This series has gone on longer, and in more extraordinary directions, than we ever expected when posting the first episode in October last year. It was Mario Praz who kicked off our search for the Gentlemen of Hereford Chess Club with his (reversed) illustration, item 139, in An Illustrated History of Interior Design: From Pompeii to Art Nouveau (1964 reprinted 1982). We then thought we could track the picture down through the Ian Greenlees Collection which Praz gave as the source of his image.
But Greenlees had died in 1988 and his collection dispersed. We hoped that from beyond the grave he might lead us to the picture, but it was not to be. Although we found two more versions of the picture along the way we didn’t get any nearer to the one that once hung on Greenlees’s wall. Instead, we got another picture: that of Ian Greenlees and the company he kept. It’s worth a look, and we crave your indulgence in what follows, because although the Greenlees story is interesting in itself, there’s precious little chess, and not much either of the Gents of Hereford.
Greenlees was born in 1913 into a family with a profitable whisky distillery, whose fortune he later inherited. After a good Catholic education at Ampleforth College he got a First in Italian at Magdalen College, Oxford and in 1934 started teaching English Literature at the University of Rome under our Mario Praz (so they knew each other well ). In 1939 he was appointed Director of the British Institute in Rome, and when Italy entered the war in June 1940, Greenlees, only 27 years old, heroically led his staff across war-torn France to safety in London.
Now in the Army, he was made responsible for Italian-language propaganda broadcasts, took part in the Allied landing in North Africa and, when Fascist Italy conceded an armistice, was despatched across Italy (still infested with German patrols) to take command of a free radio station in Bari, in the heel of Italy, from where anti-fascist broadcasting was organised. By 1943 he had risen to the rank of Major.
Ian Greenlees, on the left, in Naples 1943.Greenlees crops up in the second world war reminiscences of Alfred de Grazia. Sharing his thoughts on male-bonding and homosexuality among troops in the US and British armies, de Grazia refers to Greenlees as a “gay type”. He never married, and you can speculate, as you look at the beefcake on display in the Gents of Hereford, and the masochistic ectasy of Saint Sebastian on the wall, whether this orientation may have influenced his taste in art.
The object of the male gaze?Referring to Greenlees’ role in intelligence operations later in the war, his Times obituary says “he was one of the leading lights in the famous intelligence unit at Via Po where all the important Italian politicians…were entertained”. Greenlees went on to represent Britain in negotiations in Italy to establish a new government purged of Fascist influence, and in the immediate post-war period he was well acquainted with the main players vying for influence in a free Italy, including Togliatti, the leader of the Italian Communist Party.
The only photo we have found of Greenlees is the war-time snap above (or what remains of it), but there is also the suggestive comment by Australian author Shirley Hazzard that, in addition to being a friend of Graham Greene, he was “in appearance, manner, and pallor, a ringer for Sydney Greenstreet” who played Signor Ferrari in the noir-ish 1942 film Casablanca. Chess addicts will know it as the film in which Humphrey Bogart famously played chess, although not with the Greenlees doppelganger.
“A ringer for Sydney Greenstreet”
with Bogey (chess grade estimated at ELO 2100).
From 1947 to 1954, Greenlees was working for the British Council in Rome, but we’d like to make clear that any suggestion that the British Council was a front for espionage is, of course, highly fanciful. Highly fanciful. His title was “Assistant Press Attaché”. Perhaps we might have expected that a man mentioned in despatches, and with his knowledge of Italy, would be assigned a more elevated post, so we can only speculate as to his actual role, but with the ominous strength of the Italian Communist Party in the aftermath of the war, what better place to install an Italian speaking one-time Major of the British Army with the ear of leading Italian leftists.
So, for the next seven years Greenlees was rubbing shoulders with the Italian cultural elite, and possibly many others besides. Among them was Mario Praz, still Professor of English Literature at the University of Rome right through to 1966 (he was a staunch Anglophile, made a KBE in 1962).
Mario Praz KBE (1896-1982) at home.
[A dead ringer for Lord Clark of Civilisation]
The Scrivania at Mario Praz’s PalazzioGetting back to our subject, Greenlees was also friends in the 50s with Renato Guttuso, a committed anti-Fascist artist who was later to be elected a Senator for the Italian Communist Party. Tantalisingly, in 1950 he painted Greenlees' portrait in army uniform which, frustratingly, we have not been able to trace.
In a career break between 1954 and 1958 Greenlees found time to write several articles, and a booklet on the well-nigh forgotten fugitive English ex-pat novelist and travel writer Norman Douglas, who lived and died in Capri, his memorable death-bed wish being (expletive deleted) “keep those f***ing nuns away from me”. In 1958 Greenlees was appointed Director of the British Institute in Florence, where he remained until 1981, and is credited with expanding its role and influence, assisted ably by none other than Antony Blunt, the other Cambridge spy, who was on its Board of Governors. What a thought: Antony Blunt, Surveyor of the Queen’s pictures, connoisseur of French painting and architecture, expert in Italian art, and sometime traitor, taking a wee dram chez Greenlees and casting his discerning eye over Leeming’s Gents of Hereford Chess Club.
During his tenure Greenlees was an occasional letter writer to the Times: appealing for aid to help victims and save artworks during the floods in Italy in 1966, and campaigning to preserve the traditional form of the Catholic Mass in 1971 (with co-signatories Agatha Christie and Graham Greene, among many others). He also helped create the Italian version of the RSPB which eventually won a ban against the slaughter en masse of migrating songbirds.
He dabbled in the London auction houses, with several sales in the 1960s, including 21 lots of Chinese ceramics and nine lots of modern English pictures at Sotheby’s in 1961, of which three were Sickerts.
Somehow or other, probably at an auction house or through a dealer, he came by the Gents of the Hereford Chess Club, which was sold on in 1991, a few years after his death. He accumulated a huge library which, combined with that of his friend Robin Chanter (“a brilliant and dissolute figure” ), totalled 28,000 books. It was housed in the mansion in Bagni di Lucca in Northern Italy which they bought together in 1969, and they wintered in Capri, Douglas’, Greene’s and food-writer Elizabeth David’s watering hole.
Chanter however set up home with Ms Laura Buchan (grand-daughter of John "Thirty-Nine Steps" Buchan) in 1975, though they week-ended with Greenlees, and in the 1980s all three lived together in Bagni di Lucca. After Greenlees died in 1988, the library was donated to the local Commune, and Robin Chanter died in 1999.
Our trawl through the life of Ian Greenlees OBE has disappointingly shed no light on the whereabouts of the version of the Gents of Hereford Chess Club once in his possession. Until we turn it up some other way we will let him tease us no more.
But we have got to know Greenlees quite well. His Who’s Who entry listed his interests as swimming, walking and talking, but not, alas, playing chess. His Times obituary said “He was an unambitious man but he mastered the art of being happy and knew how to impart this gift to others. He hated war, the army, nationalism and public schools.” And was perhaps, in no particular order: tinker, tailor, soldier, spy?
Acknowledgements and Sources
Thanks to Jonathan B., and Richard Rawles for their help with research for this post; and to James Buchan and his sister for answering my query on the Guttuso portrait, albeit in the negative.
Simona Tobia's Advertising America; The United States Information Service in Italy (1945-56) describes Greenlees involvement with Radio Bari.
See Alfred de Grazia’s Autobiography A Taste of War for Greenlees activities in war time Italy, his army liaison with the American forces, and a description of him as a “gay type”. Graza gives the photograph of Greenlees.