Obituary: Hugh Astor

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HUGH ASTOR'S father became chief proprietor and chairman of The Times in 1922, launching it into a 40-year period of stability and prestige. Astor knew his destiny and, after a spell as assistant Middle East correspondent which covered the end of the British mandate in Palestine and the birth of an independent Israel, he worked through all the aspects of newspaper publishing before joining his older brother Gavin on the board of The Times in 1956.

In 1959, when Gavin Astor became chairman, Hugh became his deputy. Having relinquished control to his sons, Lord Astor of Hever left Britain in 1962 with great reluctance. It proved impossible for the Astor brothers to manage The Times as they wished, and in 1967 they sold it to Roy Thomson, later Lord Thomson of Fleet. Hugh Astor retained his connection with the Times Trust but diverted his business abilities to directorships in book publishing (he was a director of Hutchinsons, 1959-78), banking, insurance and similar interests.

Hugh was the second of the three sons of John Jacob Astor V, first Baron Astor of Hever, and the former Lady Violet Mary Elliot Mercer-Nairne. He was born in 1920, brought up at Hever Castle in Kent, and educated in the family tradition at Eton and New College, Oxford. In 1940 he was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps (a childhood illness had left him with permanent lameness) and served in Europe and the Far East.

He had a lifelong interest and enjoyment of the sports of the sea and air. He had taken up ocean racing after the war, was a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron, and his annual yachting expeditions were a precious recreation, allowing undersea exploration and his interest in marine biology. In 1969 and 1971 he competed in London to Australia air races, and he also enjoyed gliding.

Hugh Astor perpetuated his father's philanthropic interests, being deputy chairman of the Middlesex Hospital, 1965-74, chairman of King Edward's Hospital Fund for London, 1983-88, and also governor of the Peabody Donation Fund for almost 20 years. He served as Prime Warden of the Fishmongers' Company, and his support was quietly given to sea and airmen's charities, including the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

However, it is against the background of his country home in Berkshire that an even wider spectrum of society will remember his unassuming kindness and generosity. He bought Folly Farm, in the Kennet valley south-west of Reading, shortly after his marriage in 1950, appreciating it as one of Sir Edwin Lutyens's most idiosyncratic and enchanting houses, with a marvellous garden designed in partnership with Gertrude Jekyll.

For perhaps 25 years Folly Farm was enjoyed by his family and friends, and in the wider context of his role as a JP and as High Sheriff of the Royal County in 1963. But during the 1970s Lutyens's reputation spiralled skywards, and architects, photographers and garden historians from far and wide began beating their path to Folly Farm's gate.

Despite his innate reserve, Astor gave his support to the Lutyens Exhibition in London of 1981-82 and he became a patron of the Lutyens Trust when it was founded in 1985. Folly Farm's glorious garden, tended by his head gardener, Dennis Honour, for over 30 years, was regularly opened for charities and a request to see the garden was almost never refused.

Perhaps on some crowded afternoons he was reminded of the "Hever Days" of his childhood, when his father entertained the entire staff of The Times. On rarer occasions, when the house was open, many will recall their hosts' dignified bemusement as a dozen people stood in his bedroom discussing the ingenuity of Lutyens's cupboards, or when a visitor announced that Folly Farm was his birthplace, in its guise as a maternity home during the Second World War.

Hugh Astor's stewardship of Folly Farm, for almost half a century, came naturally to him, but his graciousness in sharing his family's home - which just happened to be an architectural icon - leaves thousands of individuals, and the cause of architectural heritage in general, deeply in his debt.

Hugh Waldorf Astor, publisher: born 20 November 1920; married 1950 Emily Lucy Kinloch (two sons, three daughters); died 7 June 1999.

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