Obituary: Princess Margaret of Hesse and the Rhine

Philip Mansel
Thursday 30 January 1997 00:02

Few Englishwomen have adapted so well to German life or played such a prominent part in it as Princess Margaret of Hesse and the Rhine.

She was born in 1913, the daughter of Sir Auckland Geddes (later first Baron Geddes - author of the post-First World War financial cuts known as "the Geddes axe"). Like many of the British between the wars, she went on holiday to Bavaria and fell in love. Her fiance was Prince Ludwig of Hesse- Darmstadt, a son of the last reigning Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, a middle-ranking state of the former German Empire. She had planned to marry, in 1937, in Bavarian peasant dress. Instead she wore black: five members of her fiance's family had died when the aeroplane taking them to London for the wedding crashed.

"Peg" Hesse was a success in the difficult role of a non- royal foreign bride in an ancient German dynasty, despite her lack of children and the outbreak of the Second World War. Her cheerfulness, efficiency and sense of fun helped. Her house at Wolfsgarten, a Hesse "hunting lodge" the size of a small Oxford college, became an oasis of calm in the turmoil of the war and the Allied occupation.

After the war Wolfsgarten was a centre of culture and entertainment as well. The Princess helped to organise exhibitions and museums in the former Hesse capital of Darmstadt, and the magnificent private collections of the Hesse- Darmstadts were concentrated in Wolfsgarten. They created an unforgettable atmosphere of living history. On one wall was a portrait presented to a Landgrafin of Hesse by her friend Marie Antoinette; in a cellar were photographs of the Hesses' family holidays with Nicholas II of Russia (whose wife was a Hesse) in the Crimea. In the main salon was a suite of furniture left behind by Napoleon. Most of the crowned heads and many writers and politicians of Europe scratched their names on the window-panes of Wolfsgarten, from Golo Mann and Edward Heath to "Elizabeth" and "Philip": Peg Hesse was one of the people through whom the British royal family re-established contact with its German relations after the Second World War.

She continued to preside over her household after the death of her husband "Lu" Hesse, a talented composer, in 1968. Both were intimate friends of Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, with whom they frequently went on long holidays. Britten often worked at Wolfsgarten, although he found the German Christmas "very holy and serious but inclined to be a bit sloppy and `heilig Nacht' ". The Princess became President of the Aldeburgh Foundation and in 1959 set up the "Hesse Students" scheme to enable young people to attend the Aldeburgh Festival in return for practical help.

Friends from all over the world, and the city of Darmstadt, where she was very popular, contributed to her unique collection of representations of pugs, in porcelain, drawings and paintings.

The Hesse House Foundation, run by Prince Moritz of the Hesse-Kassel branch, now inherits the palaces and works of art of the Hesse-Darmstadts, making it the possessor of one of the finest collections in Europe.

Margaret Campbell Geddes, arts patron: born 1913; married 1937 Prince Ludwig of Hesse and the Rhine (died 1968); died Wolfsgarten, Germany 26 January 1997.

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