Obituary: Esme, Countess of Carlisle

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The Independent Online
Esme, Countess of Carlisle was the epitome of that vanishing breed, the aristocratic lady who considered it no more than her duty to devote her life to the service of others, yet would have considered it just a little vulgar to strive for high office, or high-profile appointments, in order to do so.

She was born into a tradition of service. Her father, Charles Iredell, was a distinguished physician at Guy's Hospital, and a pioneer of modern cancer studies. Her early years were spent in the gracious surroundings of Regent's Park, in a London which, in 1914, the year she was born, had but lately left behind the standards and the certainties of Edwardian England.

Esme never left them behind. Reference books record her education, laconically, as "St Paul's School, University of London", disguising the fact that she graduated from Bedford College with an excellent First in Italian language and literature, which she put to good use in her Civil Service career.

Between 1936 and 1944 she was assigned to "special duties" in London, Aden, Athens, Cairo, Algiers and Rome, which she later made politely clear to friends and colleagues it was "not done" to discuss. There is, however, reason to believe that they included work for MI6, monitoring German broadcasts in Italian to Mediterranean countries at a crucial period of the Second World War, and that she was not unconnected with the sinking of German ships in Piraeus during the invasion of Greece.

It was just after the war, in 1947, that she became the second wife of the 11th Earl of Carlisle, and, until his death in 1963, she looked after her family, and assisted him in running the affairs of the Howard estate, in London and at Naworth Castle in Cumberland. It is entirely characteristic of her mode of life that every day, unless they were "sore let or hindered", the two hours before dinner were devoted to the reading of works of English or European literature. Standards must be maintained.

She joined the staff of the Standing Commission on Museums and Galleries (now the Museums and Galleries Commission) in 1971, and worked as a consultant and assistant to it until her retirement in 1986. During that period the commission published a number of advisory reports for Government - on Conservation, Museums in Wales, in Northern Ireland, on a National Framework for Museums, and various commissioners were credited with authorship.

In fact, most of them were written by Lady Carlisle, and they are models of fine English prose. She also wrote a scholarly and generous History of the Commission itself, of which it was said that "she dipped her pen in the milk of human kindness". But she was by no means simply a scribe. Few knew that at the age of about 60 she took up ski-ing, or that she was an expert on Italian wines, capable of holding her own in conversations with her friend the late Cyril Ray.

In retirement at Duns Tew in Oxfordshire she devoted herself to her garden and her family, her daughter Lady Susan de Meyer, and her deeply adored but firmly supervised grandchildren, Alexander and Flora. Esme Carlisle was beautiful, elegant, high-principled, piercingly intelligent, yet the servant of her country in many different ways. The term noblesse oblige might have been coined to describe her.

Brian Morris

Esme Mary Shrubb Iredell, public servant: born 7 February 1914; secretary to Working Parties, Museums and Galleries Commission 1971-86, acting secretary to the Commission 1976; married 1947, George, 11th Earl of Carlisle (died 1963; one daughter); died Adderbury, Oxfordshire 4 June 1997.

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