Obituary: The Earl of Bessborough
Saturday 18 December 1993
FREDERICK ('Eric') Edward Neuflize Ponsonby, 10th Earl of Bessborough, had the demeanour of a grandee of the old school, but his public career, which embraced technology and the theatre, was surprisingly varied in its achievement. For nearly 40 years he was a regular attender at the House of Lords, much liked by his fellow peers, even when they were at odds with him over his consistently pro-European stance. Though mortally ill he had managed to attend the final debate of the recent session only a few days before his death.
Lord Duncannon, as he was styled until inheriting his father's earldom in 1956, was born to the purple, and was reputedly known as 'Le Dauphin' when his Francophil father served a four-year spell as Governor-General of Canada between 1931 and 1935. After Eton, Cambridge, and some time in Canada he had worked for the League of Nations High Commission for Refugees, but it was army service during the war that developed his interest in international affairs. A period in North Africa as liaison officer with the staff of Giraud and de Gaulle led him into diplomacy and he served at the Paris embassy under both Duff Cooper and Oliver Harvey.
The Duff Cooper embassy with its mixture of grand diplomatic stylishness and Bohemian intellectual life was much to his taste. With his youth and good looks, and his excellent French (his mother was the daughter of the Parisian banker Baron Robert de Neuflize) the young nobleman was a great success, not only in the embassy (where he rose to First Secretary) but in social life. He got to know Gide, Claudel and Anouilh, and was recently much flattered to discover himself mentioned in Nancy Mitford's letters of the time as 'Angelic Eric Duncannon'. In 1948 he married, in Paris, the vivacious American heiress Mary Munn.
Back in England he spent some time in merchant banking, and was involved personally and corporately in early investment in commercial television. His own far-sighted investments in Associated Television paid off handsomely and helped to support his later political career. They also gave him an interest in science and technology that was to be of special use to him in the Lords.
His ministerial career was brief. He was Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Education and Science in 1963-64, under Lord Hailsham, and from 1964 to 1970 sat on the opposition front bench as a spokesman for science and technology, dealing with matters such as international research co-operation and aerospace questions. In the Heath administration of 1970 he became a Minister of State in the Department of Technology, but soon lost his place in a reorganisation that turned it into the DTI. This all too brief tenure of office failed to use his abilities to the full, but he maintained his interest and was assiduous in attending Lords debates on the subject.
Meanwhile his interests turned towards Europe. He was very conscious of his own Anglo-French parentage, which made him a very good choice to be appointed deputy leader of the Conservative delegation to the European Parliament. He later became the first British vice-president, working hard and enjoying its sittings. In 1975 he showed himself vigorously pro-European in the referendum campaign, roundly dismissing his opponents with invective that led to no lasting resentment. He was proud to have been a 'mad keen European' throughout his parliamentary career.
He inherited his interest in the stage from his father, who had set up a private theatre at his house and did much to encourage theatrical life in Canada. The young Lord Duncannon had, like Polonius, 'played once in the university', when he was 'accounted a good actor'. There had been the possibility of professional engagements, and those who had seen him on the boards reckoned him both a natural and an effective one. His real achievement, however, was not as a performer or occasionally a playwright, but as an encourager. He did consider rebuilding the theatre at Stansted, which had been burnt down during the war, but a better opportunity came when he was approached by neighbouring enthusiasts who were hoping to build a festival theatre in fields outside Chichester. The project developed rapidly and the theatre established a firm reputation with Laurence Olivier as its first Artistic Director.
Bessborough was one of the three founder-members of the Chichester Theatre board and remained president of the Chichester Theatre Trust till the end of his life. They found him of special value because he was widely read and had usually seen plays under discussion, sometimes through his connection with the board of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court. He imparted a metropolitan air to a committee in the provinces, and was for example a staunch supporter of John Osborne's A Patriot for Me, controversial in Chichester many years after its London launch. He gave long service to the British Theatre Association and in recent years had been very active (globe-trotting) in support of Sam Wanamaker's efforts for the Globe Theatre Trust.
Stansted Park, the family seat on the Sussex-Hampshire border, which his father had acquired after Bessborough (in County Kilkenny) had been burnt down in the Troubles, was another preoccupation. The house itself was rebuilt by a previous owner in the rather heavy Wren-revival style of the beginning of the century, but it is set in lovely parkland in which Bessborough took great pride. With the architectural historian Clive Aslet he wrote Enchanted Forest (1984), a history of the estate and its owners, and in 1983 he had secured the future of the house and estate by putting it into trust as the Stansted Park Foundation.
He was a member of the Dilettanti, the society of gentleman-connoisseurs founded in the 18th century, and (also with far-reaching ancestral connections) of the Roxburghe Club for bibliophiles. The main library at Stansted is very much a country-house collection, but his own books were of much greater interest. Its greatest treasures were on a small shelf of Elizabethan literature, especially a fine copy of The Faerie Queene (1590) with significant annotations by a contemporary reader. It had a special resonance for Eric Bessborough. Not only did he have ancestral connections with the Spencer family but Edmund Spenser's poem was the most important publication undertaken by William Ponsonbie, bookseller in St Paul's Churchyard.
This Ponsonby-Spencer link proved irresistible, perhaps so satisfactory a coup that the budding book-collector never developed his library as he might have done. But he delighted in showing his treasures to visitors. He and his wife Mary were infinitely hospitable, especially pleased when they were able to mix political and theatrical friends over a mutually stimulating weekend.
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