Obituary: James Lees-Milne
Monday 29 December 1997
Shy, droll, diligent, well- connected, James Lees-Milne was an enigmatic and provocative figure, one of the last of the great amateurs and always the first to decry his achievements. A heroic saviour of historic houses (he would say he preferred houses to people), he was a mischievously accurate diarist and author of one of the best autobiographies since the Second World War.
As executive of the National Trust's Country Houses Scheme from its inception in 1936, he was more or less single-handedly responsible for beguiling suspicious, desperate and sometimes medievally old-fashioned owners into handing their priceless family properties entire into the care of the trust, for assessing the architectural (what would now be called "heritage") worth of individual houses, the importance of their contents and estates, and negotiating for them a future that was, under the first National Trust Act of 1907, secure and "inalienable".
Through his agency, the complexion of the National Trust changed completely, and, at a time when the death of the country house was widely predicted, he saved many houses from extinction, from being knocked down or vandalised, turned into country clubs and police colleges, hotels or picturesque ruins, their contents and history dispersed for ever. Britain's wider reputation as a guardian of its historic landscape owes much to his work: the trust under his careful direction pioneered the post-war opening of historic houses to the public which led in turn to the 1960s' "stately homes" boom.
Lees-Milne's three volumes of wartime diaries, beginning with Ancestral Voices (1975), are already necessary texts of reference. Mixing Mayfair in air-raids with visits by train and bicycle to backwoods baronets and squires without heir, they are by turns hilarious, outrageous, acute and touching. They were followed by three further volumes, the most recent of which, Ancient as the Hills, covering the years 1973-74, appeared in July.
Lees-Milne was an architectural historian, an able biographer, an aspirant novelist and, in Another Self (1970), his autobiography to 1942, when his diaries begin, the author of an extraordinary book, poignant, funny, often angry, that marries all three genres. When John Betjeman first read it, he wrote to the publisher Hamish Hamilton, it had the same impact on him as had Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall.
All his life Lees-Milne seemed to himself "another self". This was one of his virtues as a diarist: a dispassionate quality which wouldn't spare his own character from his snaggy barbs, which drew precise comedy from his own downfalls. The portrait in his autobiography of his father, a minor Worcestershire landowner whom strangers loved but who couldn't stand the sight of his elder son, ranks for its comic intensity with Osbert Sitwell's of Sir George ("Ginger") Sitwell or Lees-Milne's childhood friend Nancy Mitford's fictional "Farve". "Art," writes Lees-Milne,
was anathema to him. The very word had on him the effect of a red rag upon a bull. He turned puce in the face and fumed at the mere mention of it; and his deadliest, most offensive adjective was "artistic". It denoted decadence, disloyalty to the Crown, and unnatural vice.
Suspecting his son perhaps of all these things, George Lees-Milne decided that after Eton the boy Jim should "stand on his own feet". He drove him to London forthwith and enrolled him at Miss Blakeney's Stenography School for Young Ladies in Chelsea. Lees-Milne spent 12 months, the only male student, learning shorthand and typing, before escaping, through his mother's wiles, to Magdalen College, Oxford.
It was in 1930 at a drunken party at Rousham, the Jacobean pile north of Oxford best known for its William Kent landscapes, that Lees-Milne famously found his vocation. When, egged on by his fellow undergraduates, his host took a hunting crop to the Knellers and a rifle to the statue of Apollo, Lees-Milne went numb. "The experience was a turning-point in my life," he wrote.
It brought home to me how passionately I cared for architecture and the continuity of history, of which it was the mouthpiece . . . These Rococo rooms at Rousham, with their del-
icate furniture, and portraits of bewigged, beribboned ancestors, were living, palpable children to me. They and the man-fashioned landscape outside were the England that mattered. I suddenly saw them as infinitely fragile and precious . . . That evening I made a vow . . . that I would devote my energies and abilities, such as they were, to preserving the country houses of England.
After going down from Oxford with a degree in History, Lees-Milne revived his stenographic skills to work, for three and a half years, for the sympathetic Lord Lloyd, the former High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan and future wartime Secretary of State for the Colonies; and then, briefly, for Reuters, for its formidable chairman Sir Roderick Jones. He couldn't stand Jones nor Jones him and, in 1936, emboldened by Stanley Baldwin (the then prime minister: in James Lees-Milne's writings the world distinctly contracts), resigned. Vita Sackville-West promptly recommended him for the new job of Secretary to the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust.
Until the 1930s, the National Trust, founded in 1895 as the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, had concentrated more on open spaces than country houses. It was the radical intervention at the trust's 1934 Annual General Meeting of the 11th Marquess of Lothian, owner of, among other estates, Blickling in Norfolk, which brought an historic change of direction. "The country houses of Britain," Lothian said,
with their gardens, their parks, their pictures, their furniture and their peculiar architectural charm, represent a treasure of quiet beauty which is not only specially characteristic but quite unrivalled in any other land.
This entirety - what Lees-Milne identified as "the continuity of history" - was threatened by the rising impost of death duties: 8 per cent only in 1904, 15 per cent in 1914, 50 per cent by 1934. "There is much to be said for [death duties] as an instrument of social justice," asserted the liberal Lord Lothian. "But let no one mistake that they spell the end of the old rural order."
There were few options then for the indigent estate owner. The 1931 Finance Act had exempted land only from death duties when left to the trust; Lothian now urged further exemptions for houses and contents, and a scheme by which (an important incentive to handover) families might remain in situ. This was not simple expedience, but the vital element of the Country Houses Scheme: a house on its own, without contents, context and living tenants, would itself die. "Nothing," said Lothian, "is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums."
Eighteen months later, in February 1936, the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust was formed, with Lothian a member. In March, James Lees-Milne was appointed as Secretary. In October, having conducted a census of 250 country-house owners, Lees-Milne produced the report which set in motion the National Trust Act 1937, enabling the giving of country houses to the trust free of death duties, followed by the National Trust Act 1939, which gave the crucial power to break old entails. With the establishment in 1946 of the National Land Fund and in 1953 of Historic Buildings Councils, the compact between trust and government was complete.
Country Life had identified for Lothian 60 large country houses (with over 20 bedrooms and a suite of state rooms) and 600 smaller houses of "real historic interest and artistic merit". When he made his speech, the trust owned only two significant houses, Montacute and Barrington Court, both in Somerset. By its 50th anniversary in 1945, it owned 17 and had restrictive covenants on five others. By 1995 it boasted 230 historic houses in its care. Lees-Milne's contribution to this process - with the aid of an active chairman in the third Viscount Esher - was pivotal.
The houses that came to the trust in the period 1936-51 when he was Secretary included Cliveden, Polesden Lacey, Knole, Petworth, Stourhead, Osterley and (after Lord Lothian's death en place as ambassador to Washington in 1940) Blickling. Among the literary shrines were Carlyle's house in London, Kipling's and Henry James's in Sussex, Shaw's in Hertfordshire. It was an unmatched period of acquisition; after Lees-Milne the impetus lessened: the trust concentrated on different projects such as Enterprise Neptune, safeguarding the English coastline, and diversified into other areas such as industrial archaeology.
Lees-Milne's 30 years' work for the National Trust was punctuated first by war service (he was in the Irish Guards, a hopeless officer by his own account, from 1940 to 1941, until he was blown up by a bomb in Bayswater and invalided out with Jacksonian epilepsy) and then by his marriage, at the age of 43, to Alvilde Chaplin. His wife, later a writer on gardening and the designer of gardens for Mick Jagger and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, lived in France and from 1951 until he retired in 1966 Lees-Milne served the trust part-time, with a flat in London and the title Adviser on Historic Buildings. As such he was a tireless campaigner, writer of guidebooks, eminence grise; and, a prodigious workhorse ever since his father made him "stand on his own feet", he started writing in earnest.
James Lees-Milne was a man of many paradoxes. A son and upholder of the old squirearchy who hated his father and felt out of place with the hunting, shooting squires; an Etonian with easy entree to, and much love for, the aristocracy who was wary of them too and despised their general philistinism; an avowed middlebrow with high taste, who wrote three books on the Baroque; a historian who would rather have been a novelist (he published three novels) or even a poet; a man of ambiguous sexuality who was for over 40 years a devoted husband. He preserved his tall, lean good looks into old age, but worried that he looked "hideous"; he said sometimes that he wanted to disappear, but dressed conspicuously, even dandyishly (he had a particular interest in other-world cuffs and ties). He worried about growing old, but kept all his faculties and the gleam in his eye into his 90th year.
Rattled journalists would mock Lees-Milne for his old-world snobbisms, his almost self-caricaturing far-right views (he was a great writer of letters to the papers), his astonishing (astonishing particularly because printed) views on the "lower classes" or immigrants. One aggressive (American) chronicler of the National Trust, Paula Weideger, implied that he was everything that was wrong with the late-20th-century trust: an "aesthete", an amateur, charming, good-looking, an English public-schoolboy refusing to be serious. But she missed the point in him, as perhaps he intended her to; and his furious politics were largely a red herring.
However much he obviously achieved, and much acclaim came to him, late as it often does, in his eighties, Lees-Milne thought himself quite unworthy. "I have always felt an outsider in every circle," he wrote, "and a failure." A Protestant who became a Catholic and then a Protestant again, he thought himself "odious" but longed to be "good". This peculiar diffidence, what Betjeman called his "delicious grumpiness", was disarming.
The Lees-Milnes returned full-time from the Alpes Maritimes to England in 1961 and lived first in Gloucestershire, at Alderley Grange, the handsome birthplace of Sir Matthew Hale, the 17th-century Lord Chief Justice, then in Bath in part of the extravagant writer and collector William Beckford's town house, and finally in a beautiful small house at the gates of Badminton. Lees-Milne retained the library at 19 Lansdown Crescent, the only room in Beckford's houses to survive as he knew it, as a workroom until last year. It was the ideal of a library, all arched recesses, busts and bookcases, its proportions subtle and unusually satisfying.
Lees-Milne wrote a short life of Beckford. He also wrote lives of the "Bachelor" (sixth) Duke of Devonshire, of the second Viscount Esher and, most successfully, of his friend Sir Harold Nicolson. He wrote on the ages of Robert Adam and Inigo Jones, on Rome and on Venice. But it is his autobiographical works and his diaries, whether set pieces on visits to Ham House or Longleat or the quotidian oddities of his London round, sad anecdotes of friendship or startling gossip of old hostesses, that will finally endure. In 1992 he published People and Places, recounting, with the help of the National Trust archives, his dealings with 14 country- house donors from Lutley of Brockhampton to Goodhart-Rendel of Hatchlands; and in 1996 Fourteen Friends, portraits including Sacheverell Sitwell and Rosamond Lehmann (both of whose obituaries he wrote for the Independent), Vita Sackville-West and Henry Green, James Pope- Hennessy and Robert Byron.
Jim Lees-Milne seemed to have known everybody. He had the diarist's eye and the diarist's memory. He was an outsider insider. One of the last pieces he wrote was for last month's Royal Society of Literature newsletter: recollections of 1 Hyde Park Gardens (the society's headquarters) in the time of General Sir Ian Hamilton between the wars. It is an affectionate memoir studded, as ever, with telling detail, and features a disgusting story about Margot Asquith (Lady Oxford) and an expectorated potato.
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