Obituary: Robert Bayne-Powell

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The Independent Online
Robert Lane Bayne-Powell, lawyer, art historian: born London 10 October 1910; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1935; served Intelligence Corps 1939- 45; Registrar, Family Division, High Court of Justice 1964-76, Senior Registrar 1976-82; Honorary Keeper of the Miniatures, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 1980-94; CB 1981; married 1938 Nancy Philips (died 1979; one son, two daughters); died Borough Green, Kent 30 January 1994.

PEOPLE seldom achieve eminence by conforming. Robert Bayne-Powell might have looked like the archetypal Englishman of his generation, even as an octogenarian at home in the country still wearing what appeared to be his own father's hand-me-downs. But he was set apart from the breed by a unique combination of charm, passion for life, thirst for knowledge, ability to surprise, and quite extraordinary wisdom. As evidence of this latter, during the entire 17 years that he held the judiciary positions first of Registrar, then Senior Registrar of the Family Division, no appeal against his judgments was ever upheld.

Bayne-Powell was born in 1910 in London, but moved in his teens to Devon, where the family home of Brockhill inspired the love of trees and shrubs that was to become an interest he took way beyond a mere hobby, creating in the grounds of his Kent home, to which he moved in 1942, one of the most remarkable private collections of rhododendrons in the world, over 170 species of which, together with an amazing further 170 hybrids, survive him.

He was educated at Charterhouse, then at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he achieved a Second Class honours degree in classics and modern languages and, slightly improbably to those like me who only knew him in his bon viveur years, coxed the Trinity Boat Club Trial Eights, weighing a mere 9st 4lb. Following the family tradition of his father and both grandfathers, Bayne-Powell was called to the Bar, in 1935, and became a member of the Middle Temple.

In 1939 he enlisted in the Army, and fellow members of his platoon included Hardy Amies, Enoch Powell and David Hunt (who later achieved television fame on the quiz programme Mastermind). In 1940 Bayne-Powell was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps, and served from 1941 to 1945 in the Special Operations Executive, being promoted to the rank of Major.

Stalin did not save many people's lives, but Bayne-Powell's, inadvertently, was one. His SOE section was due to go to Bulgaria, but Bayne-Powell was personally vetoed by Stalin because, the dictator had discovered, distant White Russian cousins of Bayne-Powell's had once traded with the Tsar. All the operatives who did go were subsequently shot.

On another occasion, Bayne- Powell was prepared to be smuggled on an espionage mission into Belgium, complete with a map printed on silk handkerchief concealed in his boot. At the last minute the mission was abandoned when it was discovered a colleague who had gone in advance had taken a bar of the wrong soap, which might have given them all away.

It is hard to imagine the gentle, cultured Bayne-Powell as a man of violence, but he showed his mettle in 1943 in London. It was the custom for people to share taxis, to economise on fuel. On one occasion, carrying top-secret papers, Bayne-Powell climbed into a taxi, and was followed in by another man, whom he did not like the look of. When he told the man to get out, he refused, saying: 'What are you going to do about it if I stay?' Bayne-Powell pulled out a revolver and replied: 'Shoot you.' The man made a hasty exit.

In 1945 he was dispatched to the Headquarters of the Allied Commission for Austria. Before being allowed into Austria, he stayed in Rome, where in the bizarre post-war quiet of the great city, he had two unique experiences, the memories of which never left him, and which shaped his profound love of an architecture and music that so dominated his later years: one was finding himself viewing the Sistine Chapel entirely by himself; the other was to sit on the Palatine Hill listening to the music from the Baths of Caracalla floating over a traffic-free Rome.

In 1946, Bayne-Powell returned to the Bar, practising in the then Probate, Divorce and Admiralty Division (later renamed the Family Division). One of his most notorious divorce cases was when he represented the wife of the hairdresser 'Teasy-Weasy' Raymond, who alleged that her husband, who was carrying on an adulterous relationship, had attempted to push her out of his car while going round Hyde Park Corner.

From 1975 to 1982 he served on the Home Office Reviewing Committee for the Export of Works of Art, and from 1977 to 1980 was Chairman of the Athenaeum. Fine wine was one of his most abiding passions, and he was for many years a member of the Athenaeum wine committee. At a time when the budget for claret was seven shillings and sixpence a bottle, he once shamefacedly admitted that he had been wildly extravagant, and purchased a consignment of 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild for the astronomical sum of twelve shillings and sixpence. He was vindicated when some years later this vintage was being auctioned at pounds 300 per bottle.

His greatest expertise in art was in miniatures, and he spent much of his leisure time trawling the Portobello Road and other street markets. On one occasion he met a fellow collector who was in the act of buying some melons. 'Don't worry,' he told Bayne-Powell, 'they're all signed.'

In 1982 he was appointed Honorary Keeper of the Miniatures at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and in 1984 became consultant on Miniatures to Sotheby's, and actively retained both posts until his death.

A widower since 1979, he kept his enthusiasm for life and his ability to surprise right up to the last week of his life: waiting in the Athenaeum, an old friend asked what he was doing. Bayne-Powell replied, gleefully, he was about to dine with his lawyer. The friend was somewhat abashed when an extremely elegant young lady solicitor walked in.

But Robert Bayne-Powell was like that. Whether serving his country in espionage, describing a painting, holding the fate of a marriage in his hands at the Bar, or startling a dinner guest with a wine almost too fine to drink, he had the rare ability both to command infinite respect for his wisdom, and simultaneously touch the child that is in all of us.

(Photograph omitted)