Agatha Christie and Greenway’s global connections
Greenway, the Devon holiday home of Agatha Christie (1890–1976), is both a quintessential English country house and a treasure-trove of objects from her world travels. Discover the collection’s links to the British Empire and explore contemporary perspectives on her legacy.
The Greenway collections
Agatha Christie bought Greenway in 1938 with the proceeds of her bestselling detective novels and the sale of her childhood home in Torquay. She spent holidays there for the rest of her life.
This Georgian house on the banks of the River Dart soon became home to several family collections. Of special note are the various items that Agatha acquired on her foreign travels. Later in life, she went on many trips abroad with her second husband, the archaeologist, Max Mallowan.
These include objects from around the British Empire and archaeological remains from the couple’s expeditions to Iraq and Syria.
Agatha’s daughter and son-in-law, Rosalind and Anthony Hicks, gave Greenway to the National Trust in 2000 although the house and collection did not pass into its management for several years. We are working to understand the original significance and provenance of many of its contents.
A tour of the British Empire
Agatha’s longest journey abroad took place when she accompanied her first husband, Archie Christie, on a promotional tour in advance of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition in London. This event was intended to stimulate the economic recovery of the Empire after the First World War.
In 1922, the Christies were part of a delegation drumming up interest in the festival in South Africa, Australia, the Pacific Islands and Canada. Archie was responsible for financial affairs but Agatha came along primarily to enjoy the 10-month trip.
She later recalled a typical day in Australia when Archie was ‘busy putting forth the claims of the British Empire, migration within the Empire, the importance of trade within the Empire, and so on and so forth, [while] I was allowed to spend a happy day sitting in the orange groves.’
Agatha’s autobiography indicates that she made the most of the natural beauty the tour offered but that, culturally, it was dominated by the company of colonial administrators. However, the presence of artefacts from African and Pacific Island cultures at Greenway suggests deeper curiosity about the places she visited. These may have been acquired on the 1922 world tour or, if acquired later, reflect interests that began on that journey.
Expeditions to West Asia
Agatha travelled to West Asia regularly from the late 1920s to 1950s. The first of these trips was a solo trip to Baghdad on the Orient Express in 1928. She was escaping the turmoil of the breakdown of her marriage to Archie but discovered inspiration for one of her best-known novels and an intense interest in the history of the region.
Iraq at that time was under British administration although Agatha now deliberately avoided what she had come to regard as the suffocating social life of colonial bureaucrats. Instead, she travelled as an anonymous private tourist, concerned with sightseeing and shopping.
While passing through Syria, she was struck by the quality of the decorative arts and bought an elaborate chest of drawers, inset with mother-of-pearl.
Her fascination with the excavation of ancient sites led to friendships with British archaeologists active in the region and, eventually, marriage to Max in 1930. From that time on, she would join her husband on digs, where she would work on her novels but also clean and document their discoveries.
No unique finds were allowed to leave Iraq but such quantities of multiples were unearthed that the couple were able to build their own collection at home. These remain at Greenway to this day.
Agatha only referred in passing to the complex political context of these expeditions. However, violent conflicts caused by European colonial interests and differences between the peoples of the region determined the location and timing of the digs, which moved between Ur and Nineveh in Iraq, and Tell Halaf and Tell Brak in Syria. For the duration of the Second World War, when Britain was at war with its former Mandate of Iraq, Agatha and Max’s excavations ceased altogether.
Agatha and Max made significant new discoveries in Syria. These finds date from c.3500 BC and were found in a buried temple at Tell Brak in 1938.
This tray contains ceramic and obsidian fragments from the prehistoric cultures of Iran and Iraq. Of one potential dig site in the 1930s, Agatha recalled ‘charming sherds of pottery everywhere, and some lovely black obsidian knives’.
The Baghdad chest
Agatha’s probably bought this teak and brass chest on one of her West Asian expeditions. It is reputedly the model for the titular piece of furniture in ‘The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest’ – a short story published in 1939.
Agatha was impressed by the craftsmanship she encountered in Syria, calling the country’s products ‘the sort of furniture you that reminds one of fairyland.’ She was referring to the intricately inlaid patterns on pieces like this table.
Contemporary views on Agatha Christie’s world
Agatha’s life spanned a period of extraordinary change in Britain’s position in the world. At her birth, the Empire was still expanding yet before her death the majority of its territories had gained independence. She was an eyewitness to British government abroad throughout this time yet in her biographical writings she did not explicitly express her views on imperial rule.
Similarly, her deliberately popular fiction did not set out to influence or comment explicitly upon the question of the Empire. Typically set in a plausible version of Agatha’s own world, her novels and characters still give voice to stereotypes and everyday prejudices about race, class and imperial rule.
Some language that was unremarkable in the imperial context of Agatha's youth is unprintable today. New editions have been amended and remain extremely popular. In the most recent film adaptations, casting and script decisions have deliberately sought to redress racial and social imbalances in their source material.
At the same time, a century after the publication of the first novel, the original editions are now being studied by academics as important evidence of changing attitudes to the British Empire in the 20th century. As we deepen our understanding of Agatha’s world collections, we hope that Greenway will also offer ways to reflect upon the profound global transformation she witnessed.