by Eleni Antoniadou

As published in In Focus, Vol. 11, No 1, March 2014

A fascinating look at the Cyprus of the 1920s and of the 1950s through of the eyes and art of two women visitors to the island, one English and one Greek…

“It’s a day that tears your heart, the day you leave Cyprus forever.” This is how Gladys Peto commences the last chapter of her book on Cyprus.

Gladys Peto was born in Maidenhead, in Berkshire, England, in 1890 and died in 1977 in Northern Ireland, where she settled in 1946, after her husband’s retirement from the British Army. The limited information we have about her life is predominantly of a very general nature.

Gladys Peto completed her general schooling in Maidenhead, her hometown, and later took art classes in London. She also took design courses by correspondence.

In her professional life she was a very successful fashion designer, author and illustrator of numerous children’s books and of two travel books. She also designed posters and sets for the theater. Her drawings, influenced by the artistic currents of her era – thin elongated forms (Fig. 1), curves, pretentious attitudes, details in the clothing, sensual landscapes, and the discrete Orientalism of her travel books – make for a charming painterly world of a distinctive and recognizable style.

Mrs. Rita Severi describes it much better than I ever could in her article entitled “With pen, brush and palette,” in the book In the Footsteps of Women/Peregrinations in Cyprus where she discusses the art of Gladys Peto at length.

Gladys Peto followed her husband, Cuthbert Lindsey Emmerson, to Cyprus. As an officer of the Medical Services of the British Army, he was stationed first in Malta, then in Cyprus, and then in Egypt, between 1924 and 1928.

The book Malta and Cyprus, some pages 260 in total, contains impressions and experiences from her stay on the two Mediterranean islands. To Cyprus she dedicates 150 pages and twelve of the nineteen images in the publication, which contains many useful tips, especially for women bound for Malta or Cyprus for short or long stays. She entrusts the general information to her husband, who contributes two separate chapters.

From the onset, we notice that she makes no attempt to conceal her lack of knowledge about the places she has moved to, yet appears determined to become acclimatised and enriched by her stay. In the case of Cyprus, she did acquire books, such as Handbook of Cyprus by Luke and Jardine and Historic Monuments of Cyprus by Jeffery, but mostly she observes and records.

Her book contains a coded reference to the milestones of Cypriot history, a series of chapters about life in Cyprus that are typically prompted by specific incidents, and at the end she devotes two chapters to the cities of Cyprus – Nicosia, Kyrenia, Limassol, Paphos, Famagusta and Larnaca – and two more to Troodos and Platres, where the British would spend the hot summer months.

The Cyprus of Gladys Peto is a place of outstanding natural beauty (Fig. 2,3) and history (Fig. 4), but also of contrasts.

Cyprus emerges as an unquestionably different place, with bold Orientalist elements in some cases (Fig. 5), but not so foreign that no familiarity can be found. Its typically meek and honest people seem to have benefited from British colonialism in many respects.

Cypriot society of the 1920s, as Gladys Peto describes it, is rural. Buildings are obsolete, in the countryside men wear baggy breeches, Greek women wear headbands, and Turkish women wear colourful cotton clothing and cover their faces. The railroad connects Famagusta with Nicosia and reaches Evrichou, locals are proud of it, although none seem to have used it. Electricity exists in all cities but with service interruptions; there is no hot running water, and food is cooked on an open fire. Food is preserved by natural methods and ice is scarce. However, in 1926, in large grocery stores one can purchase gorgonzola cheese, ham and English biscuits, and when wealthy Cypriots entertain in their homes they offer their guests – beyond olives and anchovies – wonderful sandwiches with caviar or foie gras. In the cosmopolitan villages of Platres, where a mixed elegant crowd circulates amid the strong smell of cigars, it is not Seferis’ nightingales that keep you up at night, but the rhythms of the tango and of jazz from dances in hotels that last until dawn. One must even contend with traffic jams in the narrow streets.

In contrast, the farmers cultivate the land with antiquated ploughs, the poor inhabitants of the mountain villages collect wood and dried thyme to sell and eke out a living, the workers of the Amiantos Mines live in miserable sheds amid dust and noise. Of course, there are also those who work for the British and become a part of their daily lives: cooks, butlers, maids, laundrywomen, gardeners, seamstresses, and so on. Since the author is in constant contact with these people, she gives them first names and characteristics. The girls of modern urban society, especially Greek Cypriots, the girls with short hair, short skirts, silk stockings and high heels, the young men with the straw hats and pointy shoes, the ladies who import their dresses from Paris are mentioned but are not given faces; they remain in the background. And the Cyprus of the poet Demetris Lipertis, of the intellectual Emilios Chourmouzios, or of the pioneering educator Polyxena Loiziadou – the Cyprus visited by Nikos Kazantzakis in 1926 – is a parallel universe, inaccessible and ultimately irrelevant.

The author does allude to the political situation however, although the lives of the British appear to be limited to clubs, which are central to city life, to socializing, to holidays and picnics in Troodos, to gardening and sports. Badminton is not unknown in the Cyprus of the 1920s, and tennis is everywhere.

Yet Gladys Peto seems to intuit that cracks exist beneath the surface. For example, while she aware that Turkish Cypriots make up only one fifth of the total population – she even mentions this somewhere – in the first chapter on the first page, she writes that Cyprus is a Crown Colony with Governor and Executive and Legal Councils that consist of British, Greeks and Turks. She comments that one ought to be careful about which order they list these nationalities. Greeks, British, Turks is the correct order, she says, since the Greeks, who read from the left, would see themselves first, the Turks, who read from right – obviously Latininized Turkish had not yet been adopted – would see themselves first, and the British would be in the middle.

Gladys Peto is certainly not a conventional English military wife, even if she is not able, or not allowed, to completely escape the stereotypical role and patterns of colonial perception, i.e. of subjugator and subjugated. Perhaps this is what motivates her portrayals of Cypriots in traditional attire, in manifest poverty and strictly rural occupations, while the English seem to have stepped out of the pages of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Fig. 6).

I regret that I can only briefly mention her broad education, caustic humour, freedom of expression and movement – things that were not a given in her era, and certainly connected to the spirit of the times and to the social changes occurring in the lives of women. I would have liked to talk about her ability to discover and appreciate local products, such as handicrafts, silk fabrics, textiles, embroidery and delicate lace, or foods such as fruits, olives and traditional sweets. Or to refer to her love of nature and to her early, but detectable, ecological consciousness, to her feminist ideas, which are strongly voiced not only in her writing, but also in her drawings, which depict the drudgery suffered by women.

Finally, I would have liked to delve into the satirical way in which she comments on the obsolete Victorian respectability of her compatriots, and on the behaviours of Cypriots, such as their annoying habit of patting your cheek when they speak to you (Fig. 7), or speaking Greek in syllables and very loudly, thinking that the English would understand them this way.

I wish I could cite verbatim the incidents that she so vividly describes, like traveling from Limassol to Nicosia for a performance in support of “the prevention of cruelty against turkeys and sheep,” when she gives a ride, in her rented car, to a large Turkish Cypriot family who have had a flat tire while moving there with their belongings, dog and…chickens – an image that certainly comes into ironic contrast with the purpose of her trip for the prevention of animal suffering. In the whole chaotic situation, her necessary polyglot Armenian driver serves as interpreter.

In another incident she describes a formal invitation to tea at the Governor’s home in celebration of the King’s birthday and comments, with veiled humour, on the affectations and conventional lies demanded by good manners. She says that there you politely greet the hostess, even if you call her by her first name in your daily contact, comment on the orchestra’s excellent performance, admire the roses in front of others even if they are from your garden and you prepared the vase that morning, and you are offered cake on a platter… one of your wedding gifts. Here, I would like to point to Seferis’ poem “In the outskirts of Kyrenia,” which I feel substantially broadens this picture.

I cannot, however, conclude this discussion of this admittedly interesting woman without putting forward a particularly important observation, which I will be forced to leave hanging.

Half of this book –  the 150 pages which are devoted to Cyprus – conceals a second layer, visible only to the perceptive reader. Through a dense web of artistic and literary references, not detected even by the perceptive reader at first, Gladys Peto emerges as a woman of surprisingly broad intellectual horizons, who – through the technique of palimpsest, through the words and works of the great artists that she mentions – essentially makes political and social commentary and knowingly, for the most part, undermines stereotypes, her own role, and the roles of those around her.

Mentioned by name and probably not exhaustively, I present these references as examples, in the order that I was able to locate them: the painter James McNeil Whistler and his famous portrait “The Artist’s Mother” (I remind those who may have seen it of the film with Mr. Bean), Charles Dickens and his works Bleak House and Nicholas Nickleby, William Butler Yeats and his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which also leads to Henry David Thoreau and his complex work Walden, Thackeray and his work Four Georges about the Kings of the House of Hanover and especially George III, the Old Testament and the Prophet Elija and his servant Gehazi, James Joys and the inaccessible even to English-speaking readers Finnegans Wake, which she knows from preprints, the Franco-British author and political activist Hilaire Pierre René Belloc, his literary opponent H.G. Wells and his work Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, Kipling’s lyrics from the poem “Lictenberg,” Jane Austin’s Emma, and finally Shakespeare’s Othello and Henry IV.

To give an example: somewhere she says that, in order to save on food, Cypriot servants might ask your permission to plant in one section of the garden not “nine rows of beans,” but ninety and, in so doing, feed themselves for a long time. I doubt that the average reader in the first half of the 20th century would immediately recognize that the phrase “nine rows of beans,” even if presented in quotation marks, is taken from “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” In his poem, Yeats speaks of an utopian island called Innisfree, where he would be able to live self-sufficiently, cultivating nine rows of beans in peace and tranquility, as inspired by Thoreau’s Walden. In his own work, Thoreau talks about the experience of living, for a time, alone in a cabin in the woods in Massachusetts, cultivating beans and seeking spiritual and physical independence and liberation. Whether and how the independence and self-sufficiency that Yeats and Thoreau seek relate to the world of Cyprus remains to be elucidated however. In any case, these references lead the reader down unexpected and incredibly interesting paths.

I turn now to the second woman who has kept me company for months now, Athena Tarsouli. A contemporary of Gladys Peto, Athena Tarsouli was born in Athens in 1884 and died in 1975.

She married Nikos Tarsoulis and followed him to Paris, where she studied painting. When she lost her daughter, she directed all her energy and love into writing and art, mostly folkloric. She wrote poetry, history, folkloric and travel texts, as well as essays. As a painter, she participated in many exhibitions and enriched her historical and folkloric texts and travelogues with an enormous body of visuals.

She wrote her two-volume work, about 1100 pages long, entitled Cyprus, during the historically critical 1950s, the decade that saw the Liberation Struggle of Cypriots from British rule, under the banner of Enosis (Union with Greece). The first volume of Cyprus was published in August 1955, but the second much later, in January 1964. The project was published with the support of the Cyprus Ethnarchy. Within the framework of this presentation, I do not feel that I need to prove or expound on the point that, given the historical circumstances, the obvious aim of the Ethnarchy, and of the author, was to substantiate and highlight the Hellenic origin of Cyprus and its Christian heritage. Although Athena Tarsouli’s project serves this aim conscientiously, I would like to state from the onset that the importance of Cyprus is limited neither by historical time nor by historical circumstance.

While touring the entire island during 1952 and 1953, Athena Tarsouli recorded all that she saw in her sketchbook, like the travellers of yesteryear whom she often anthologizes. I have the personal testimony of Mrs. Clairi Angelidou, the current President of the Lyceum of Greek Women of Famagusta, regarding Athena Tarsouli’s visit to Famagusta in 1952. The school welcomed Athena Tarsouli to the city, and to the home and orchard of the then President of the Lyceum Maria Ioannou, where a traditional Cypriot wedding was staged for her. Young Clairi Angelidou, acting as her tour guide during a carriage ride around Famagusta and the surrounding villages, recalls the passion with which Athena Tarsouli kept sketching (Fig. 8).

Athena Tarsouli travelled all over Cyprus sketching ancient, Byzantine, Medieval (Fig. 9), and more recent monuments. She made drawings of villages, monasteries, churches (Fig. 10), neighbourhoods (Fig. 11), traditional homes, old stately homes, and folk art workshops.

Her drawings complement her text and serve mainly as records. In my opinion, she managed to render the traditional garments, embroideries and folk artefacts with incredible fidelity. I present the following examples in support (Fig. 12, 13, 14, 15).

The book begins with a comprehensive history of Cyprus, and then presents each province separately, while folklore occupies a large portion of the project in a separate chapter. In addition to handicrafts, Athena Tarsouli records or anthologizes folk songs, poems, myths, traditions, fairy tales, proverbs, customs, games, even remedies and spells. The book, of course, does not omit the contemporary and intellectual life of the island or its personalities.

She converses with people from all walks of life in order to learn and record; she speaks to scientists, such as archaeologist Porfyrios Dikaios, at the time Director of the Department of Antiquities, who informs her about the excavations which had recently (1952) been carried out at Salamis by renowned archaeologist Vassos Karageorghis, or to ordinary people such as Marikou Hadjinikola from the village Anavarkos in Paphos, through whom she records the process of outdoor silk-production in Paphos and in the province of Kyrenia.

While waiting for her cocoons to boil for the production of silk thread, Marikou imparts songs and couplets to Athena Tarsouli that she, in turn, records in her book.

Memorable is also her meeting with the great folk art collector, Maria Gaffiero, who is none other than Maria Eleftheriou, with whom Costis Palamas corresponded for many years.

Maria Eleftheriou-Graffiero’s important collection was purchased by the Archdiocese of Cyprus and donated to the Society of Cyprus Studies.

And since I have mentioned Palamas, whose verses from his poem on Cyprus “you have changed many masters/but not your heart” prefaces the first volume, I would like to compare the language of Gladys Peto with that of Athena Tarsouli.

Gladys Peto wrote her work in 1926 in a language that feels current and alive even today. Thirty years later, Athena Tarsouli wrote her work in a lyrical, Palamiesque language, of a clearly conservative orientation. It would appear that conditions, climate, epoch and age generated an analogously inverse linguistic effect in the two works. Gladys Peto was 36 years old when she came to Cyprus, bringing with her the air of an empire, the glamour of London’s artistic scene, and the climate of a subversive era, especially for women. Cigarettes and whiskey were essential to the Peto’s monthly household budget, for example. Athena Tarsouli was 68 years old when she arrived in Cyprus at an especially turbulent time for the island. Not only was she laden with a personal tragedy, but also with the heavy historical burden of the German Occupation, the Civil War, and the Cyprus Question.

Yet, if we were able to watch their lives unfold in parallel, we would see that the two women had a great deal in common, especially their bold claim of their positions in public life, and of all women in general. For example, in 1926, while Gladys Peto was in Cyprus, Athena Tarsouli – at the same age – participated with Angeliki Hatzimichali and Yiannis Tsarouchis in the ground breaking, for the time, National Exhibition of Folk Art, which underpinned the controversial Delphic Celebrations of Angelos and Eva Sikelianou.

Concerning their books on Cyprus, the greatest difference lies in that Gladys Peto’s small book contains surprises and many underground pathways, while Athena Tarsouli’s voluminous work leaves nothing to the imagination. And this is, comparatively, the most interesting element.

I truly enjoyed both of them. They made me think and laugh. Not only was I moved but also came to know Cyprus better. I heard the “voice of the motherland” many times, as understood by Seferis in the poem “Details of Cyprus.” For this I thank them both.

I conclude with a proposal, which I hope will not fall on deaf ears: that Athena Tarsouli’s book be reissued and made accessible to those who would like to read it. Not only is it truly a feast for the eyes, but also of great importance as a reliable source of information. For example, although the websites of municipalities, communities and cultural associations of Cyprus make reference to her book, copies are very difficult to procure.

Gladys Peto’s book should be translated to Greek; it is a fluid and easy read of great historical, literary and visual interest.

Translated by Irena Joannides


  • The images shown are taken from Gladys Peto’s Malta and Cyprus and Athena Tarsouli’s Cyprus.

Suggested bibliography:

  • Zafiriou, Lefkios, Cypriot Chronology, Nicosia, 2008
  • Ioannides, Klitos, “Avgi or the Cypriot phase of Emilios Chourmouzios,” Epetiris XIX, Center for Scientific Research, 1992
  • Constantinides, A.K., The British Occupation of Cyprus of 1878, Nicosia-Cyprus, 1930
  • Michaelides, M., Agnes, City, the Old Nicosia, Nicosia, 1977
  • Lymbourides, Achilleas, Cyprus and the Early Years Between the Wars, Nicosia, 1939
  • Sofra, A., Helen, Athena Tarsouli, Iolkos, Athens, 1979
  • Jeffery, George F.S.A., A Description of the Historic Monuments of Cyprus, Government Printing Office, Cyprus, 1918
  • Laiki Group Cultural Centre and The Leventis Municipal Museum of Nicosia, In the Footsteps of Women/Peregrinations in Cyprus, Nicosia, 2001
  • Lucach (Luke), Harry Charles & Jardine, Douglas James, The Handbook Of Cyprus, Edward Stanford/Macmillan & Co, London, 1913, 1920
  • Morgan, Tabitha, Sweet And Bitter Island, I.B. Tauris, London, 2010, 2011
  • Severis, Rita, C., Travelling Artists in Cyprus 1700-1960, Philip Wilson, London, 2000
  • Sinclair-Roussou, Mary, Victorian Travellers in Cyprus: A Garden of their Own, Cyprus Research Centre, Nicosia, 2002
  • Storrs, Ronald, Sir, Orientations, Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London, 1937


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