Gilbert’s world of the 1920s can be seen through his letters and articles. By a stroke of luck, Gilbert himself can be seen through the surviving letters and travel diary of an acquaintance who traveled with him in Greece. In late February 1923 Gilbert’s mother made her only known trip to Greece to visit Gilbert. Accompanying her was Verschoyle Blake, the son of her Canadian friend Ethel Benson Blake of Port Hope, Ontario. Vers, as he was known, though a year older than Gilbert, was far less mature and certain of himself. Indeed, Vers was still looking for a sense of direction and toying with the notion of being an archaeologist, for which he had no training or experience. As the scion of a prominent legal and political family in Ontario, Canada, Vers could have had his choice of vocations but it would be many years before he would find his calling: he would eventually be esteemed for combining his interest in local history with his advocacy of architectural conservation and environmental preservation in Ontario, early hints of which can be seen in his letters from Greece.
Gilbert, by contrast, was already actively pursuing his interests of history and politics and excelled at them. At this early stage in his life, Gilbert was not an easy person to get to know nor to get close to. The first encounters of the two young men in Greece were somewhat strained, probably through Gilbert’s intellectual impatience and arrogance, and the substantial differences in their personalities, focus, education and training. The contrast between them at this stage is striking. Only years later under entirely different circumstances when both were living in rural Ontario did the two men become close friends and indeed Gilbert regretted how badly he had treated Vers in Greece.
In his letters to his mother in Canada, Vers vividly describes, sometimes even with sketches, their excursions around Greece in March and April, 1923. (I am very grateful to Mrs Elisabeth Bacque, Verschoyle Blake’s niece, for sharing her memories of him and for allowing me to make use of and publish his letters and travel diary in her possession.)
After first meeting Gilbert, Vers wrote to his mother on March 4: “As you see I have got to Greece and am comfortably settled in the same pension as Madame Bagnani. Gilbert is killing, about ten years older than I am in most things, not in all though. I think I shall get on all right with him but I doubt if we could ever be very intimate. I have got very fond of his mother. I don’t think he and I are likely to be intimate because [he] is so much more developed and has so much better a brain than I that he can hardly help regarding me as a fool. He won’t be altogether right, but that will not make any difference. In some ways I suspect he is a bit of a fool himself and also very young. However it is too early to judge yet. We’ll see later on.”
Then a few days later on March 8, Vers wrote: “My ideas about Gilbert are changing a bit. We are getting on easier terms with one another. I like him and I think he likes me.”
Nonetheless, a few days later, “This trip to Greece has not done everything that I hoped but that is natural enough. I haven’t got much out of Gilbert. He is hard to approach in some ways. I’ll manage it some how, though but I don’t think this will come to anything. … I hear a great deal of politics and am learning a lot about the transactions here during the great war. They are not exactly to the credit of the allies. In fact we treated the Greeks abominably. … The ruins [at Eleusis] are very interesting but very jumbled. They would not show well in a picture except perhaps one magnificent round tower and bit of wall. The fortifications interested me extremely but as G.B. was not at all keen about them I did not get as much chance to as I would like.”
In April both Gilbert and Vers wrote travel diaries for the first part of the annual school trip around the Peloponnese, providing contrasting perspectives on the same journey. Since Gilbert’s mother, the usually intended recipient of his daily activities, was accompanying them, Gilbert’s daily notes both on his archaeological observations and on his political conversations were possibly intended for later use in his articles. By contrast, Vers’ very subjective and sensitive responses to the aesthetics of every building and the scenery contrast strongly with the objective comments of Gilbert, who of course had visited many of these sites before. Gilbert continued to pursue his interviews with local politicians and political appointees like guards but, since the conversations were entirely in Greek, Vers was left to observe for himself. Vers used his diary to facilitate writing letters home later on to his mother.
It was Gilbert, not the School’s Director, who took the initiative to argue their way in Greek into the guards’ carriage on a crowded train, instead of riding on the roof in the rain. He had the self-confidence of a natural leader, a trait likely shared with his father, Gen. Ugo Bagnani. It is noteworthy that on this trip around the Peloponnese with his mother and his friend, Gilbert still managed to continue his journalistic pursuits. He was organized to the point of having arranged to bring letters of introduction to particular local politicians. Vers was completely oblivious to Gilbert’s conversations in Greek about Greek politics, finding them tedious. Gilbert was evidently more interested in journalistic research into Greek politics than in entertaining Vers Blake and continued writing his travel diary for several more days before giving up on it. He made a habit of interviewing local political appointees for their views, which he recorded in his diary.
While they were at the Late Bronze Age sites of Mycenae and Tiryns in the Argolid, Vers admired the best of each site but did not understand the feigned incredulity of Gilbert and Doro Levi at Tiryns. He was unaware of the dynamics between della Seta and his two brilliant students, who took delight in provoking the Director, hence their “incredulity.”
Gilbert, not yet 23 years old until April 26, 1923, although able to conduct himself socially on an equal footing with much older personalities, was himself still not mature enough to be considerate of others and overcome his youthful arrogance. As Vers had initially written, Gilbert was ten years older than he ”in most things, not in all.”