Obituary: Harry Brewster

HARRY BREWSTER was among the last representatives of that expatriate culture which, from the 18th century onwards, so enhanced the profile of Florence as one of the sacred places of European art.

Generally English, German or American (the French tended to visit rather than stay), these so-called "romantic exiles", including everyone from the Brownings, Mrs Trollope and Norman Douglas to Bernard Berenson and Harold Acton, settled mostly in airy Medicean villas among the olive and cypress groves on hills overlooking the city. Though their tastes and interests differed widely, they were bound together as a community, not just by a fondness for scandal, gossip and social rivalry within their own ranks, but by a genuine love of Italy and Italians which makes it impossible to dismiss them as mere sophisticated colonials.

The family into which Brewster was born in 1910 mirrored this cosmopolitan enthusiasm to perfection. One of his grandfathers, descended from William Brewster of the Mayflower, was a friend of Henry James, who is said to have used him as a model for Gilbert Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady. The other was the German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrandt, whose studio occupied part of the former Minimite convent of San Francesco di Paola at the foot of Bello Sguardo, that holy mountain of distinguished expatriates.

Apart from the domestic arrangements, almost nothing had changed at San Francesco since the 16th century. Harry, with his brother Ralph and sister Clotilde, "Cloclo", grew up behind the high walls of what was essentially a rambling Tuscan farm a mere 10-minute walk from the centre of Florence. The dedication of Brewsters and Hildebrandts to art renewed itself in the three children. Cloclo became a painter inspired by Mediterranean landscapes. Ralph, restless and homosexual, developed a passion for music, while Harry devoured his father's library, including its volumes of French and Oriental erotica.

Most of his education took place at home until, aged 19, he left for Munich, where an uncle was professor of philosophy and an outspoken opponent of Hitler. Eventually, on the recommendation of a family friend, the composer Ethel Smyth (who had briefly been his grandfather's mistress), he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, to read English, having impressed C.S. Lewis with his knowledge of Dante.

Officially the Brewsters were American, but, because of their long residence in Europe, no longer qualified for US citizenship. Birth in Rome meant that Harry was liable for enlistment in the Italian army. Marriage to an English actress, Elizabeth Home, brought him a British passport, though the outbreak of war in 1939 meant that he was viewed with suspicion by the authorities for having a German mother.

Prevented from joining the RAF in Palestine, he became a police officer in Kenya, returning to England with Elizabeth and their son, Starr, in 1946. After working for several years as part of the Allied commission administering Berlin and as an attache at the British Embassy in Rome, he returned to Florence to devote the rest of his life to looking after the singular inheritance which was San Francesco.

The villa survived the Nazi occupation of the city more or less unscathed. Harry's mother Lisl had defied the Gestapo in sheltering Jewish fugitives and showed similar courage in confronting a mob of Italian workers intending to ransack the house when the Germans left.

Forty years later, when I spent an idyllic summer sabbatical on the upper floors of the adjacent farmhouse, the atmosphere of Tuscan rurality was still potent. Beyond the green wicket gate and the moss-grown statue of San Francesco di Paola himself, with pheasants honking in the barley field and at night an owl's "kee-wik" from the cypress tree, beauty and peace were unostentatiously preserved. From the terrace I could occasionally spy Harry himself, living with frugal simplicity, not in the main villa but in the fienile or hay-barn, which he had converted into a neat, oddly English-looking cottage surrounded by lawns.

His main recreations during these last decades were writing and photography. A book of short stories, Where the Trout Sing, had been published in 1968, but it was not until the 1990s that Harry Brewster really got into his stride as an author. In The Cosmopolites (1993) he drew a vivid if rather too discursive picture of his family's life at San Francesco in the 19th century. Classical Anatolia (1993) and River Gods of Greece (1997) drew on numerous visits to classical sites, especially in Turkey and the Middle East. Both books were illustrated by his own exceptionally sensitive and carefully detailed photographs.

His companion on many of these journeys was Barbara Emo di Capodilista, to whom his last book, A Cosmopolite's Journey: episodes from a life (1999), is dedicated. A collection of stories and sketches, shrewd, comic, enriched by its author's curiosity as to details of local colour and popular tradition, and founded on his amazingly retentive memory, this represents the best of his writings and essentially the best of him.

Brewster in old age was tougher and more resilient than he seemed or sometimes cared to seem. I remember his driving me, in a car of doubtful roadworthiness smelling pungently of garlic, to visit Harold Acton at La Pietra. As we came away, after an hour of vintage Actonian waspishness and excellent whisky, Harry Brewster sighed, "Poor old Harold, a terrible example of what happens if you don't look after yourself!" - the remark of somebody who had been careful to do exactly the opposite.

A sharp eye as to others' quirks and foibles never slackened its focus, but as a connoisseur of his fellow human beings he was more regretful than malicious. His observations were delivered in a voice whose faintly alien accents (Italian and German) overlay a precise delivery of Edwardian English learned from nannies, governesses and his parents. It was the sound, I always felt, of a nearly vanished cosmopolitan Florence of which Harry Brewster was a most engaging survivor.

Henry Christopher Brewster, writer: born Rome 21 November 1909; married 1938 Elizabeth Home (one son; marriage dissolved 1959), 1960 Fiona Warnant- Peterich (two sons; marriage dissolved 1987); died London 2 July 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn