Open main menu

Robert Byron (26 February 1905 – 24 February 1941) was a British travel writer, best known for his travelogue The Road to Oxiana. He was also a noted writer, art critic and historian.

Robert Byron
Byron and Desmond Parsons in China sometime prior to 1937
Byron and Desmond Parsons in China sometime prior to 1937
Born26 February 1905
Wembley, Middlesex
Died24 February 1941 (aged 35)
off Cape Wrath, Scotland
OccupationAuthor, historian, art critic
GenreHistory, travel, non-fiction,
SubjectIndia, Middle East, Tibet, Persia, Afghanistan


Byron was born in 1905, and educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford,[1] from which he was expelled for his hedonistic and rebellious manner. At Oxford he was part of the Hypocrites' Club.[2] He died in 1941, during the Second World War, when the ship on which he was travelling was torpedoed by a U-Boat off Cape Wrath, Scotland, en route to Egypt.

Byron travelled to widely different places; Mount Athos, India, the Soviet Union, and Tibet. However it was in Persia and Afghanistan that he found the subject round which he forged his style of modern travel writing, when he later came to write up his account of The Road to Oxiana in Peking, his temporary home.

In his day, Byron's travel books were outsold by those of writers Peter Fleming and Evelyn Waugh.[citation needed]

An appreciation of architecture is a strong element in Byron's writings. He was a forceful advocate for the preservation of historic buildings and a founder member of the Georgian Group. A philhellene, he also pioneered, in the English speaking world, a renewal of interest Byzantine History. Byron has been described as 'one of the first and most brilliant of twentieth-century philhellenes'.[3]

Robert Byron's British Passport issued in 1923

He attended the last Nuremberg Rally, in 1938, with Nazi sympathiser Unity Mitford. Byron knew her through his friendship with her sister Nancy Mitford, but he was an outspoken opponent of the Nazis. Nancy Mitford hoped at one stage that Byron would propose marriage to her, and was later astonished as well as shocked to discover his homosexual tastes, complaining: "This wretched pederasty falsifies all feelings and yet one is supposed to revere it."[4] According to Paul Fussell in his introduction to the Oxford paperback edition of "The Road to Oxiana" (1982) Byron was a fervent and vocal critic of Hitler, "object[ing] in the most violent terms to the Nazification of Europe and abusing those in England who imagined that some sort of compromise with this new wickedness was possible".[5]

Byron's great, though unreciprocated, passion was for Desmond Parsons, younger brother of the 6th Earl of Rosse, who was regarded as one of the most magnetic men of his generation. They lived together in Peking, in 1935, where Desmond developed Hodgkin's Disease, of which he died in Zurich, in 1937, when only 26 years old. Byron was left utterly devastated.

Byron died aged 35 in 1941 after his ship, the SS Jonathan Holt, was torpedoed by U-97, a Type VIIC submarine, in the North Atlantic. His body was never found.

An acquaintance from early days, Evelyn Waugh noted Byron's gumption. In 1929 he wrote to Henry Yorke "I hear Robert has beaten us all by going to India in an aeroplane which is the sort of success which I call tangible." But writing in 1948, Waugh said of Byron in a letter to Harold Acton: "It is not yet the time to say so but I greatly disliked Robert in his last years & think he was a dangerous lunatic better off dead."[6] The passionately anti-communist Waugh believed that during the 1930s Byron had become pro-Soviet, though Byron's – and Waugh's – biographer Christopher Sykes firmly denied any such sympathy on Byron's part.

Prince Charles read Byron's prose All These I Learnt on BBC Radio 4 on National Poetry Day, 5 October 2006.[7]

In February 2012, his book Europe in the Looking Glass was serialised by BBC's Radio 4 Book of the Week. The program included detailed passages of Germany and an eyewitness report of the 1922 Greek refugee exodus and massacres following the Great Fire of Smyrna.[clarification needed]


  • Europe in the Looking-Glass. Reflections of a Motor Drive from Grimsby to Athens (1926)
  • The Station (1928) – visiting the Greek monasteries of Mount Athos with Mark Ogilvie-Grant and David Talbot Rice
  • The Byzantine Achievement (1929)
  • Birth of Western Painting. A History of colour, form, and iconography. G. Routledge, 1930.
  • An Essay on India (1931)
  • The Appreciation of Architecture (1932)
  • First Russia, Then Tibet (1933)
  • The Road to Oxiana (1937) – visiting Persia and Afghanistan
  • Imperial Pilgrimage (1937) – a small guide to London from the "London in your pocket series". London, London Passenger Transport Board, (1937)
  • Letters Home edited by Lucy Butler (his sister). London, John Murray, (1991). ISBN 0-7195-4921-3


  1. ^ Levens, R.G.C., ed. (1964). Merton College Register 1900-1964. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. p. 150.
  2. ^ Williams, Emlyn (1965) [1961]. George: An Early Autobiography. London, LND, GBN: New English Library (Four Square). p. 260. Retrieved 11 July 2015.
  3. ^ Norwich, John Julius (1996) Byzantium – The Decline and Fall, P. 449, Penguin, ISBN 978-0-14-011449-2
  4. ^ D. J. Taylor, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918–1940 (London: Chatto & Windus, 2007), p. 210.
  5. ^ Byron, Robert (1982). The Road To Oxiana. Oxford University Press. pp. Introduction by Paul Fussell, p. ix. ISBN 0195030672.
  6. ^ Waugh, Evelyn; Edited by Mark Amory (1980). The Letters of Evelyn Waugh. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp. 35, 277. ISBN 1-85799-245-8.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  7. ^

Further readingEdit

  • Fussell, Paul. (1982). Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars. Oxford, OUP. ISBN 0-19-503068-0.
  • Knox, James (2003). Robert Byron: A Biography. London, John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-4841-1.

Literary archivesEdit

  • Robert Byron Papers. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Yale University.

External linksEdit