Sir Peter Wakefield: Diplomat who went on to found Asia House

Friday 14 January 2011 01:00

Sir Peter Wakefield was a multi-faceted figure who had first a full diplomatic career and then many years in the world of art and culture, where he was instrumental in building bridges with Asia. In more than three decades in the foreign service he experienced both conventional postings and episodes of danger, living through evacuations from Egypt and Libya with the sound of gunfire and explosions ringing in his ears. He had a tense personal brush with Gaddaffi, later ruler of Libya, then a mere lieutenant, in the year when he seized power in a coup.

After retirement from the Foreign Office he opted not for a quiet life but for active campaigning in art and international affairs. He was described by an associate as "a tall, imposing, very gentle giant of a man, with a wonderful twinkle in his eye." He was also noted for his determination, as another associate noted when he said Wakefield "had immense personal magnetism and persuasiveness which he never hesitated to use."

Born in 1922, Peter Wakefield was educated at Cranleigh School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He served in the army from 1942 to 1947, becoming a captain in the Royal Artillery and spending the last year of his service in the military government in Eritrea.

In 1949, after two years in business, he entered the Foreign Office, which despatched him to the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies in Lebanon. There he acquired both a knowledge of Arabic and a wife, the artist Felicity Maurice-Jones. Their marriage was to last more than half a century.

He served in Amman and Nicosia before a 1956 posting to Cairo landed him in the midst of the Suez crisis. The embassy had registered with London its general disapproval of Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden's approach, warning against military intervention. When the crisis came Wakefield was appalled but did his duty. Years later he recalled travelling across a bridge when the conflict broke out. "I was driving into Cairo and all hell was let loose, and we were all pulled to a halt and pulled out of our cars," he said. "And I thought, 'Dammit, the Egyptians are perfectly right, really, to toss me over the parapet into the Nile.' In fact they were extraordinarily polite, and I was beckoned to go on to the embassy."

Inside things were tense: "We were a little nervous the mobs might come and pry us out." But the mobs held back, giving staff time to destroy "the vast array of confidential secret files" held on the premises. Braziers were lit in the grounds, officials forming chains to carry the files to be burnt.

Sir Peter later chuckled at the memory: "I did have a certain feeling of fun when I threw on the fire the files of British Middle East policy." But he continued to do his duty, having his wife count Egyptian tanks on their way to the battle zone, and indeed deploying her artistic skills to sketch them.

Eventually the Egyptian authorities closed down the embassy, "and we were shunted out by train, so that was the end of that." He and other diplomats made known their disenchantment with British policy, and for some time he was given postings in other parts of the world. He said later: "The degree of pressure which the Americans brought to bear on us was something which nobody expected – that of course was the determining factor. The humiliation of it was very, very deep."

Other less eventful postings included Vienna, Belgium and two spells in Tokyo. But more drama came in the late 1960s when he found himself stationed in Libya at a time of high tension, with angry mob attacks on his consulate in Benghazi. Placed under arrest by soldiers, he was marched for several blocks to an officer, who inquired of him: "Who are you?" When he replied, "Wakefield, British charge d'affaires – who are you?" the reply came, "I am Lieutenant Gaddafi."

The subaltern, who shortly afterwards seized power in Libya, ordered him to be set free. But Gaddafi later ordered out British representatives, including the redoubtable Miss Olive Brittan MBE who, Wakefield remembered fondly, was known as the English royal bee-keeper.

Brittan lived by the sea at the Green Mountain of Cyrenaica in a building previously used as a mess by Rommel's officers in the Second World War. Wakefield recounted that, when the British mission had to leave, "she insisted on a proper ceremonial leave-taking, and marched the colonel of the mission and myself to the top of 'bee hill', where she unfurled the Union Flag for us to salute. The flag was then folded away and carried back down the hill, past the hives of the slumbering royal bees."

More excitement followed years later in Lebanon, in his first post as ambassador. "The civil war started in Lebanon some three months after I got there," he said. "The cities had been very badly damaged and the historic centre of Beirut destroyed."

In Beirut he refused to vacate the ambassador's residence despite the fighting and shelling a few hundred yards away. He and his wife sought to keep up morale in the British community, Felicity famously wearing a flak jacket while gardening.

Wakefield was later to add, with some prescience: "The situation is more awful than in any book of fiction. Everything in Lebanon is so affected by what's going on all around it because every community there has its links outside. I'm afraid the turmoil will continue until the whole region settles down, and particularly the Arab-Israel conflict."

Retirement, following a final posting as Ambassador to Belgium, opened a new phase of life in the art world, to which his wife had introduced him years earlier. Soon after retiring from the diplomatic corps he became director of the National Art Collections Fund, raising money to help British galleries and museums buy works of art. In 10 years he doubled its membership and raised millions which were used to help acquire tens of thousands of art works.

Wakefield retained a deep interest in the Asian region and in 1996 founded Asia House to promote and understanding and exchange between the UK and Asian countries. Asia House became an influential hub for arts and culture, business, economics and politics. With his commercial, cultural and diplomatic experience, especially in Japan, Wakefield was ideal to lead it.

Ever the internationalist, he expressed exasperation two years ago about Britain's attitude to Europe. Although the EU could come up with "tiresome annoyances," he wrote, the UK was "a middle-sized nation jostling among powerful nations of continental proportions." It needed "the continental clout Europe can provide."

David McKittrick

Peter George Arthur Wakefield, diplomat: born 13 May 1922; Ambassador to Lebanon 1975–78, to Belgium 1979–82; CMG 1973; KBE 1977; married 1951 Felicity Maurice-Jones (four sons, one daughter); died 1 December 2010.

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