WHEN Wogan Philipps became the second Lord Milford in 1962, he arrived at the House of Lords to be mobbed by all his old chums from Eton and Oxford; receiving cheers of welcome, offers of help, invitations for a drink. 'Then I gave my maiden speech,' he remembered. 'I proposed the abolition of the place. None of them ever spoke to me again.'
He delivered this story with the self-deprecating, roguish air he often took on in discussing his life - when revealing for instance that he had been Rosamond Lehmann's typist on the novels she wrote during their marriage; how he had quit his regular pub-crawling with Augustus John when he thought it was giving him hallucinations - going home one day he had seen elephants in the road (later inquiries revealed that John had seen them too: a circus was on the move); how he had rowed the slowest double sculls in the history of Henley; was wounded in the Spanish Civil War (pooh-poohing his service there: 'I was only an ambulance driver'), or was disinherited by his father, whose will stipulated that 'anyone who was a member of the Communist Party or a fellow traveller wouldn't get a penny'. This, he said, roaring with laughter, had made him roar with laughter.
'My Lords,' - went the maiden speech,
what, in fact, are we supposed to inherit? Is it some special ability which enables us to function as legislators? No. What we inherit is wealth and privilege based on wealth - a principle which cuts right across every conception of democracy . . . As long as (the House of Lords) lasts, its functions will be - as they always have been - to stem the advance of democracy, to protect wealth and privilege. For this reason, I am for the complete abolition of this Chamber which is such a bulwark against progress.
Philipps packed an improbable lot into his life, even for one lasting 91 years. Although the divisions are far from equal, there were perhaps four periods, three marriages, and three central strands: politics, painting, and farming. The first period was conventional; work in the city in the family shipping business, cutting a figure with debutantes during the season. Then with marriage to Rosamond Lehmann came Bloomsbury, a life filled with names like Woolf, Sassoon, Strachey, Spender, Garnett, Day-Lewis, Sackville-West, Carrington. Philipps's politics had turned left with the 1926 General Strike. He felt compelled to go to Spain in 1936 when news came of the Fascist revolt against the Popular Front government. He went out for 18 months and was wounded when a shell killed one of his friends. Afterwards he wrote of the night before many went to their death at Jarama, near Madrid:
I was so moved by the calmness of these men, far from their own country, their families, of their own free choice, because they felt they had to go and help the people of Spain . . . talking as if it weren't they who were going to meet the first hail of machine-gun bullets . . . I felt terribly in love with my home, and showed photographs of my children.
There were two children, Hugo and Sally (who was married to the poet PJ Kavanagh and died at the age of 21).
The first marriage ended, however, and he married Cristina, Countess of Huntingdon, who shared his political convictions. Joining the British Communist Party in 1937, he became the only opposition member of the otherwise solidly Tory RDC at Cirencester in 1946. During the war, rejected by the navy for health reasons, he did farm work in Gloucestershire, playing an important part in building up the National Union of Agricultural Workers there. He bought a 180-acre farm, growing corn and raising pigs, poultry, Jerseys and sheep, employing the most progressive farming techniques. There were few sights as inspiring as Philipps, a very tall and ravishingly handsome man, swinging a scythe. He was Tolstoy's Levin, one thought; he then began to speak of Levin.
Farming combined easily with art; in wet weather he could stay in and paint instead - mostly farming scenes, as described in a 1977 interview: 'The dominant theme in my paintings has been 'How man changes the landscape'.' He painted the shapes and colours of the fields, burnt straw, trees planted or dying or felled, pylons marching across the land - and exhibited successfully in London, Cheltenham and Milan. The one thing he wanted to leave behind was 'a few good pictures'.
Cristina died in 1953; in 1954 Philipps married Tamara Rust, widow of Bill Rust, editor of the Daily Worker. After selling the farm they lived in Hampstead, where the Red Peer held court from his wing-chair throne surrounded by his friends and pictures. He was beloved by a large, disparate group of people, from his party comrades to the sixth formers at Cheltenham Ladies' College who once invited him to speak about the Spanish Civil War. 'A wonderful, wonderful man,' said a contemporary, 'extraordinarily gentle and sweet'. As for the pictures, an article with the headline 'Tovarisch Lord' appeared in 1989 in Izvestia, with the author commenting about how light and bright and optimistic these were. 'It seems that there is a special happiness,' the piece ended, 'in going against the current, when one is sure that one has chosen the correct road.'