Obituary: Robert Powell-Jones

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The Independent Culture
ROBERT POWELL-JONES was one of the most promising of his Oxford generation but also one of the most reckless. He was somebody whom you only had to meet once, on form, to know his exceptional capabilities. While his life was outwardly conventional - leading from a scholarship to Winchester and another (aged 16) to Wadham, where he won academic laurels; then an early, happy marriage and 20 years at the Bar - he was far too independent-minded and Romantic a character to be anything but fundamentally restless.

He was born in 1954. At Winchester, he suffered from severe depression and opted to go with his mother to Brazil. Apparently far from robust (though in fact he boxed well), Powell-Jones threw himself into a succession of hazardous activities, working at a banana plantation near Sao Paulo, trekking through forests in search of rubber, and then embarking for the Amazon on a small cutter which was destroyed in a storm. This culminated in a three-day sojourn with the rescuers, Indians, hitherto unaccustomed to Europeans; it is likely that Powell-Jones was the only person present to have read A Handful of Dust.

After these Conradian experiences, Powell-Jones found difficulty in settling down at Oxford. He was arrested for being drunk and incapable in charge of a bicycle, when dressed as a Chinaman. Nevertheless he obtained a First in Russian and in his later career invariably contrived to repair the ravages of the night. He had a lucid legal mind.

The son and stepson of diplomats, he was a formidable linguist, reading and speaking at least seven languages, and had a sound knowledge of pre- Christian civilisation. Some found him overly intellectual. He was not likely, for example, to take part in a discussion of fishing quotas given the option of looking at a Poussin. (Once, when he did look at a Poussin in a Bond Street gallery, he politely interrupted the gallery owner's detailed account of the painting to reinterpret its entire mythology.)

His interest in European culture, and in particular the art and architecture of Rome, Florence, Venice and Paris, was passionate; he had limited affection for London and showed a marked reluctance to cross the river. He collected pictures and also commissioned them, notably an ongoing series of portraits of his daughter, Stella, by Matthew Carr.

Though he often seemed happiest with his own company, Powell-Jones revelled in companionship, even encouraged a Dionysian streak in others, though he could at times be an enervating and forbidding presence. Easily irritated by what he perceived as an oafish element in many English men, he was strongly drawn to the company of women and was capable of developing tendresses at speed. An endearing feature was his ability to communicate freely, when he chose, with absolutely anyone.

The gifts of penetrative intelligence and pure intellect which enabled him to maintain an envied status at the Bar, where he specialised in Chancery work, were marred by a tendency to erratic behaviour, often associated with drink, which became steadily more prevalent and ended by disrupting both his professional and his domestic life.

He accepted all consequent changes of status with dignity and retired last year to York to work on a verse translation of Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman. He rediscovered the pleasures of research, establishing himself in the basement of the Brotherton Library, Leeds, where the essential Russian lexicon lived. He completed the translation of this and other Pushkin poems, also a short story, and arranged for their publication before his death from a heart attack. They will appear next year.

William Joll

Robert James Powell-Jones, barrister: born London 6 January 1954; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1978; married 1980 Flora Fraser (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1992); died York 17 December 1998.