September 12, 2011


Ian Graham, the improbable explorer: This beguiling biography records forty-three years of "Maya mania" (Ferdinand Mount, 9/08/11, Times Literary Supplement)

He was already thirty-five when he glided across the Texan border on a whim, at the wheel of his vintage Rolls. He was completely ignorant of Mexico and claimed never to have heard of the Mayan civilization. "Serendipity" is too weak a word, as he himself says of an excursion that was to lead to forty-three years of painstaking exploration and recording of Maya monuments and their inscriptions.

This laid-back beginning came naturally to someone who was born with a drawerful of silver spoons at his elbow. One grandfather was the Duke of Montrose, who owned the whole island of Arran, where Graham's childhood playmate was Prince Rainier of Monaco. His grandmother on the other side was the proprietor of the Morning Post. Among other things, she had been taught to rollerskate by Rimsky-Korsakov and financed the first airship to carry passengers across the Channel. To save her the trouble of remembering the names of her footmen, they were always addressed as James and Frederick, regardless of what they were actually called. When Graham ran short of funds to pay for his expeditions, she passed on to him part of the proceeds of selling the lease on her corner house in Belgrave Square. At other moments when the money dried up, his ingenuous charm ensured that there were always wealthy widows ready to entertain him on clifftops in Acapulco or the Upper East Side. These patrons often possessed not only orchids, black swans and French chefs but also an untapped enthusiasm for lost civilizations.

In contrast to these gilded lollings, Graham also had an intense scientific bent and a technological inventiveness which led him from an early age to fashion devices to answer any problem. At Winchester, he built a radio receiver, a wind tunnel and a trench mortar. At Cambridge, he opted for physics, electronics and crystallography. During the Second World War (he was born in 1923), he served in the Fleet Air Arm and was engaged in pioneering radar research. After 1945, in a period at the Conservation Department of the National Gallery, he constructed a device for gluing flaky Botticellis and Bellinis to their panels. Later in New York, he acted as photographic assistant to Irving Penn. His professional knowledge of camera lighting and the handling of glue and latex was not common among archaeologists and was to come in handy for the recording, modelling and deciphering of the mysterious Maya hieroglyphs, study of which had languished not least because of the poor quality of most available photographs. It is these technical improvements as well as his own tenacity that have enabled Graham to undertake and carry through his magnum opus: the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions which he has been masterminding at the Peabody Museum, Harvard, since the 1970s (the work is still barely half completed).

Posted by at September 12, 2011 6:56 AM

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