John Kittmer

John Kittmer

Former UK ambassador to the Hellenic Republic

Part of Greek Blogyssey

3rd February 2016 Athens, Greece

Gennadius, the Koraes Chair and the state of Modern Greek in Britain

Last week, I had the pleasure of giving the annual lecture in memory of John Gennadius to the Association of Friends of the Gennadius Library. Gennadius was the representative of Greece to the United Kingdom for over forty years (1875-1918), a tireless advocate of Greek interests, a friend of Britain, an intellectual, man of letters, bibliophile. He left over 25,000 books to form what is now the heart of one of Greece’s most admirable intellectual institutions, the Gennadius Library on Souedias Street.

In my speech, I spoke about Gennadius’ role in the foundation and endowment of the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London.

Gennadius’ career in London coincided with a time when Greece’s hopes as an expanding nation depended on British imperial policy and British good will. Educated in a protestant grammar-school on Malta, well trained in the English language and British history, Gennadius had sure instincts for the alignment of British and Greek interests. He once said, perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, that ‘one glance at the map and at history suffices to convince everyone that England is Hellenism’s only natural ally’.

In the years after the Balkan Wars, Gennadius was closely involved in attempts to align the liberal cause in Greece with the concerns of liberalism in England. The London Peace Conference of 1912 to 1913 was a particular stimulus for pro-Hellenic sentiment in London. In 1913, the Anglo-Hellenic League was set up to defend the ‘just claims and honour of Greece’, to ‘remove misunderstandings between the British and Hellenic races’ and to ‘improve the social, educational, commercial and political relations of Greece and Britain’.

Also in 1913, the idea was first mooted to found a chair of modern greek at an English university, to ‘further the Hellenic cause’. At the time, there was no functioning chair of Byzantine or modern greek in any British university. The idea was swiftly taken up by Ronald Burrows, the Principal at King’s College in the University of London. Under Burrows’s leadership, King’s was actively trying to animate scholarship in pursuit of liberal causes.

To turn the Greek idea into a reality, Burrows pursued two courses of action. First, he sought patronage and support from the then Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos. Secondly, he sought to enrol the wealthy Anglo-Hellenic Communities of Britain in the project.

John Gennadius played an important role in both courses of action. As the Greek Minister in London, he became the official channel between Venizelos’ Government and the Principal of King’s College.

The contacts with Venizelos were successful, and Gennadius wrote to Burrows on 2 October 1915 to offer a grant of £300 per annum for seven years towards the foundation of a chair in modern Greek history and literature. The National Schism then intervened. But two years later, in December 1917, Gennadius formally notified the university authorities that Royal Assent had at last been given to an Act of the Greek Parliament, under which the terms originally offered by Venizelos in 1915 were put into effect. The Greek state would pay £300 each year for seven years for the costs of the Chair.

Separately, Principal Burrows, using Venizelos’ support for the project as a lever, turned to the Venizelist community in Britain to help him build up a permanent endowment for the Chair. It was initially hoped that the full sum would be put up by the wealthy heiress Helena Schilizzi. In the event, a Committee of Subscribers was formed, with Gennadius as the chairman. Subscriptions were raised from four Greek communities: in London, Liverpool, Manchester and Marseilles. The Committee raised a little over £16,000 (some £4m in current money) to create an endowment.

Together with the annual grant from the Greek Government, it was now possible to establish a chair and a lectureship. The Chair would be known as the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature. The title «Koraes» reflected the fact that many of the subscribers were of Chiot origin.

The appointment to the chair was to be made by a Board of Advisers, and Gennadius was one of the three external advisers. In the event, he seems to have been a difficult member of the Board. He was a fanatical supporter of the purist version of the language, and placed the so-called language question at the heart of what appear to have been terrifying interviews. Eventually, the Board appointed the historian Arnold Toynbee, who took up duties in April 1919. Despite his early resignation after controversy over the so-called Eastern Question, the chair prospered. There have been five subsequent occupants. The current holder of the chair is the neo-Hellenist Roderick Beaton, who has published extensively in English and Greek.

At King’s College the Koraes Chair is now the nucleus of the very active Centre of Hellenic Studies. Despite the department’s energy, it faces difficulties. The original endowment of the Koraes Chair was sufficient to cover the costs of employing a professor a hundred years ago. But since then, the value of the capital has eroded. It is worth just over £100,000 today, while the capital required to cover the costs of a chair in London is now £3.5m. Income from student fees is not enough to cover the annual shortfall.

A hundred years after the foundation of the Chair, we need now to rebuild the value of the endowment. An appeal is being put together. The search for donors is, of course, happening at a difficult time.

In my view, the case for the re-endowment of the Koraes Chair and for vibrant programmes of modern Greek studies in the UK is compelling. Within the European Union, our cultural, political and economic links are now stronger than ever. We cannot afford the strength of our academic and intellectual ties to be less than the strength of our everyday interactions.

Our academic discipline is small in itself in England and may play only a small role in the moral support of Greece, but it is a sure testimony that we think that today’s Greece and today’s Greeks matter, just as the long, unbroken millennia of the Greek language and of Greece’s literary and material culture, philosophy and history all matter.

I shall be giving the campaign my fullest support.

2 comments on “Gennadius, the Koraes Chair and the state of Modern Greek in Britain

  1. Dear Mr. Kittmer,
    I have thoroughly enjoyed your blogpost on the state of modern Greek in Britain. Is there an email address where I can ask you a couple of questions about it? Thank you for your time.

    Kind regards,
    Rigas Goulimaris

Comments are closed.

About John Kittmer

John Kittmer was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic from 2013 to 2016.