- Laurence Binyon and the Belgian Artistic Scene: Unearthing Unknown Brotherhoods
On September 11, 2008, 10:11 a.m., at a New York City ceremony honouring victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani concluded his speech with a quote from the poem “For the Fallen.” Mr. Giuliani spoke the words with a certain flair, respecting the cadence, stressing the right words, and honouring the pauses: They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.1
“For seven years,” Mr. Giuliani continued, “we’ve come back here to be together, to feel how the entire world is linked in our circle of sorrow. And mostly to remember, those we lost, who are never lost. The poem reminds us how brightly their memories burn.”2 Ever since Laurence Binyon wrote these four lines in north Cornwall in 1914, they have been recited annually at Remembrance Sunday services worldwide, and people will keep on doing so to commemorate tragic events, even those still to come, because they capture the right feelings unerringly. But, ironically, if the lines have become immortal and are intended to commemorate the dead, their author, Laurence Binyon, is all too often unknown. Binyon, poet and art historian, was born in Lancaster on August, 10, 1869, to an Anglican clergyman, Frederick Binyon, and his wife Mary. Laurence received a classic education at St. Paul’s in London, Milton’s old school. At St. Paul’s he started writing poetry. He received several prizes for his work, and William Sharp printed one of them in an anthology, praising sixteen-year-old Binyon for his talent. The next step in Binyon’s poetic development was Oxford. Only a few [End Page 184] weeks after his arrival at the university, one of his poems was printed in the Oxford Magazine, but his acquaintance with the poet Lionel Johnson was perhaps even more important for his poetic career.3
Johnson introduced Binyon to Herbert Horne, who in his turn introduced him to the architect and founder of the Century Guild, Arthur Mackmurdo, and the artist Selwyn Image. Over the years he met everyone he needed to know to make his way in the London art scene. Mackmurdo invited Binyon to one of the Century Guild meetings. The little magazine the Hobby Horse was the group’s outlet, and Binyon contributed two poems and two articles between 1890 and 1893. When Mackmurdo purchased a large house at 20 Fitzroy Street in London, Binyon truly became a member of the London artistic scene. Everyone was at Fitzroy, from Walter Crane, Walter Sickert, Roger Fry, and William Rothenstein to writers such as Bernard Shaw, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Rhys.4 Binyon left Oxford in June 1892 and applied for a position at the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum. For this vacancy he came in second, but a year later he landed a post in the Museum’s Department of Printed Books. Again, just like at Oxford or when staying at Fitzroy, it was the perfect environment to meet the right people. Thus, it provided the opportunity for him to meet W. B. Yeats, Charles Holmes, Augustus John, Thomas Sturge Moore, and Henry Newbolt, among many others.5 The artists he did not meet in the print room he managed to meet in London’s fashionable restaurants and bars.6 Binyon seems to have been the networker par excellence.
By the middle of the 1890s Binyon became interested in studying the artistic production of the Low Countries, but he had also developed an interest in Asian art. His growing interest and expertise in those fields would serve him well when he started building up the British Museum’s collections of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian art. He became the first head of the museum’s department of Oriental prints and drawings—a department which he helped establish—in 1913. His two interests, Northern European art and Asian art, were to be the basis for...