Obituary: Malcolm Munthe

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The Independent Online
Malcolm Munthe's life and work were informed by two central beliefs - the redeeming power of art on the individual and of monarchy on society.

Inextricably mingled with these two principles was his passionate attachment to his English mother, Hilda Pennington- Mellor, whose devoted care was in total contrast to the near indifference of his brilliant Swedish father, Axel Munthe, renowned throughout Europe as a healer, the author of The Story of San Michele (1929) and a mesmeric womaniser.

Malcolm Munthe's long vigorous life was divided in two by the Second World War. With the dynamic optimism of his youthful pre-war years, he studied for a Politics degree at the London School of Economics at the same time as running a boys' club in a deprived quarter of Southwark, preparing himself for a career in the Conservative Party and taking part in the social round of debutante balls and London clubs. In 1939 he was offered the comparatively safe Tory seat of East Ham South, but the war intervened.

Munthe returned home from the war haunted by his vision of a tortured, tattered, bombed-out, impoverished Europe that seemed to be heading into terminal decline. Although he remained in the Army long after 1945, teaching the techniques of sabotage, covert operations and espionage, his ambitions now lay elsewhere.

He turned his back on the present and started to gather in the past. He decided to make a cultural ark out of his disparate but extensive family inheritance. It was a grand vision, somewhat hampered by Munthe's financial resources. His charm and single-mindedness attracted the support of two childless maternal cousins with exquisite aesthetic sense. Lord Wharton contributed his collection of pictures, while Lady Helena Gleichen added her Jacobean manor-house to what was to become the Family Trust.

By selling surplus property in London, Somerset, Biarritz, Dallna, Rome and Capri, Munthe was able to raise sufficient funds to maintain the roofs on four houses crammed with pictures and furniture: the Swedish manor- house of Hildasholm by Lake Siljan; the medieval Castle Lunghezza, between Rome and Tivoli; and a pair of Jacobean manorhouses in England, one outside Much Marcle in Herefordshire, and Southside House, tucked reclusively among the suburban villas of Wimbledon. He was supported by the tireless labour of his wife Ann and assisted, whenever allowed, by his children, Adam, Katriona and Guy.

These houses are all magical domains, tributes to the imagination and historical passion of Malcolm Munthe, who made a strict yearly calendar for himself based around their respective tourist seasons and annual needs. He lived a Spartan existence, selecting the darkest, least comfortable quarters for his own use, wearing old clothes and surviving on a diet of black tea, biscuits and packet soup enlivened by the odd raw egg.

He remained until the last the most inspired guide, combining a near perfect sense of theatrical timing with a curious otherworldliness which made even the most doubtful of attributions take on the bright flame of truth. I never once heard him identify himself to tourists, draw attention to pictures he had painted (which he often passed off as the work of his brother), or talk about his war years in other than self-mocking deprecation, while he allowed his three books (Hellens: the story of a Herefordshire manor, The Bunty Boys and Sweet is War) to sink into undeserved obscurity.

His manners were impeccable. He had the long, graceful hands of an ascetic and instead of a handshake would cup your hand with both of his. In the last month of his life he revealed the true depths of his self-discipline. The day before he died he left the hospital with notes for two new books.

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