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  (Robert) Laurence Binyon (1869–1943), by William Strang, 1898 (Robert) Laurence Binyon (1869–1943), by William Strang, 1898
Binyon, (Robert) Laurence (1869–1943), poet and art historian, was born on 10 August 1869 at 1 High Street, Lancaster, the second of the nine children of Frederick Binyon (1838–1900), vicar of Burton in Lonsdale, Yorkshire, and his wife, Mary (1839–1919), daughter of Robert Benson Dockray (1811–1871), resident engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway and designer of the Camden Town Roundhouse, London, and his wife, Mary (1816–1883). Both his father's and his mother's families were of Quaker ancestry. Binyon won a scholarship to St Paul's School, London, in 1881 and later to Trinity College, Oxford, where he took a first in classical moderations in 1890 and a second in literae humaniores in 1892. A published poet at sixteen, he won the Newdigate prize for poetry with Persephone in 1890 and the same year published Primavera: Poems by Four Authors with his cousin Stephen Phillips, Manmohan Ghose, and Arthur Cripps.

In September 1893 Binyon joined the staff of the British Museum, where he would spend his entire career. He began in the department of printed books, but in April 1895 transferred to his first choice, the department of prints and drawings, then under the keepership of Sidney Colvin. A keen artist as well as poet at school, during the 1890s he studied wood-engraving with William Strang and produced woodcuts for several of his own books. His first book of art history was Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century (1895), but it was in the field of British art that he first established his scholarly reputation with his four-volume catalogue of the museum's British drawings (1898–1907). His writings on the British watercolourists, from John Crome and John Sell Cotman (1897) to English Watercolours (1933), and on William Blake helped lay the foundation for their modern critical reputations. As art critic of the Saturday Review (1906–11) he championed the work of young British artists such as Augustus John. At about this time he was also part of a circle of intellectuals and artists, including Charles Ricketts, Lucien Pissarro, and Edmund Dulac, who regularly met at the Wiener Café in New Oxford Street.

In the mid-1890s Binyon had become interested in Asian art. With Colvin's support he built up the museum's collections of Chinese, Japanese, and later Indian art. His exhibitions, lectures, essays, and pioneering books such as Painting in the Far East (1908; rev. edns, 1913, 1923, 1934) and The Flight of the Dragon (1911) helped make Asian art accessible to a wider audience, influenced young writers and artists, and earned him an international reputation in this emerging field. He made an important contribution to East–West understanding through his insistence that the philosophies which lay behind Asian art had much to teach the twentieth-century West. Promoted to assistant keeper in August 1909, he instigated the establishment of the semi-autonomous sub-department of oriental prints and drawings in 1913 and became its first head, with Arthur Waley as his assistant.

Binyon's first love and ambition remained, however, poetry. In the decade following Lyric Poems (1894) he wrote prolifically, most notably the impressionist urban poems in his two London Visions books (1896, 1899). With his friends W. B. Yeats and Thomas Sturge Moore he worked towards the revival of poetic drama on the London stage and had some success with his verse-drama Attila, produced by Oscar Asche in 1909 with costumes by Charles Ricketts and music by Sir Charles Stanford. Binyon's long, grave face, captured in Edmund Dulac's splendid 1912 caricature in the style of the Japanese artist Sharaku, belied a warmth, generosity, and quiet humour which endeared him to a wide circle of friends. The American poet Ezra Pound met him in 1909 and found him ‘one of the best loved men in London’, with ‘a sort of pervading slow charm in him & in his work’ (Qian, 182).

On 12 April 1904 Binyon married Cicely Margaret Pryor Powell (1876–1962), daughter of Henry Pryor Powell, merchant, and in December they had twin daughters, Helen and Margaret. When their third daughter, Nicolete, was born in 1911, they moved from 8 Tite Street, Chelsea, to 118 Belgrave Road, Pimlico, where they lived until moving into a house within the British Museum in 1919. In the early years the family struggled financially, obliging Binyon to take on more reviewing and other work which taxed his health and kept him from devoting his full energies to his creative work, but the marriage was a profoundly happy one, which he celebrated in numerous love poems throughout his life. They were a talented family. Cicely Binyon wrote children's history books, edited anthologies, and made translations, while Helen Binyon (1904–1979) became an engraver, Margaret a writer of children's books illustrated by Helen, and Nicolete Binyon (1911–1997) [see ] a distinguished calligrapher and art scholar.

On 21 September 1914, less than seven weeks into the First World War, The Times carried what would become Binyon's most famous poem, the remarkably prescient elegy ‘For the Fallen’. As the casualty lists grew, the poem became the focal expression of national grief, both alone and in Sir Edward Elgar's choral work The Spirit of England (1916–17). Its central quatrain was carved on cenotaphs and tombstones worldwide and is still recited at annual Remembrance day commemorations:
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.
Over age for active service, Binyon worked as an orderly in a military hospital in France for periods in 1915 and 1916, the subject of his finest war poem, ‘Fetching the Wounded’. In 1917 he was dispatched by the Red Cross to report on work being done by British volunteers for the French wounded, refugees, and other victims of the war, published as For Dauntless France (1918).

During the 1920s Binyon wrote prolifically. The Secret (1920) was followed by the long visionary odes The Sirens (1924–5) and The Idols (1928), expressions of a spirituality founded on personal mystical experience rather than religious dogma. The high point in his career as a dramatist came in 1923 when his verse-tragedy Arthur was staged at the Old Vic, in London, for which Elgar wrote the music and conducted the orchestra on the first night. Later plays included Boadicea (1927) and The Young King (1934). His writings on art ranged from Japanese Colour Prints (1923), written in collaboration with J. J. O'Brien Sexton, to The Followers of William Blake (1925). He also turned his attention to Persian art with books such as The Poems of Nizami (1928) and helped organize the landmark International Exhibition of Persian Art in London in 1931.

Since the 1890s Binyon had longed to travel to Asia but, after several attempts to organize an official British Museum mission were thwarted by the war and lack of funds, it was not until 1929 that he made his only trip to the Far East at the invitation of a group of Japanese admirers. Although he also took the chance to travel in China, Korea, Indo-China, and Ceylon, his main destination was Japan, where he mounted an exhibition of British watercolours and gave a lecture series at Tokyo Imperial University, published as Landscape in English Art and Poetry (1930). He later explored aspects of his Asian experience in two of his finest poems, ‘Koya san’ and ‘Angkor’.

By the time his two-volume Collected Poems appeared in late 1931, Binyon was an elder statesman in the world of letters, prominent on the prize-awarding committee of the Royal Society of Literature and, with his friend John Masefield, a leading proponent in the revival of verse-speaking. He continued to extend his range with books such as Akbar (1932), a biography of the Mughal emperor. In July 1932 he became keeper of the department of prints and drawings at the British Museum, and was appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour. He retired in September 1933, having, in Harold Laski's words, served the museum for forty years ‘in a spirit worthy of its own life’ as ‘one of the great temples of the human spirit’ (Laski, 8). In the same year he was awarded the honorary degree of DLitt at Oxford University and became an honorary fellow of Trinity College. Having lectured in the United States in 1912, 1914, and 1926, he spent the 1933–4 academic year at Harvard University as Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry, where his lectures on The Spirit of Man in Asian Art (1935) eloquently summed up his life's work on Asian art.

Binyon returned to England in June 1934 and he and his wife settled in a farmhouse in Streatley on the Berkshire downs. He continued to lecture and help organize exhibitions such as the International Exhibition of Chinese Art at the Royal Academy in London in 1935–6, and to travel, including a term as Byron professor of English literature in war-threatened Athens in early 1940. During this last decade, however, he was at last able to devote himself to poetry. The result was the finest poetry of his life, greater perhaps than that of any of his generation except Yeats, published in The North Star and other Poems (1941) and posthumously in The Burning of the Leaves (1944) and the unfinished The Madness of Merlin (1947). He also completed a terza rima translation of Dante's Divina commedia (Inferno, 1933; Purgatorio, 1938; Paradiso, 1943) which was admired by Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other younger poets.

On 10 March 1943, days after making final revisions to the Paradiso proofs and in the middle of writing the lyric ‘Winter Sunrise’, Laurence Binyon died of bronchopneumonia at Dunedin Nursing Home, Bath Road, Reading, and was buried on 13 March in the churchyard of St Mary's, Aldworth, Berkshire. He was survived by his wife. Among many other tributes, Cyril Connolly mourned the passing of ‘a wise, poor, happy and incorruptible lover of truth and beauty’, a man who knew ‘how to be both warm and detached, in fact, a sage’ (Connolly, 201).

John Hatcher

Sources  

J. Hatcher, Laurence Binyon: poet, scholar of East and West (1995) · D. Steel, ‘Introduction’, Laurence Binyon and Lancaster: an exhibition held at Lancaster Museum 28th April–26th May 1979 (1979), 3–19 · Z. Qian, Orientalism and modernism (1995) · H. Laski, ‘Scholar–poet’, Daily Herald (11 Sept 1933), 8 · C. Connolly, ‘A London diary’, New Statesman and Nation (27 March 1943), 201 · N. Gray, ‘Friends of my father, Laurence Binyon’, Private Library, 3rd ser., 8 (1985), 79–91 · private information (2004) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

BL · Hunt. L. |  BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52705 · BL, corresp. with League of Dramatists, Add. MS 63360 · BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MS 54998 · BL, letters to Sir Michael Sadler, Add. MS 49997 · BL, letters to Charles Ricketts, Add. MSS 58090–58091 [1903–1917] · BL OIOC, letters to William Rothenstein, MS Eur. B 213 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to the Atlantic Monthly · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Robert Bridges · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Aurel Stein · Harvard U., letters to William Rothenstein · Harvard University, near Florence, Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, letters to Bernard Berenson · LUL, letters to T. Sturge Moore and family · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir Edward Elgar · Royal Society of Literature, London, letters to the Royal Society of Literature · U. Birm., letters to Oliver Lodge · U. Glas., letters to D. S. MacColl · U. Leeds, letters to Charles Wilson · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters to Edmund Gosse · U. Reading, letters to Charles Elkin Matthews · U. Texas, letters to John Masefield, Grant Richards, Richard Church, Edmund Gosse, Charles Elkin Mathews, Harley Granville-Barker, Lillah McCarthy, Edmund Blunden, and others · Worcester College, Oxford, letters to C. H. O. Daniel


Likenesses  

W. Rothenstein, lithograph, 1898, BM, NPG · W. Strang, two etchings, 1898–1918, BM, NPG [see illus.] · W. Strang, pencil drawing, 1901, BM, NPG · E. Dulac, watercolour, 1912 · H. Murchison, photograph, c.1913, NPG · W. Rothenstein, pencil drawing, 1916, Man. City Gall. · F. Dodd, charcoal drawing, 1920, Athenaeum Club, London · E. Kapp, charcoal or wash drawing, 1921, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham · H. Coster, photographs, c.1934, NPG · G. C. Beresford, photograph, before 1938, NPG · B. Thomas, caricature, BM; repro. in Punch (14 Nov 1923), 464

Wealth at death  

£6148 7s. 8d.: probate, 6 July 1943, CGPLA Eng. & Wales