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Binyon, Laurence

    Image Credit: Poetry Foundation

    Full Name: Binyon, Robert Laurence

    Other Names:

    • Robert Laurence Binyon

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1869

    Date Died: 1943

    Place Born: Lancaster, Lancashire, England, UK

    Place Died: Reading, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): drawings (visual works) and prints (visual works)

    Career(s): curators


    Poet; Assistant Keeper of Prints and Drawing, British Museum. Binyon’s father was Frederick Binyon (1838-1900), a minister, and mother Mary Dockray (Binyon), the daughter of Robert Benson Dockray (1811-1871), principal engineer of the London and Birmingham Railroad. He attended St. Paul’s School before pursuing Classics at Trinity College, Oxford University. In 1890 he made a first in classical moderations, and in 1892, a second in litterae humainoires. He joined the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum beginning in 1893. In 1895 Campbell Dodgson recruited him for the Department of Prints and Drawings. During these years Binyon produced scholarly catalogs for the Museum as well as monographs on art. His first book on painting-related subjects, Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century appeared in 1895 and was quickly followed by John Crone and John Sell Cotmanin in 1897. Throughout his career he also published on William Blake. He married Cicely Margaret Powell in 1904. At the turn of the century he was part of a group of artists and literati who met at the Wiener Cafe in New Oxford Street, London. These included the artists Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945), Walter Sickert (1860-1942), Charles Ricketts (1866-1931), Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), and Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). In 1907 Binyon’s play Attila was performed using set designs by Ricketts. His scholarly interests turned toward Chinese and Japanese art in the early twentieth century. Painting in the Far East, a survey of Asian painting, appeared in 1908 and The Flight of the Dragon, a study of Eastern aesthetics, in 1911. He was made assistant keeper of Prints and Drawings in 1909. In 1913 Binyon was placed in charge of the newly established Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. During World War I he volunteered for the Red Cross, assisting wounded soldiers as an orderly in 1916.

    Throughout these years continued to publish poetry and gained fame in that area. In the 1930s he translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into English using its original terza rima, a feat still considered remarkable both for its artistic merit and scholarly skill. With this he was assisted by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)and Ezra Pound (1885-1972). He was named Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department in 1932 and retired from the Museum in 1933. His son-in-law, Basil Gray, succeeded him at the new department of oriental antiquities (created in 1933), though as assistant until 1940 owing to his young age; Arthur Mayger Hind succeeded him as Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings. In his retirement was the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University in 1933-1934 (following Eliot), where he delivered the lectures, “The Spirit of Man in Asian Art.” The lectures were published in 1935. Binyon was appointed to the Byron chair of letters at Athens in 1941. The war in Europe already made this appointment problematic; Binyon narrowly escaped Greece after its invasion. He died in a Reading, England, nursing home. His daughter was the medievalist Nicolete Mary Binyon (1911-1997), wife of Gray.

    Throughout his life he worked as both a poet and art historian. His work on Asian art was instrumental in raising the interest in Far Eastern art in Great Britain. The painting of Wyndham Lewis and the poetry of Pound were influenced by Binyon’s scholarship in Asian art. His art historical work draws from his sensibilities as a poet and literary historian. However, his works on Dutch painters and English watercolorists were works of scholarship.

    Selected Bibliography

    The Art of Botticelli: an Essay in Pictorial Criticism. London: Macmillan and co., 1913; Asiatic Art in the British Museum (sculpture and painting). Paris: Brussels, G. van Oest, 1925; Chinese Paintings in English Collections. Paris: Brussels, G. Vanoest, 1927; The Court Painters of the Grand Moguls, [introduction and notes by T. W. Arnold]. London: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1921; Dutch Etchers of the Seventeenth Century. London: Seeley and Co., 1895; John Crome and John Sell Cotman. London: Seeley and Co., 1897; William Blake: . . . Woodcuts Photographically Reproduced in Facsimile. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1902; The Followers of William Blake: Edward Calvert, Samuel Palmer, George Richmond & Their Circle. New York: Minton, Balch & Company, 1925; The Engraved Designs of William Blake. New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1926; The Spirit of Man in Asian Art. Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1933-34. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935.


    Hatcher, John. Laurence Binyon: poet, scholar of East and West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995; Humphreys, Richard. “Laurence Binyon.” Dictionary of Art


    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Binyon, Laurence." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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