Obituary: Harry Brewster

Jonathan Keates
Monday 12 July 1999 23:02 BST

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.

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