The Duke of Bedford

Woburn Abbey chatelain celebrated in a BBC documentary
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The Independent Online

Henry Robin Ian Russell, landowner, stockbroker and race-horse breeder: born London 21 January 1940; styled Lord Howland 1940-53, Marquess of Tavistock 1953-2002, succeeded 2002 as 14th Duke of Bedford; married 1961 Henrietta Tiarks (three sons); died London 13 June 2003

The 14th Duke of Bedford was better known as Marquess of Tavistock, the courtesy title he enjoyed from 1953 - although he was chatelain of Woburn Abbey since 1974, he was duke for less than eight months. In his early life he prospered in the Stock Exchange and was also a successful breeder of racehorses.

His father was the 13th Duke, an early pioneer of the stately-home business, and his mother, Clare Hollway, took her life in an overdose of sleeping tablets, in a state of depression (an open verdict was recorded), when he was five years old. Born in 1940 at the Ritz in London, where his parents had a suite, Robin Russell was styled Lord Howland from the age of seven months, following the death of the 11th Duke, his great-grandfather. His childhood was bleak and he spent much of it longing to hear his father commend his efforts. He felt neglected at school and became lonely and introspective. But a childhood friendship turned into a partnership for life.

When he was four, he met a little girl who was his exact contemporary at a children's party. Henrietta Tiarks came from a distinguished banking family. Her father was the urbane banker Henry Tiarks, and her mother, Joan Marshman-Bell, was an actress with the stage name Joan Barry. By the age of 13 he told Henrietta he would marry her. He proposed at 18. They were married at St Clement Danes in 1961, by which time she had become a top model and debutante of her year. (A fleet of Green Line buses ferried the guests to the reception at Claridge's.)

From the age of eight Robin lived in South Africa with his father and first stepmother, Lydia, attending day school and boarding school there. He was then educated at Le Rosey in Switzerland and studied economics at Harvard University, though he failed his exams. He emerged into adult life, in the words of his second stepmother, Nicole, with "a marvellous quality of honesty, integrity and tenacity".

He began work in the City in 1970 with De Zoete and Bevan, where he was a partner until 1982. He was chairman of Cedar Investment Trust from 1973 to 1983, and a director of Trafalgar House from 1977 to 1991. He was also chairman of Berkeley Govett (now London Pacific) from 1986, TR Property Investment Trust from 1982 to 1991, Berkeley Development Capital from 1984 to 1992, the Trustees Kennedy Memorial Trust from 1985 to 1990, and other enterprises.

On the Turf, he was a member of the Jockey Club, and chairman of United Racecourses from 1977 to 1994. Breeding and racing were the prime interests of his wife. Together they had brood mares at Woburn and in Kentucky, and recently bought a stud in New Zealand. They trained with Bruce Hobbs, Ken Cundell and (in France) Charles Millbank. Lord Tavistock's familiar purple and white stripes were frequently seen past the winning post, most notably with Precocious which won the Norfolk and Gimcrack Stakes, and Jupiter Island which won the Hardwicke Stakes and the Prix de Conseil in Paris, both of which horses they bred. Their best buy was Plunder.

At Woburn, the family home since 1668, Robin Tavistock proved a more than worthy successor to his father. The 13th Duke had inherited Woburn Abbey in a state of considerable decline, and the 13,000-acre estate was in a mess, weighed down with death duties of over £4.5m. In just over 20 years, Ian Bedford pulled it round by opening it to the public, introducing a funfair, safari park and other attractions, and overcoming his personal shyness to operate as a showman, prepared to resort to most media activities in the interests of promoting his enterprise. In the process he became a well-loved national figure, and, to his satisfaction, handed the estate on to his son as a considerable going concern.

If Tavistock had been at all reluctant to be saddled with the responsibilities of a stately home in the 1970s, he threw himself with zeal into the running of it, capitalising on his father's ground-breaking attractions, and introducing many of his own. He was ably assisted by his yet more reluctant wife, who joked that one of her conditions for marrying into the family was that they should never have to live in the abbey. They settled into a wing of the house, with five staff, but, with the requisite security guards, she once said, "If you want a glass of milk in the middle of the night, you can't just jump out of bed, you don't know who you might bump into." Such was the energy they expended on Woburn, Lady Tavistock was eventually as sad to leave the house as she had been to go there in the first place. Among their endeavours was the now world-famous Woburn golf course. There is an antique centre with 40 shops; in effect an entire leisure complex.

A more controversial way of resolving financial difficulties was the sale of Canova's Three Graces, originally commissioned by the sixth Duke on a visit to St Petersburg in 1814. The Tavistocks offered it to the nation in lieu of death duties in 1979, but negotiations broke down and they sold it to Fine Art Display and Investment, a company based in the Cayman Islands. There was a wave of shock in the art world when it seemed likely that this sculpture would be purchased by the Getty Museum. An export licence was withheld, and eventually the work was saved for the nation with contributions from the late Sir Paul Getty and others, the sculpture being shared by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery of Scotland.

The activities of the Tavistocks as stately-home owners became well known to television viewers as a result of the 12-part BBC2 documentary Country House (2000), which immediately put the gate up by 25 per cent a year. An unusual feature of the series was Lady Tavistock's designing herself a hand-made hand-painted coffin, an eccentric example of the forward planning which, by necessity, became second nature to the Russells.

In February 1988 Lord Tavistock suffered a serious stroke, when he collapsed while talking to a friend on the telephone, as a result of massive bleeding from a weakened artery leading to sudden unconsciousness. From this illness he made an impressive recovery. Meanwhile his wife and their eldest son, Lord Howland, divided the responsibilities of Woburn between them and proved more than able to run the show.

Tavistock's efforts at rehabilitation, which left him with serious speech, sight and memory problems, were recorded in his wife's moving 1991 book A Chance to Live. Gradually from a muttered "yes" or "no" he managed to speak so fluently that it was hard to realise his health had ever been so impaired. He noted that his personality also changed. He lost a hard edge to his character. He had driven himself to increasingly severe headaches by pushing himself in the City during the week and at Woburn at the weekends. As he recovered, he became a gentler character.

He was resigned to some aphasia, and commented that one of the attendant problems was that, because the sufferer is not always articulate, people assume he (or she) is not very bright. As Tavistock's condition improved, he established the Tavistock Trust for Aphasia with a personal donation of £250,000.

In 2000 he suffered a further stroke from which he again recovered.

Last year he was able to emulate his father (who was still alive and living in prolonged self-imposed tax exile abroad) and pass on the running of the estate to his son Lord Howland, who had married Louise Crammond in March 2002. By this time the estate was divided into three main companies and estimated (with 21 Canalettos and 200 other works of art, furniture, etc) to be worth £320m. The Tavistocks hoped to spend more time in New Zealand.

Andrew, Lord Howland (born in 1962), became Marquess of Tavistock last October, and now succeeds as 15th Duke, in a year of three dukes of Bedford. He has already set aside an area on the Woburn estate for "legal raves".

The 14th Duke leaves the world calmly. He once said that an effect of his stroke was not to fear death. "When I hear that anyone has died, I often say, 'How wonderful', which, as you can imagine, doesn't always go down too well, but I know they will be going to a wonderful place." His friends are asked to wear no black at his funeral on the Friday morning of Royal Ascot, but rather to attend in their Ascot best before repairing to the course for the kind of afternoon he and his wife most loved.

Hugo Vickers