Princess Lulie Flamboyant: Art historian and friend of Freya Stark and Anthony Blunt
Tuesday 01 January 2013
A lifelong friend of Freya Stark, lover of John Foster, Princess Velia Osman-Oglu of Turkey, known to all as Lulie, was the first Muslim woman to study at Oxford and to penetrate the British Establishment. No one who met her could forget her beauty, concern for truth and flashing intelligence.
She was born Velia Abdel-Huda in Cairo into a family of Turkish aristocrats and diplomats exiled in Egypt since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Her grandfather had been the adviser and astrologer to the last Sultan; her father became Prime Minister to King Abdullah of Transjordan. Her childhood was spent in Alexandria, where she was sent to a convent school, whose nuns left her with an enduring sympathy for the Christian faith, especially Catholicism, although she claimed, somewhat unaccountably, to be a Taoist. Her later education was provided by a string of governesses.
At Oxford she read History at Lady Margaret Hall, graduating in 1939. It is said that the future Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was one of those captivated by her vibrant personality and charm. On the outbreak of war, Lulie was recruited by the British Information Service and stationed in Cairo. Here she met the writer and explorer Freya Stark, who became a friend for life. Stark was in Cairo as an official of the Diplomatic Corps but founded, with like-minded Arab associates, the Brotherhood of Freedom, with the aim of spreading democracy through persuasion rather than by force of arms. She persuaded Lulie to join her as an assistant. In her book East is West, Stark gives her account of the tumultuous war years in Egypt, and devotes a chapter to Lulie.
"She would flash along in her half- Syrian Arabic at committee meetings, the words tumbling over each other in their eagerness, demolishing any brother who had the bad taste to show himself timorous over rumours that came pouring in ... Her pretty head, the narrow pointed face with lips pouting a little, the tiled nose and glinting waves of gold-brown hair that matched her eyes, shone with a Renaissance richness against many a dim committee background."
Despite the war, Cairo offered a glittering social life: Lulie danced at the Shepheard Hotel with Julian Asquith, later second Earl of Oxford and Asquith, who became another lifelong friend; she socialised with the Free French and accompanied Charles de Gaulle at dinner on many occasions. After Alamein, Cairo was largely abandoned for security reasons, and Lulie found herself in Palestine, where in 1942 she made another lasting friendship with Martin (later Lord) Charteris, who in subsequent years, as the Queen's Secretary, would often invite her to spend Christmas at Balmoral with the Royal Family. The Queen, on one occasion, confided to her that she found Edward Heath a little difficult to converse with: would Lulie mind taking charge of him for the post-luncheon walk through the gardens?
Lulie remained fervently pro-Palestinian and considered the Palestinian people betrayed by the British. As hostess at a dinner party, I once placed her next to Bud Nossiter, who wrote on the Middle East for the Washington Post. While he was no Zionist, his views were unacceptable to Lulie, who stood up in the middle of the main course, eyes blazing, nostrils flaring, scarf flung imperiously across her shoulders, commanding her escort: "Take me home immediately! This man is insufferable!" Before the evening was over, however, Nossiter had charmed her by steering clear of politics and dazzling her with his intellect – an attribute Lulie found more aphrodisiac than looks. By the end, the two were cooing together like doves.
The war over, Lulie returned to England and studied study Art History at the Courtauld under Anthony Blunt. She was "brilliant but chaotic," he said. When she lost all her notes for her thesis on Delacroix at a railway station, Blunt encouraged her to study the Impressionists, Camille Pissarro in particular, commissioning her to work with the widow of Camille's son, Lucien, on dividing up the Pissarro estate between Lucien's daughter and the Ashmolean Museum.
In the mid-1950s Lulie met the love of her life, Sir John Foster, the brilliant Anglo-Irish MP, barrister and human rights campaigner, said to be one of the three most attractive men in England. She established a 30-year relationship with him which her arranged marriage to her cousin, Prince Osman-Oglu, did nothing to deter.
A serious car accident in the late 1950s caused Lulie deep anguish. She entered analysis and was prescribed LSD. She had nearly 100 treatments, and considered the drug one of the most liberating experiences of her life. She became close to the psychiatrist RD Laing, who often accompanied her when she took it and who fell in love with her. In 1968 she assisted Laing in organising a conference at the Camden Roundhouse on "The Dialectics of Liberation". Allen Ginsberg recited his poetry, and a cable of support was composed and sent off to Che Guevara from the assembly, which included Stokely Carmichael and other Black Panther luminaries. Lulie found accommodation for them in the homes of her London friends.
Lulie's family was dispossessed under Nasser and their palace and lands in Alexandria were confiscated. Late in her life her Chelsea home became partly occupied by tenants and lodgers. A demanding landlady, she would put any new tenants to the test; inviting them for a welcome drink, she would give them tasks such as rearranging her library, mending her fridge or doing her accounts. Many left, but of those who remained, most became close and devoted. Her dinner parties were sparkling, attended by the distinguished and influential; memorable meetings and conversations took place, as well as characteristic mishaps, such as the time a peculiar smell alerted the guests that Lulie had absent-mindedly put her handbag in the oven instead of the lamb.
With the death of Sir John Foster in 1982, Lulie suffered severe depression. She slowly found a new strength through painting and drawing, working according to her own strict syllabus which involved studying anatomy to help her draw the human figure. To this end she kept a life-sized skeleton in her drawing room, to the consternation of some of her dinner guests.
Unsentimental but deeply passionate about ideas, a disciple of Aristotle and David Hume, spiritual but not attached to any religion, at once childlike and utterly cultivated, she was not a "nice" person – her mind was too razor-sharp and original for that, and her sense of humour too irreverent. But she was a star. For all of us who knew her, she is irreplaceable.
Velia Abdel-Huda: born Cairo 26 January 1916; married 1963 Prince Osman-Oglu; died London 29 November 2012.
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