Athens through a loving lens

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Athens became one of the new destinations for foreign tourists. Back then, visitors would stay in the city for a few days before heading for the islands, perhaps because then Athens was more relaxed and exotic. That Athens, which was pushing for change, had much to admire and much that was appealing. It was a dynamic city that wanted to make progress. This Athenian virtue, at a time when the Greek economy was robust, was relished, above all, by the Anglo-Saxons, who visited Athens, Crete, Corfu, Delphi and Olympia in increasing numbers. Greece, then steadily entering the modern world, was often the setting for many novels (and films). Among the best sellers of the era were Mary Stewart’s mystery-romance «My Brother Michael» (1959), which contains brilliant descriptions of Syntagma and Omonia squares and a changing Greece, as does Patricia Highsmith’s later thriller, «The Two Faces of January» (1964), with its detailed accounts of the hotels and restaurants around Syntagma Square. Many of the visitors to Athens at that time would arrive with an innocent enthusiasm. In a way, they were the descendants of romantic philhellenism and believed that they would discover in Athens a city that was exceptionally charming and very «Greek.» Most of the time they were not disappointed, without this meaning that their impressions were always good. Written accounts of that period talk of an Athens on the edge between poverty and affluence, although clearly with positive prospects. Everything was just beginning and the smell of a new age was diffuse throughout the city. New buildings, imported products, a cosmopolitan edge, cars, cinemas, airline companies – the center of Athens presented a delightful picture. Gordon and Marie This is the Athens that two English visitors, Gordon and Marie Draper, saw in 1960. And just like thousands of other tourists, they brought their camera with them, eager to immortalize the ancient land that had been restored. Gordon was a passionate amateur photographer, and Marie was an archivist and declared friend of Greece. She called herself a «Graecophile,» a love that had been born during childhood years when she learnt ancient Greek at school. What with Gordon’s love for photography and the archivist Marie’s methodical mind, their great journey to Greece produced four fully documented photograph albums of their tours of Athens, the Peloponnese, the Monastery of Osios Loukas in central Greece, Crete and Corfu. Gordon Draper died in 1991, followed by Marie in 1995. They left no heirs, and so this photographic inheritance from the Greece of 1960 passed into the hands of Yvette Williams, Marie’s bosom friend since they had met at university in 1943. This exceptionally charming and poignant material, which is accompanied by a few postcards, hotel bills and bus, train and museum tickets, is now in the possession of the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archives (ELIA). Yvette Williams entrusted the material to Vana Solominidou, educational consultant to the Greek Embassy in London, who in turn considered that ELIA would provide an ideal and safe place for the keeping, handling and presentation of the material. The hundreds of excellent amateur photographs of yesterday’s Greece provide evidence that is invaluable and which usually in these cases remains unseen, passing into the hands of successors who often do not share the passion of their ancestors. Most often, photographs from the 1950s, 1960s and even the 1970s, which would be of great interest to future generations, remain (and will remain) buried in shoe boxes in dark attics. The Drapers’ photographs had a different fate. They were cataloged right from the start, with accurate captions, and lovingly looked after, comprising an archive that lends itself to different perspectives. These photographs could play a leading role at an exhibition with the title «The Athens of 1960 through the eyes of the amateur photographer» or «Modern Greece: The first photographs by anonymous tourists.» The Drapers walked tirelessly throughout the whole of Athens. With Syntagma Square as their starting point, they went all over the surrounding areas, Plaka, Kalimarmaro Stadium, the National Archaeological Museum and Omonia Square. Syntagma Square was then the epitome of cosmopolitan Greece. The Grand Bretagne, the King George and, a little further down, King’s Palace hotels provided comfort and style. The Papaspyrou restaurant had little tables outside and on the square, and the offices of airline companies such as TWA, PanAm and Air France had opened all around. The kiosks were full of foreign magazines with Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe on their covers. And further in, in the Athenian hinterland on Pericleous and Athinas streets, the peddlers filled the pavements and the air smelled of spices, bringing the Near East even closer. Pieces of the Athenian sky gaped open as old buildings were demolished. Syntagma Square was, despite all this, «toothless,» but the anticipation of the new, which was to be glittering and lucrative, gave hope. There was a conviction that tomorrow would be better. In any case, yesterday was only worth forgetting. This is the Athens presented to us through the Drapers’ innocent and tender eyes. They will never read this article, but we dedicate it to them and to all those other anonymous visitors who came to this city many years ago to observe, with good will, the truth it offered them. Gordon and Marie Draper saw some aspects of the real Athens, and passed the city on to us, unadulterated, joyful and hopeful.