When does a Greek immigrant become an American? When does that transformation actually take place? And who ultimately determines that status? Turning these questions around, when does the history of Greeks in the Western Hemisphere admit someone as a fellow Greek? Certainly a favorite choice for admittance into Greek-American Studies is once someone is famous or at the very least notable in the wider American society. Then they are, usually, admitted with open arms.
But truth be told, no one is really looking for notable Greeks in the American past. If I were to tell you that such distinct individuals are not simply scattered across the pages of American history but quite literally found at each and every period of this country’s existence you might have trouble believing me. But for more than 40 years now I have found an endless legion of such men and women. Anyone can – they just have to look.
Such is this tale of William Spenser Bagdatopoulos. Always acknowledged in the American press of his day as ‘a Greek by birth’ or simply as ‘a Greek,’ his fame and worldly accomplishments propelled him into the uppermost reaches not simply of American and English societies but to world-wide artistic fame. Having said that, I never heard anyone talk about this guy at coffee hour after church. Have you? Fame over-shadowed not simply his birth for American and European writers but even any questions about how he understood his own identity.
This absence of basic personal information will become all the more baffling as I outline something of his series of artistic accomplishments and the level of worldwide fame Bagdatopoulos received during his lifetime. How Bagdatopoulos is understood in future Greek-American accounts, I leave in other hands.
On July 23, 1888, William Spenser Bagdatopoulos was born on the island of Zakynthos to a Greek father, Anastasius John Bagdatopoulos, and Amy Frederica (nee Sheath) Bagdatopoulos, an English woman. There were at least two other Bagdatopoulos children, William’s much younger sisters Olga and Phaedra. Given what is reported about this artist’s life I strongly suspect that Bagdatopoulos’ father was a wealthy merchant whose travels related to business ventures initially account for his son’s exposure to a host of countries. The family moved to Rotterdam, Holland when Bagdatopoulos was 11, and he was immediately enrolled in the art academy of Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische (the Rotterdam Art Academy).
In 1904, at the age of 16, young Bagdatopoulos traveled to what was then called the Near East “carrying his paint box with him and painting and selling as he went. Later he visited Egypt and Palestine, spent some time in Constantinople and for 12 months attended the Athens Academy. Back in England, after this period of wandering, he took up commercial work – made posters, did illustrating (Evening Star – Washington, D.C.) February 24, 1929).”
William Bagdatopoulos first set foot on English soil in 1908 and it is reported he initially resided in Lewisham. Clearly the young artist must have made a considerable impression on his fellow artists. We can surmise this by the fact that by 1909 Bagdatopoulos was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts as well as the Imperial Art League of London. Bagdatopoulos was also soon a member of the London Sketch Club. By 1913, Bagdatopoulos was the recipient of both bronze and silver medals in South Kensington, London.
From about 1919, we find Bagdatopoulos living in Hampton Wick, which is in the southwest corner of Greater London. Once there, Bagdatopoulos soon became a member of the Hampton Wick group of artists. And here we have arrived at an especially curious facet of Bagdatopoulos’ overall career. By the time Bagdatopoulos was 20 years old, as we learn in the entry on this artist, in ‘Who’s Who in California: A Biographical Directory, 1928-1929,’ he had “already executed various commissions for portraits, illustrations, murals, and posters for most of the leading business houses, shipping companies, and railroads in England and abroad.”
At this very moment, Bagdatopoulos was, “(C)ommissioned by Bennet Coleman & Co. (Bombay) to range every part of India, from Kashmere to Ceylon, and the Khyber to Assam. Other trips include; Japan, China, Cochin-China Malay States, Dutch East Indies, South Africa, and East African ports; Siam, and the whole of Burma.” Bagdatopoulos could sketch or paint whatever he liked and this vast assortment of images was to be used by Bennet Coleman & Co. in their advertising campaigns.
As if that was not enough, in 1924, Bagdatopoulos was hired by The Times of India newspaper to tour the country on their behalf. From 1924 through 1926 he traveled to every region of India, painting sights such as Golden Temple (Amritsar), the Gopoura of Madurai, the Taj Mahal, and bazaars in Darjeeling. For the next thirty years Bagdatopoulos’ artwork filled the pages of the Times of India. A biographical reference in ‘Who’s Who on the Pacific Coast,’ mentions him as “artist and iconographic consultant of…the Times of India…and recognized as an authority in the advertising of the Far and Middle East.”
For those not aware of Bagdatopoulos’ broader career of character sketches, commissioned portraits, full-color paintings, and general illustrations, the artist would seem to be no more than an illustrator for a seemingly endless series of magazine and travel posters for India-based companies, primarily railroads. Much is made of this facet of Bagdatopoulos’ overall career not only because of the beauty and sheer accuracy of his renditions of places and scenarios seen across the Indian sub-continent but for what has been termed their compelling romantic allure.
In 1928, Bagdatopoulos moved to the United States and quickly became a naturalized American citizen. Settling first in Chicago, it is reported without the addition of specific details that Bagdatopoulos “suffered problems with the U.S. immigration authorities.” And that he “married Alice, a naturalized English woman, born American and nine years his senior” (https://www.findagrave.com). In 1930, Bagdatopoulos mounted a one-man exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute which also generated an exhibition catalogue.
By 1932, Bagdatopoulos settled in Santa Barbara, California where he chiefly painted portraits. During this period of his life various sources assert Bagdatopoulos also worked as a set designer for stage and film. ‘Who’s who in California: a biographical directory, 1928-29,’ mentions that Baghdatopoulos ‘as a set designer is always inventive and a creator of new innovations… He later turned to oxygraphy and dry engraving… Producing in both fields an important corpus of projects.” Somewhat later Bagdatopoulos undertook the “demanding discipline of printmaking, producing a considerable body of works in both etching and dry point.”
I first became aware of Bagdatopoulos’ career when I ran across the news reports on the placement of sixty-four of his latest water-colors in the foyer of the United States National Museum in Washington, DC. In this specific exhibition Bagdatopoulos chose subjects chiefly found in Southern California. As it turned out Bagdatopoulos was “…[N]o stranger to Washington residents, having exhibited [there] twice in the past.” (Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) February 8, 1938).
It is reported that Bagdatopoulos returned to England in 1958 (https://www.findagrave.com). According to one account, Bagdatopoulos, following the death of his wife Alice, may have remarried again. The woman referred to was named Caralisa Nichols of Galveston, TX and was four years his junior (https://www.findagrave.com). Yet another source gives the last name of this woman as ‘North’ (https://prabook). Various accounts attribute Bagdatopoulos’ return to England as being predicated upon his desire to be near his two younger sisters. In 1965, William Spenser Bagdatopoulos died in England, although his exact residency at the time is in dispute.
For reasons unknown, Bagdatopoulos signed his wide array of artistic creations, aside from ‘William Spenser Bagdatopoulos’ under a host of different names, including but not limited to: ‘W.S. Bagdatopoulos,’ ‘William Spenser Bagdatopolous’, ‘Bylityllis’. and even simply ‘WSB’.
Today, Bagdatopoulos’ surviving host of murals, travel paintings, portraits, etchings, and other work are found in museums and private collections all across the globe. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is but one location where his paintings can be viewed at leisure. Other institutions that hold Bagdatopoulos’ art include, but are certainly not limited to, the British Museum, London; Boyman’s Museum, Rotterdam; Municipal Art Gallery, Amsterdam; National Gallery Art, Washington D.C.; National Gallery of Art, Athens, and the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Maybe it was the era in which he lived. Perhaps, with such an international figure, it was somehow impolite to ask about Bagdatopoulos’ ‘own sense of self’? I don’t know. In our time artists and certainly ‘celebrities’ are continually asked what they think and feel about every little bit of trivia one can think of. Whatever the case, maybe like so many other forgotten Greeks, William Spenser Bagdatopoulos’ life and contributions in the United States and elsewhere are – outside of international art and museum circles – largely forgotten. Having said that, rumors do exist that someone is writing Bagdatopoulos’ biography.
When will Greek-American scholars look beyond the confines imposed, from the outside, on our collective history in the New World? When can all those who are left outside such accounts be allowed to finally come home?