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Obituary: Sir Ashley Clarke

Henry Ashley Clarke, diplomat: born 26 June 1903; Third Secretary, Budapest 1925-27; Third Secretary, Warsaw 1927-28; Second Secretary, Constantinople 1928-31; Second Secretary, Tokyo 1934-36, First Secretary 1936-38; Foreign Office, London 1938-44; CMG 1946, KCMG 1952, GCMG 1962; Foreign Office 1949-53; Ambassador to Italy 1953-62; GCVO 1961; Governor, BBC 1962-67; Chairman, British-Italian Society 1962-67; Vice- Chairman, Venice in Peril Fund 1970- 83, President 1983-94; Knight of St Mark 1979; FSA 1985; married 1937 Virginia Bell (marriage dissolved 1960), 1962 Frances Molyneux; died 20 January 1994.

THE FACT that Ashley Clarke was Ambassador in Rome from 1953 to 1962 - more than twice as long as any British Foreign Service officer in a top post has the right to expect - is testimony enough to his diplomatic skills.

He had worked his way up before and during the Second World War through Budapest and Warsaw, Istanbul and Tokyo, Lisbon and Paris, always learning the language and effortlessly endearing himself to those around him by his quiet courtesy, his gentle humour and his unfailing enthusiasm. This enthusiasm too was quiet: Clarke was never a man to boom, or harangue, or thump the table. But someone had only to mention a subject close to his heart - and there were many of them - for his eyes to sparkle and that slow, slightly guilty smile to spread across his face; and he would start to talk, and within a moment a cause or an issue that you had scarcely thought about became something strange and wondrous and, if necessary, worth fighting for.

After dinner - if you were lucky, and if it was that sort of dinner - he would go to the piano; and then, more than ever, he came into his own. Clarke was a superb pianist - as good, perhaps, as any non-professional can ever be: in Paris he used regularly to engage young music students to play concertos with him on two pianos, he taking the solo part, they the orchestral accompaniment. But after dinner is no time for concertos, and Clarke knew it; and so he would sing, lightly and charmingly, from his enormous repertoire - French songs, German songs, Hungarian songs, Portuguese songs, even (I think) one or two Japanese songs - before going on to a marvellous selection of numbers from the English music hall, invariably ending up with

No python could nip 'er, no rattler could rip 'er,

For she was the last word in class -

Sweet Flossie Farmer, the lovely snake charmer

Who fell for a snake in the grass.

I remember too a brilliant lecture that he gave, while still ambassador, at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. He spoke without notes, in his exquisite Italian, on 'Nationality in Music', providing his own musical illustrations at the piano. Would any other member of the diplomatic corps, I wondered, have been capable of a similar tour de force? It seemed unlikely.

Retirement, for Ashley Clarke, meant a busier life than ever. The direction of his tastes was clear from the innumerable bodies to which he gave so unstintingly of his time: the British-Italian Society, the BBC, the British Institute of Recorded Sound, the National Theatre, the Royal Academy of Dancing, the Royal Academy of Music, the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the British School at Rome and many others.

But from 1966 onward he dedicated himself more and more to the city he loved most in the world, Venice. When, in November of that year, Venice and Florence were simultaneously struck by the most disastrous floods in their history, it was Clarke who first responded - with Carla Thorneycroft, Nathalie Brooke and as always his second wife, Frances, who gave him devoted and unfailing support for the last 32 years of his life - to the Italian government's appeal for emergency assistance. The result was the Italian Art and Archives Rescue Fund, and its successor Venice in Peril. By this time the Clarkes had settled in Venice, where he was a warden of St George's English Church, and they both worked indefatigably for the preservation of the city; and although with his increasing age and frailty they returned to live partially in England, they continued to spend several months a year in their flat in San Trovaso.

In recognition of all that they had both done, Clarke was made a Cavaliere di San Marco in 1979, and in 1985 was granted the Freedom of the City of Venice. Of the many high decorations that he earned in the course of a long and distinguished life it was these, I suspect, that gave him the most pleasure. Venice has lost a dedicated protector and a steadfast friend. It will not be the same without him.

(Photograph omitted)