When attending the launch event for the CAIA UK Armenians and WW1 project, I had the good fortune to meet fellow volunteer Helen Drummond, who informed me about a very interesting place in South Yorkshire called Sledmere House. The house came up in conversation because we were discussing my research on an Armenian decorator, Sopon Bezirdjian, who had moved to Manchester in the 1880s. Helen told me of a room decorated in ‘oriental style’ by an Armenian in Sledmere, and so I immediately made plans to visit.
The connection with the UK Armenians and WW1 project was not, therefore, to the forefront of what I was initially doing in visiting Sledmere, but, as I delved more deeply into the house and its connection to Armenians, I made some discoveries that I thought had some relevance regarding the other stories being told in these blogs. And, of course, it is always nice to have an excuse to show some lovely images!
Sledmere was the seat of Sir Mark Sykes (1879-1919), a Cambridge-educated diplomat who had served as attaché to the British Embassy in Constantinople 1905-06, who assisted Balfour whilst in office, who worked for the Intelligence Unit during the war and who traveled widely through the Ottoman Empire as part of these vocations.
He later published highly readable accounts of these travels, such as The Caliphs’ Last Heritage (1915). Sykes also served as MP for Hull from 1911. However, it is due to his joint authorship of the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916), which carved up the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence, that most are familiar with his name.
Sledmere was partially destroyed by fire in 1911 and it was as part of the rebuilding that Marks Sykes decided to add a Turkish Room, a Hamam, as well as a chapel and some other new elements, to the original house. Works continued for several years: in 1913 a letter in the Sykes papers (DDSY (2)/4/33) dated 13 October, gives Sykes- at that time based at the Tokatlian Hotel in Therapia, Constantinople- the information that thirty masons were working on the project, signed by the supervisor J.H. Pennington. How Sykes came to the decision to add a Turkish Room and how he elected up the Armenian ceramicist, David Ohannessian (1884-1952), to decorate this room with elaborate ceramic tiles, when Ohannessian was not based in Britain, but in the Ottoman Empire at that time, is as of yet unclear.
Sato Moughalian, who is a relative of Ohannessian, states that it was ‘a testament to his [Sykes] love of the region’ (Moughalian, 2015). Indeed, immediately after becoming MP for Hull in 1911 Sykes made a speech in praise of the Ottoman Empire. In his travels of 1908-1910 he is not particularly pro-Ottoman (although there is a palpable change that by 1913 he voices strong anti-German and anti-Turkish sentiment). Sykes does, notably, express his admiration for traditional Ottoman styles of architecture and decoration, as were being revived at the time by the Turkish architect Kemalettin Bey (Sykes 1915, p513). Like those that adorned Kemalettin’s buildings, the tiles that Ohannessian created for Sledmere were very close to sixteenth-century Iznik works, reproducing many of the ‘classical’ Ottoman patterns.
Sykes had traveled through Turkey in 1913 and on his trip he visited Kutahya (although, it seems, he had also visited previously), where he noted the Armenians who had come from Persia, ‘artists of cunning and taste’, established the ceramics industry there. Sykes described that although the old traditions had died out, ‘some sixty years ago’ they were revived and so he states ‘To-day, amid the dust and dirt of Kutahia, there is rising up an artistic industry of which one dares to hope great things in the future.’ (Sykes 1915, p519). These relatively sympathetic comments of Sykes concerning the Armenian craftsmen in 1913 contrasted with his virulently anti-Armenian sentiments expressed in his accounts of his journeys of 1906-1910. Perhaps it is too sentimental to attribute this to Sykes’ personal contact with Ohannessian in the years spanning these accounts?
Certainly, Sykes was a leading figure in the revival of the ceramics industry that, due to the genocidal conditions in Kutahya, had moved to Aleppo by 1918, and then, during the 1920s, was transplanted by the British administration to Jerusalem. Sykes reportedly met with Ohannessian in Aleppo, whilst he was stationed there on one of his last diplomatic missions and then brought him to Jerusalem to revive the ceramics industry and to carry out commissions such as renovating the Dome of the Rock, as well as decorating the Government House and the Archaeology Museum (Rockefeller Museum, and Moughalian, 2015). Other accounts differ in that they attribute the hiring of Ohannessian to Ronald Storrs and Charles Ashbee, who were, respectively, military commander and civic advisor of Jerusalem under the British Mandate, and who remembered the tile work from visiting Sledmere in Yorkshire (Goldhill, 2008, p13; Crawford, 1985, p181). A primary source, the unpublished memoirs of the architect Ernest T. Richmond, who was employed to reconstruct Jerusalem under the Mandate, states that Sykes had indeed come across Ohannessian as a refugee in Aleppo and facilitated his move to Jerusalem (Richmond, ‘Liber Maiorum’, 77, cited in Bertrand Monk, 2002, footnote 60 p168).
Either way, the period leading up to the re-employment of Ohannessian does seem to mark a turning point in Sykes’ approach towards the Armenians. This was not just a personal disposition but, this being Mark Sykes, it was an eminently political one. Sykes’ correspondence shows his transformation: in 1915 on 9 Dec, a telegraph extends the thanks of ‘The Armenian Union of Aleppo’, namely the president Haroutiun Yessayan and secretary Doctor Boghossian, for ‘the splendid work he has done and his ceaseless activity on behalf of the martyred Armenian nation and their just cause’ and they express the hope that he will continue, upon his re-election, to raise his voice on the Armenian issue (DDSY(2)/4/187). In the following year, Sykes was engaging in correspondence with important members of the Armenian community of Britain such as Aram Raffi and Zabelle Boyajian, who invited him to The Armenian Literary Society of London’s ‘Armenia’s Tribute to Shakespeare’ concert on March 16 1916 (DDSY(2)4/190). Sykes donated to the Armenian Refugees Lord Mayor’s Fund in 1916. Sykes was also in regular correspondence with Viscount Bryce, the better- known advocate of the Armenian cause (See: Laycock, 2009).
Moreover, connecting the case of Sykes back to UK Armenians engaged in the theatre of war: one letter, dated March 29th 1917, from (another key voice of the Armenian community in Britain and in the wider diaspora) James A. Malcom, who had previously corresponded with Sykes on more general subjects, such as sending him copies of the periodical Ararat in 1916, on this occasion mentions the situation of a British subject, one Mr George Aganoor Papasian (of 7 South Parade, Deansgate, Manchester). Papasian had been passed for C.I. classification, but, Malcom suggests, would be better used elsewhere due to his excellent ability at several languages (DDSY(2)4.190). This example, albeit dealt with very briefly here, nonetheless shows how even those engaged in debating the ‘big issues’ at governmental level (such as Sykes, who was subsequently to draw up his Sykes-Picot Agreement, or Malcom, who was to participate in the Armenian National Delegation), had some connection to the lives of ‘ordinary’ men and some ability to determine their trajectories. It also underlines how the fresh examination of such documentation stores can provide leads into unexpected places and should encourage project volunteers to look widely for the traces of UK Armenians in WW1.
Crawford, Alan, C.R. Ashbee. Architect, Designer & Romantic Socialist (Yale University Press, 1985).
Goldhill, Simon, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Harvard: Belknap Press, 2008)
Laycock, Jo, Imagining Armenia: orientalism, ambiguity and intervention (Manchester University Press, 2009).
Moughalian, Sato, ‘From Kutahya to Al-Quds. The Birth of the Armenian Ceramics Trade in Jerusalem’, Stambouline, Tues Dec 8 2015. http://www.stambouline.com/2015/12/from-kutahya-to-al-quds.html
Moughalian, Sato, ‘The Life and Art of Ceramicist David Ohannessian’, Ottoman History Podcast, 31 July 2016, http://www.ottomanhistorypodcast.com/2016/07/armenian-ceramics.html
Richmond, ‘Liber Maiorum’, (1945) cited in Daniel Bertrand Monk, An Aesthetic Occupation. The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict (Duke University Press, 2002).
Rockefeller Museum, ‘West Meets East. The Story of the Rockefeller Museum. David Ohannessian, 1884-1952’, http://www.imj.org.il/rockefeller/eng/Ohannessian.html
Sykes, Mark, The Caliphs’ Last Heritage. A Short History of the Turkish Empire (London: Macmillan & Co, 1915).
‘Sykes, Sir Mark’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/ref: odnb/36394
Hull University Archives, Papers of Sir Mark Sykes, 1879-1919 : the Sykes-Picot Agreement; the Middle East, DDSY(2)/4/33; DDSY(2)/4/187; DDSY(2)/4/190.
Dr. Alyson Wharton-Durgaryan is a lecturer at the School of History and Heritage, University of Lincoln and UK Armenians & WW1 project contributor.