In late September the Benaki museum carried out an extraordinary publicity drive in London in an attempt to counter the ongoing criticism of its tenure of the house and progress with renovations. On 26 September I attended an event at the Hellenic Centre which was, I am told, similar in content to an exclusive evening held the night before at the Traveller’s Club.
by Tom Sawford
After an extraordinary period of silence, like an old boxer absorbing the body-blows of criticism for many rounds, the Benaki came out with all guns blazing in an attempt to explain how things were now really moving with the house project. No less than two of Her Majesty’s former Ambassadors to the Hellenic Republic were on the five person panel to ensure that we agreed it must be so.
To make sure we were in the right mood, we were first treated to the Benaki promotional video which portrays the museum as one of the most important cultural institutions in Greece, and indeed it certainly has a fine collection and many responsibilities including looking after the house of Nikos Ghika, which must be where Paddy and Joan got the idea in the first place. I encourage you to watch it here.
Irini Geroulanou, a member of the Executive Board of the Benaki, explained the details of the bequest and ran us through the events that have taken place since Paddy’s death six years ago. We do have to appreciate the serious financial circumstances that have existed in Greece and some of the tortuously slow bureaucratic steps that needed to be taken to secure permission to work on the house. Key events were the 2015 business plan for the house produced by AEA Consulting which outlined how the Benaki could make it self-funding, and the 2016 donation by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation which at last made money available to commence the works.
Ms Geroulanou went on to show glimpses of plans but, curiously, only a very few photographs of work on the house. The intention is to create five independent “units” including a work area and en-suite facilities to foster privacy, focus and creativity. A Common area will be centred on the “world’s room”. Winter will be a maintenance period; in the spring there will follow two months of academic residence; there will be two periods in the late spring and early autumn for “Honorary fellows” to use the house as the writers’ retreat that Paddy foresaw; in the summer, three months will be set-aside for holiday rentals, this forming the main part of the annual income. The house will become known as The Patrick and Joan Leigh Fermor Centre, and the Benaki plans to start a charity in the UK to create a dedicated endowment fund.
This was all very encouraging. But, as I say there were very few pictures showing actual progress at the house. Apparently the roof is being replaced but workers were reluctant to be photographed. The museum would do itself a lot of favours if it were to publish regular updates, with a few photographs on the House section of its website.
Ms Geroulanou also made time to counter the criticism made against the Benaki. She was passionate and very detailed in her rebuttal – countering the reports that had apparently appeared in newspapers (so not this blog then!) that donations had been turned down – giving us a detailed breakdown of all three or so donations which seemed to add up to the value of a good night out at a taverna in Kardamyli. There were other mentions of criticisms on “websites and blogs” (OK – guilty) which seemed to have struck hard at the Benaki, leading to “an unpleasant climate of suspicion”. I stand by the criticism I made a year ago about a lack of care of many of the smaller items in the house, but that is all now in the past.
It is encouraging to report that things are now happening. It is also good to know that the Benaki is a distinctly reputable and experienced organisation, and now with the funding it has, Paddy and Joan’s vision may be achieved within 18 months or so. I look forward to updating you on progress, as I also look forward to the Benaki sharing plans, reports, updates and photographs on its website so that the nasty “unpleasant climate of suspicion” does not return.
PS – apologies for the delay in posting this update. I have been working very hard, and away for a time on a personal pilgrimage on foot from Winchester to Exeter via Salisbury, Wells and Glastonbury. I encourage others to go! I can supply my route information.