926: The United States, the League of Nations, and the Financial Reconstruction of Hungary” (Literary Studies Doctoral School, American Studies Program, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, 2009), Zoltán Peterecz writes: “Smith was a feature of the second League Assembly of the year and he appeared before the Council on June 9. This was the official platform to summarize the first year of reconstruction for all interested. Naturally, the results were known thanks to the monthly reports of Smith; still, such a gathering offered a more prominent stage to get the results of the first year introduced to everyone. He highlighted the most important achievements from the financial point of view. The most spectacular element without any doubt was the fact that the 100 million gold crowns estimated for the deficit for the first year had not been drawn upon and there would be a surplus instead.” We are indebted to Peterecz for sharing this and subsequent passages before the defense and publication of his work. Tyler wrote Mildred Barnes Bliss on April 21, 1925:

I tell [Salter] that we aren’t giving him his money’s worth in the way of excitement, here in Hungary; things are going so well. The honeymoon is over, it is time, and opinion is beginning to criticise us—naturally, as we have only spent less than one-third of the loan so far and have now run eight months without any deficit, people would like to carve the loan up and blow it in, and are getting to regard us, who won’t play, as a nuisance. And we’ll have some fun during the coming year, no doubt, but as far as one can tell at present Hungary will certainly get on her feet again, and to stay. Her fundamental position is stronger than Austria’s, and she has a real government that governs, and a people accustomed to be governed. There are times when one is aware of the drawbacks of such a system, but when it’s a matter of putting through essential reforms one is deeply thankful for it. Party questions, however troublesome in small ways, are kept in their place here and not allowed to compromise great issues; I shall be very much tied between here and Geneva for a few months to come, as the Hung. Govt. has a lot of important things to put up at the June meeting.Since only one-third of the hundred-million gold-crown loan and been spent, the Hungarians wanted to use the surplus for tax relief. According to Peterecz (op cit.): “This surplus amounted to 63 million gold crowns. The Financial Committee decided that this surplus and a further 30 million gold crowns could be used for productive purposes, subject to the agreement of the Commissioner-General. The Council approved that the increase in salaries for about 95,000 state officials of 15% in February should be permanent to the amount of 20 million gold crowns, even if it meant a 15 million extra burden on the budget annually. The low point of the report was the tax question. It remained very high, 75 gold crowns per head, which was extremely high for Hungary and meant 135% of the prewar level. As Smith put it in Geneva, ‘the taxation in Hungary has reached the limit of possibility and capacity.’ It was obvious that sooner rather than later some tax reduction was necessary and the government started to work on it.”

In 1926, as a representative of the trustees of the Reconstruction Loan of the Finance Committee, Tyler began to supervise directly the spending of some twenty-six million dollars left from the loan. After assuming his new role, he wrote Mildred Barnes Bliss on September 28, 1926: “I hope I shall not be kept here anything like as much as I have been in the past, on which condition the job suits me very well, as I’m very glad to keep up my association with the Fin. Committee, and also to be able to watch the further progress of Hungarian affairs. And I shall know what to do with any leisure that comes my way, for the last 2½ years have left me very little time to do anything outside my work here, and I want to catch up with a lot of things.”

Tyler’s “catching up with a lot of things” no doubt included his interests in art, archaeology, and scholarship. Nevertheless, his four years of experience with the Reparation Commission and his four years working on the Hungarian reconstruction loan for the League of Nations’ Finance Committee had left him a knowledgeable and impassioned observer of Western European financial affairs. For example, on September 28, 1926, he wrote Mildred Barnes Bliss about the “sad time in France,” discussing at length the problems of currency stabilization and depreciation. Mining from his own experience, he observed:

Never have I seen a more overwhelming demonstration of the inability of man to learn from the experience of others. Here, within the last couple of years, have a whole string of countries gone through currency depreciation and have succeeded in stabilising. It might be thought that their experiences might be valuable to France. No, Poincaré repeats that France is not like other countries, and goes on behaving as if he thought it were possible to turn the tide in the franc’s favour and greatly to improve its value by other means than by stabilising, so as to be able to stabilise at a much higher level than the present one.For French prime minister Raymond Poincaré’s (1860–1934) handling of the French inflationary crisis and its stabilization in 1926, see Rudiger Dornbusch, “Inflation, Exchange Rates, and Stabilization,” Essays in International Finance 165 (October 1986): 1–24. Poincaré pursued an extreme deflationary policy, balancing the budget and securing the stabilization of the franc at one-fifth of its prewar value. In this crisis, a fear of a capital levy made the French public unwilling to buy government bonds, and as a result, the government had to repay bonds coming to maturity with monetary financing. Only when Poincaré introduced a bill to shift the tax burden from bondholders did the demand for government bonds recover and inflation stop. Consequently, as Royall Tyler had recommended to Mildred Barnes Bliss, Poincaré eventually solved France’s financial crisis by stabilizing the franc, thus enabling a period of new prosperity. See Alessandro Prati, “Poincaré’s Stabilization: Stopping a Run on Government Debt,” Journal of Monetary Economics 27, no. 2 (April 1991): 213–39.

Greece, Istanbul, and Bulgaria

Hagia Sophia, with rays of light coming in from windows and a chandelier in the foreground
Pierre Iskender, Study of Light in Apse of Hagia Sophia, 1948, HS.BIA.1734, The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca. late 1920s-2000s, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.

In July and August 1927, Royall Tyler was in Greece to temporarily replace John Hope SimpsonSir John Hope Simpson (1868–1961), a British Liberal politician who served as a member of Parliament in 1922 and 1923. He worked with refugee and relief services in China and Greece, for which he received the honor of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1937. Simpson’s books The Refugee Problem: Report of a Survey (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939) and Refugees: A Review of the Situation Since September 1938 (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1939) remain informative sources on the refugee situation during the early twentieth century. as the vice-chairman of the League of Nations Refugee Settlement Commission in Greece. As a result of the Treaty of Lausanne,As a consequence of the Turkish War of Independence, the Treaty of Lausanne was a peace treaty signed on July 24, 1923, in Lausanne, Switzerland, that led to the international recognition of the sovereignty of the new Republic of Turkey and established the borders of Turkey through a partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. This repartitioning established the Anatolian and East Thracian areas, leading to the influx of Thracian refugees into Greece. Greece, a country of four million people, had to absorb one and a half million refugees from Asia Minor and Thrace. On September 25, 1927, Tyler offered Mildred Barnes Bliss an assessment of the situation: “Until the new comers start producing they weigh pretty heavily on the State budget, of course, but before long they will constitute a new source of wealth, and a good proportion of them are already pulling their weight. When they came, 4 years ago, their plight was frightful. They had been fired out of Asia Minor at a few hours notice, and had nothing but what they could carry. The Greek Govt. was nowhere near prepared to take them in. Over the first year or more there were 3 deaths to one birth among them. Now there are 3 births to one death.”

During his stay in Greece, Tyler was able to see for the first time Greek artworks and monuments, both ancient and Byzantine, and when he left Greece in August 1927, he traveled with Hayford Peirce to Bulgaria and Turkey. He wrote Mildred Barnes Bliss stirring letters of his travels and impressions in these countries. His enthusiastic writings were strongly reminiscent of his youthful descriptions of the art of Spain some twenty years earlier.See The Early Letters (1902–1908). For example, after seeing the Byzantine mosaics at Daphni and Phocis, he wrote to Mildred Barnes Bliss on September 25, 1927:

There isn’t much Byz. art in old Greece in quantity, but in quality the 11th cent. mosaics at Daphni near Athens and St. Luke in Phocis, (a remote spot between Delphi and the Parnassus) are supreme. Daphni is a bit later than St. Luke, and very different in style—much more delicate and refined, using silver cubes, and is very lovely. But St. Luke, take it all round, is greater, and has the advantage of not having been restored at all—except for rough daubs of paint. Such colours as those of the warrior arch-angels at St. Luke's I have never seen anywhere. Cezanne-like blues, and Cezanne like drawing. One has to ride for hours on mule-back to get to the place, and one finds bed-bugs when one gets there, and every sort of filth, but its worth it. I had a room decorated with many photographs of former abbots with long white beards, and a coloured post card representing the high-school at Joliet, Ill. My bed was a couple of planks on a trestle, with a horse-blanket on top, and thanks to FLIT, that greatest invention of modern times, I kept the foe at bay so as to get a little sleep.

After traveling extensively in Bulgaria, where Tyler and Peirce “were altogether unprepared for the stupendous vestiges of the first Bulgarian empire: late VIIth–late Xth,”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 24, 1927. they visited Istanbul, or as Tyler put it, “Then Constantinople!” Viewing the sixth-century church of Hagia Sophia for the first time, he described it rhapsodically to Mildred Barnes Bliss on October 24, 1927:

C’ple is a formidable experience. Sta Sophia far surpassed all I had expected. It is the grandest building man ever made; altogether unimaginable and incredible. The scale is terrific: 65 metres sous-oeuvre [at the base] in the main cupola, and it looks even more. When one stands there, with the colossal dome and the semi-domes billowing away far over one’s head, it is as if one were inside a monstrous great balloon, straining at its moorings and about to soar off into the sky. This effect is partly due to the fact that there are 40 windows very close one to the next round the base of the great cupola, and the narrow spaces between them are as if it were the cords and hausers that tie the balloon down to earth.

The lighting is so marvellously devised that the interior is suffused with a light of its own, equally bright (or dim) in all parts of the Church—or nearly so. One has to pause and calculate to tell which way the light is coming from. And the acoustics! One isn’t allowed in Sta Sophia when the Moslem offices are going on, but on several occasions there was an ulema softly chanting verses from the Koran near the mihrab—and his voice was almost equally audible all over the building: one had trouble in discovering where he was, just as I often was puzzled to know which side the sun was coming from.

Up to the level of the tribunes, the walls are wainscoted with verde-antico, Westphalia-ham and other marble, and the columns are verde-antico or red porphyry. The colour is determined by these stones and is, on the whole, something between olive-leaf and pistacchio. The soffits and vaults and upper wall-spaces are of course covered with mosaic, and, though the Turk covers it all with a dirty yellow wash, he is slack about keeping it up and in many places the mosaic shows through—much more than has been noticed by the writers on Sta Sophia. In places there’s no wash at all. The mosaics date, we think, all from the latter part of the IXth cent., when the images quarrel was drawing to a close. There are hardly any traces of figures visible—and there don’t seem to be many hidden away. The bulk of the decoration is formed by crosses and scrolls and such-like of very beautiful character, with a liberal use of silver-cubes.


Room in the Blisses' Stockholm house, with a number of artworks
The Blisses’ Stockholm house, ca. 1924–1927. Archives, AR.PH.Misc.044, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Visible on the far wall, left to right: Walter Gay, The Open Window, Le Bréau (HC.P.1919.02.[WC]); Henry Golden Dearth, Maine Coast; and Auguste Renoir, Head of a Child (HC.D.1924.02.[P]).

Despite their busy work lives and postings to cities as far flung as Budapest and Stockholm, the Blisses and the Tylers remained connected through their correspondence, through the Blisses’ fairly frequent visits to Paris, and through their shared interests, especially in art. After the Blisses arrived in Stockholm in 1923, they must have asked Royall Tyler to recommend new art books that would be of interest, and his recommendations serve as an introduction to their shared pursuits during this period. He wrote on December 18, 1923: “As for books, Benn in London is publishing one, very well illustrated, on Peruvian art.Walter Lehmann, The Art of Old Peru (London: Ernest Benn, 1924). Then there’s a new one by Ebersolt on Byz. ‘Les arts somptuaires de Byzance’ (Leroux, L’ 2. Bonaparte),Jean Ebersolt, Les arts somptuaires de Byzance: Étude sur l’art impérial de Constantinople (Paris: Leroux, 1923). which is very good indeed in its limits. Benn is also going to publish one by Rostovzeff [sic] on Scythian art,This book was not published. In 1925, Michael Rostovtzeff published Skifiia i Bospor: Kriticheskoe obozrenie pamiatnikov literaturnykh, arkheologicheskikh [Scythia and the Bosporus] (Leningrad: Rossiiskaia akademiia istorii material’noi kul’tury, 1925), which was translated into German, as Skythien und der Bosporus, in 1931. by Gallois of the Hague (probably) on Sassanian, and by Roger Fry on Early Mohammedan, and by Francis Birrel [sic] on Coptic. These aren’t out, however.The last three books do not appear to have been published. This will do for Leserstoff [reading material] for some time, I should think.”

The Blisses acquired artworks in the 1920s from all of the cultures enumerated in Tyler’s list. They also collected a considerable number of ancient Chinese and Egyptian objects and European Old Master paintings and drawings.BZ.1926.4–5, BZ.1927.2, Ex.Coll.HC.C.1922.06.(TC), Ex.Coll.HC.C.1927.03.(TC), Ex.Coll.HC.J.1926.02.(G), Ex.Coll.HC.P.1920.04.(O), Ex.Coll.HC.P.1927.06.(O), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1923.01.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1923.03.(J), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1923.04.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1924.01.(W), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1924.02.(J), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1924.04.(S), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1925.02.(TC), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1925.03.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1925.04.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1926.03.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1926.07.(B), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1927.04.(TC), Ex.Coll.HC.S.1927.05.(TC), HC.C.1921.003.(EW), HC.D.1921.04.(Cr), HC.D.1921.05.(Cr), HC.D.1924.02.(P), HC.P.1922.01.(T), HC.P.1922.02.(O), HC.P.1922.03.(O), HC.P.1922.04.(O), HC.P.1922.05.(O), HC.P.1922.07.(O), HC.P.1923.01.(O), HC.P.1924.01.(WC), HC.P.1926.06.(O), HC.P.1926.08.(O), HC.P.1926.22.(O), HC.S.1921.001.(B), HC.S.1924.003.(B), and HC.S.1925.005.(S). They bought art in New York, often on their way to Europe and, thereby, without the benefit of Royall Tyler’s expertise, and in Paris, presumably in Tyler’s company, as many artworks acquired in Paris do not figure in the long-distance correspondence. They also received solicitations and photographs from dealers, and when practical they asked the Tylers to see the proffered artworks and to offer their opinions. Interestingly, Mildred Barnes Bliss appears to have initiated on her own the acquisition of several artworks during her visits to Paris in 1920 and 1921, when Robert Woods Bliss remained in Washington, D.C., at the State Department. This was, no doubt, done in consultation with Royall Tyler. For example, her two trips to Paris in 1921—one in the spring and the other in June–September—resulted in a remarkable number of purchases: an ancient Egyptian bronze catHC.S.1921.001.(B). ($58,350) and a Persian beakerBZ.1921.2. ($2,335) from Lucien Demotte; a Byzantine small silver medallionBZ.1921.10. (source and price unknown); a Chinese Song covered vaseHC.C.1921.003.(EW). ($750) from Paul Mallon; Byzantine silver cross fragments with figural representationsBZ.1921.6–9. ($1,310) and portrait drawings by Du Moustier and ClouetHC.D.1921.04.(Cr) and HC.D.1921.05.(Cr). ($935 and $1,405) from Bacri Frères. In October 1921, the Blisses also entered into negotiations with the New York dealer Walter Erlich for four canvases representing Italian monuments and Roman ruins by Hubert Robert; the sale was finalized in April 1922 ($55,000).HC.P.1922.02.(O), HC.P.1922.03.(O), HC.P.1922.04.(O), and HC.P.1922.05.(O). Walter Erlich began writing the Blisses about these and other Robert canvases on October 3, 1921, and the Blisses had made payment on them by April 26, 1922. Walter Erlich to Mildred Barnes Bliss, October 3, 1921, and to Robert Woods Bliss, April 26, 1922, House Collection dossier file, Dumbarton Oaks Archives. Possibly regarding the latter, Mildred Barnes Bliss wrote Elisina Tyler on March 10, 1922: “For weeks, I may even say months, I have been constantly and increasingly wanting to talk to you about Royall, and a letter to him is actually under way. There has been a vast amount of interesting material this winter, which we should so have enjoyed discussing with him.”

Byzantine Art, the Riha Paten, and the Hama Treasure

Sixth-century silver paten depicting Christ and the apostles
Paten with the Communion of the Apostles, from Riha (or Kaper Koraon) Treasure, Early Byzantine, ca. 565–78, silver with gold and niello. Byzantine Collection, BZ.1924.5, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Unlike the Old Master paintings and drawings that the Blisses acquired on their own initiative or with the recommendation of experts other than Royall Tyler, their purchases of major Byzantine artworks were all endorsed by Tyler and most were discussed in his correspondence to the Blisses. This is certainly true of the famous Riha paten,BZ.1924.5. which the Parisian dealer Lucien Demotte may have proffered to the Blisses in late 1923 and which Tyler enthusiastically supported not only on the merits of its quality (“a most snorting, magnificent object”)Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, February 1, 1924. but also on the grounds that it came from the same silver treasure as the chaliceBZ.1955.18. that he had acquired in 1913. On January 26, 1924, he wrote Mildred Barnes Bliss: “Now as to the paten. It is unquestionably right, and has been given all the diplomas Paris can discern, having been dealt with (together with my chalice) in a communication to the Institut by Diehl, and described and reproduced in a very important article on Antiocene silver by Bréhier (a very great authority on the earlier centuries of art) in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts about four years ago . . . . All this is not superfluous, but the object is utterly unfakable, and to me is perhaps the most moving thing—possibly excepting my chalice—I've ever seen for sale.” He continued his letter by stepping up the rhetoric of his endorsement, fusing in his recommendation the irresistible combination of collecting erudition, art historical connoisseurship, philanthropy, and the personal desire to see the Tyler chalice and the Bliss paten “joined together and live happily ever after”:

[The paten] is too good for this world to understand; people will buy pictures for ten times the price, and I know no picture in the world that would mean as much as that paten.In light of this remark, it is of interest to note what the Blisses paid for the artworks they acquired in the period 1920–1927. Of the thirteen most expensive acquisitions, the paten ranks twelfth: (1) Egyptian bronze cat, HC.S.1921.001.(B) (Demotte, Paris, 1921, $58,350); (2) Rembrandt, St. Bartholomew (Portrait of the Artist’s Father), Ex.Coll.HC.P.1920.04.(O) (Le Comte de Leusse through Geoffrey Dodge, Paris, 1920, $43,800); (3) Maître de Flémalle, Portrait of a Lady, HC.P.1923.01.(O) (Wildenstein, Paris, 1922, $40,000); (4) Guardi, Bacino di San Marco, Ex.Coll.HC.P.1927.06.(O) (Abdy, London, 1927, $40,000); (5) Chinese bronze owl, HC.S.1924.003.(B) (Loo, New York, 1924, $30,000); (6) Robert, Temple of Saturn and the Opening of the Cloaca Maxima, HC.P.1922.02.(O) (Erlich, New York, 1922, $13,750; (7) Robert, Coliseum and the Lateran Obelisk, HC.P.1922.03.(O) (Erlich, New York, 1922, $13,750); (8) Robert, Temple of Vespasian and Titus and the Cascade at Tivoli, HC.P.1922.04.(O) (Erlich, New York, 1922, $13,750); (9) Robert, Column of Trajan and a Renaissance Basilica Church, HC.P.1922.05.(O) (Erlich, New York, 1922, $13,750); (10) Chinese head of a Buddha, HC.S.1925.005.(S) (Fabraeus, Stockholm, 1925, $10,000); (11) Koninck (bought as a Rembrandt), Portrait of an Old Man, HC.P.1926.08.(O) (Huard, Paris, 1926, $9,800); (12) Riha paten, BZ.1924.5 (Demotte, Paris, 1924, $8,500); and (13) Bowl with a lion, Ex.Coll.HC.C.1922.06.(TC) (Demotte, Paris, 1922, $6,500). “It’s only God may be had for the asking.” I needn't tell you that 175 000 f. seems to me a marvellous opportunity, and if I could I’d jump at it; If you do get it, live with it for a good long time anyway. It will teach you a great deal about the age when Santa Sophia and the great churches of Ravenna were built, when the most perfect Byzantine enamels were made and the throne of Maximian was carved. Eventually, give it to the Cabinet des Médailles, the only place in the world I know of that's fit to receive it. I hope some day to give my chalice to the Cabinet des Médailles, . . . the one museum that has an atmosphere in which works of art live, grow sleek and glossy and are patently as happy as they would be in any well-appointed private house. Have no hesitation about the S. Kensington. They can only raise such sums from the National Art Coll. Fund, which will only march for “arty” works of art, and has no more power of apprehending the paten than a horse. You may imagine how excited I am. The thought of your having it intoxicates me, and it would be a happiness for life to think that the two pieces would one day be joined together and live happily ever after at the C. des M.

In June 1923, the Blisses stopped in Paris on their way to Stockholm and visited with the Tylers. It is almost certain that the Blisses and the Tylers made the rounds of the dealers, and together they probably saw a Byzantine tenth-century ivoryBZ.1972.21. representing the archangel Gabriel. The Blisses surprised Tyler by giving him the ivory on June 19. Tyler wrote the next day: “It was a great moment, dearest Mildred, when that ivory dawned upon me, and I want to tell you again how I cherish it and that it means much to me that an object embodying the qualities in art that mean most to me should come to me from you and Robert.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, June 20, 1923. The Tylers’ son and Mildred Barnes Bliss’s godson, William Tyler, the second director of Dumbarton Oaks, later sold the ivory to the Byzantine Collection in 1972.

There are also Byzantine objects discussed in the correspondence that, although of interest, the Blisses did not acquire. Notable among these is the early seventh-century so-called Hama silver treasure, which the Blisses and the Tylers learned about in late 1926 from the Parisian dealer Kalebdjian Frères, although it was then in Egypt and offered for sale by its owner, Tawfic Abucasem. The excitement over this “opportunity of purchasing something so unusual and really good as these pieces seem to be”Robert Woods Bliss to Royall Tyler, November 30, 1926. sent an entourage of Elisina and Royall Tyler, William Tyler, and Hayford Peirce to Cairo to see the pieces and to possibly negotiate a purchase. But as the correspondence details at some length, Royall Tyler and Peirce found the pieces compromised by overcleaning and, therefore, not worth the asking price. The Blisses eventually passed on this opportunity. In 1928, the dealer Joseph Brummer acquired the twenty-three altar vessels and sold them to Henry Walters, who bequeathed them to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1931.See Marvin C. Ross, “The Hama Treasure of Byzantine Silver,” American Journal of Archaeology 61 (1957): 186–87. Also in 1926, Tyler learned that the Austrian government had authorized the Abbey of Heiligenkreuz to sell its eleventh-century Byzantine steatite medallion representing the emperor Niceforus Botaniates and the Virgin; he recommended it to the Blisses as “one of the most beautiful objects of art I know.”Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, July 21, 1926. The Blisses curiously failed to respond to this recommendation, however, and on December 12, 1926, Tyler wrote Robert Woods Bliss: “As I had no word from you about it, I spoke to [Eric] Maclagan, and have now negotiated its purchase for the S. Ken. for £1,100. You'll see it there when you next visit that establishment.”

Exhibitions, Scholarship, and Reference Libraries

During this period, Robert Woods Bliss and Royall Tyler also undertook activities in the world of art other than collecting. In 1926, Bliss sponsored in Stockholm and Oslo an exhibition of American prints, many of which were from the Bliss collection.“American Graphic Art, A Beautiful Collection is Shown in the Museum of Art,” Ny Tid, June 3, 1926: “This wonderful collection has been brought together by the initiative of the American Minister in Stockholm, who owns a lot of the most valuable works in the collection, and it has just been shown and received with interest in Stockholm and Oslo.” In 1927, Tyler was invited to join the committee of the Burlington Fine Arts Club Exhibition of Spanish ArtThe exhibition was held in 1928. after he contributed the chapter on architecture to an associated book on Spanish art.R. R. Tatlock, Royall Tyler, et al., Spanish Art: An Introductory Review of Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Textiles, Ceramics, Woodwork, Metalwork, Burlington Magazine Monograph II (London: B.T. Batsford, 1927). Tyler had completed his chapter by December 1925. See Royall Tyler to Mildred Barnes Bliss, December 31, 1925. That same year, Tyler translated into English several books on Spanish paintings and art museums that were published by the Barcelona firm Hijos de J. Thomas in the Arte en España series.José Gestoso y Pérez, Museo de pinturas de Sevilla [Arte en España 19]; Rafael Aguilar y Cuadrado, La cathedral de Sigüenza [Arte en España 20]; Elías Tormo y Monzó, Ribera [Arte en España 21]; and Anselmo Gascón de Gotor, Zaragoza [Arte en España 23–24] (Barcelona: Hijos de J. Thomas, [1927–1928]). Tyler also became active in Byzantine art scholarship. In 1926, he and Hayford Peirce published Byzantine Art in England and the United States, and soon would begin work on a five-volume study, L’art byzantin, of which only two volumes would appear because of the Second World War. Tyler was invited to contribute the entry on Byzantine art that would appear in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.This was published in the 1929 fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In April 1927, Royall Tyler also attended the Byzantine Congress at Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he and Hayford Peirce spoke on the identification of the emperor in a Byzantine ivory at the Cabinet des Médailles as Romanus II.Royall Tyler and Hayford Peirce delivered the talk “Two Landmarks in Tenth-Century Byzantine Art” at the Deuxième Congès International des Études Byzantines, Belgrade, on April 14, 1927. They subsequently published this talk as “Deux mouvements dans l’art byzantin du Xe siècle.”Hayford Peirce and Royall Tyler, “Deux monuments dans l’art byzantin du Xe siècle,” Aréthuse 16 (July 1927): 1–8. In Yugoslavia, Tyler and Peirce also spent several days visiting Serbian Byzantine monasteries.

As a needed apparatus to art, especially Byzantine scholarship, the Tylers began in this period to amass a book and photograph library, and this activity, which would be supported by Mildred Barnes Bliss, importantly presages the institutional research tools that the Blisses would amass for Dumbarton Oaks in the 1930s. Already in 1925, Paul Sachs, associate director of the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University, had sent Royall Tyler “a very fine collection of photographs of the Romanesque capitals at Harvard from Moustier St. Jean and Saint Pons,” and Elisina reported to Mildred Barnes Bliss on October 14, 1925, that when Bliss next came to Antigny, she would see the Tylers’ “attempt at a library for study. No belles-lettres, only history and archaeology, geography and art-books.” Apparently in May 1927, when the Blisses were in Paris before sailing to Buenos Aires, Mildred Barnes Bliss also pledged to solicit funds for a research photograph library at Antigny, amusingly called the “Old Lady photography scheme.” Elisina Tyler wrote her on May 7, 1927: “If you succeed in the ‘Old Lady’ photography scheme, I will do my share by keeping exact records of all the plates, and making the photographs easily accessible to students. I should also try to establish a ‘bureau de centralisation des renseignements’ [clearing house of information] so that earnest seekers after documentary evidence might be told where to get what couldn't be provided by the O.L.P. (Old Lady Photographer). There is a young Curator from the British Museum, staying here now, and he also complains bitterly, because knowledge is so greatly hampered by the fact that the department of photographs is invariably in the hands of ignorant people. A superb result might be expected in the field of Byzantine Art, if the necessary material could be safely available.”See also letter of November 20, 1927.

It is conceivable that the Tylers’ interest in amassing a scholarly library and photograph collection to inform them on the art they were researching and collecting planted the idea in the Blisses to establish a research library and collection, an idea that first would be made manifest beginning in 1932.

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