Obituary: Lord Revelstoke

Louis Jebb
Sunday 18 September 2011 07:42

Rupert Baring, landowner: born London 8 February 1911; succeeded 1934 as fourth Baron Revelstoke; married 1934 Flora Fermor-Hesketh (died 1971; two sons; marriage dissolved 1944); died Dublin 18 July 1994.

LAMBAY rises from the Irish Sea 15 miles north of the centre of Dublin, and three miles off the coast. It is a small island, a mile square, and strategically useful to those who have defended or attacked the Irish capital over the centuries. The Vikings landed there in 795 before raiding the settlement on the south bank of the river Liffey, and in the 15th and 16th centuries securing Lambay was a priority for the British governing forces; the anchorage to the north of the island provided a natural shelter for pirates and French or Spanish fleets wishing to harry the British in the Irish Pale. A small blockhouse was built on the island in the 1490s and in Henry VII's and Henry VIII's reigns British men-of-war often rode at anchor off it for months at a time as a deterrent to the French and the Scots.

During the fourth Lord Revelstoke's 60-year custody of the island from 1934, Lambay has had a more peaceful significance. It is now a sanctuary for seabirds, an enclosed ecology, and largely unspoilt even while the capital has grown northwards, with housing and light industry spreading up into the country opposite Lambay. The island has long been a navigation point for sailors, and in the years of air travel has also become a landmark for passengers landing at Dublin airport, particularly since the building 10 years ago of the new main runway running east to west. The usual final approach takes planes immediately south of the island, giving passengers a clear view of Lambay's old stone blockhouse rebuilt and enlarged for Rupert Revelstoke's parents by Edwin Lutyens in the first decade of the century, nestling within a circular enceinte wall among ash, sycamore and Scots pine.

To preserve this little kingdom, its plants and its important colonies of auks, cormorants and gulls, Revelstoke restricted public access, as his father had done, and boats need a written permit to land. For the passing traveller this inaccessibility has cloaked the island, the man and the community who live there in benign mystery.

When Rupert Baring was born in London in 1911 the main work on the rebuilding of Lambay Castle was recently complete. Yet when his parents, Cecil and Maude Baring, bought the island in 1904 they had been attracted more by its flora and fauna than by any architectural ambitions. Cecil Baring was an unlikely banker, a naturalist and first-rate classical scholar, the second of five sons of Edward Baring, first Lord Revelstoke; the novelist and Russophile Maurice Baring was a younger brother. Cecil and his elder brother John had in large part taken over the running of the family bank Baring Brothers after their father had been humiliated by the Barings crisis in 1890, when the Bank of England had intervened to save the firm. While running the Barings branch in New York, Cecil had fallen in love with Maude, the youngest child of the American tobacco magnate and sportsman Pierre Lorillard V. Maude was unhappily married to Tommy Tailer, a business partner of Cecil's. When she divorced Tailer and married Cecil in 1902 it caused such a scandal in the family that Cecil temporarily retired from Barings in his late thirties.

The spur to return to business was a plan to remodel the castle which developed after the Barings had first taken Lutyens to see the island in 1905. The main work was finished by 1910. It remains Lutyens's most satisfying domestic building in the romantic manner: taking a lead from the trapezoidal shapes in the old block, Lutyens made a building without right-angles in the plan of the house or garden, with a large new courtyarded block added at one corner of the old keep, deftly set into the sloping hillside. There is remarkable detail and craftsmanship in the limestone fireplaces, window dressings and the woodwork of the doorways.

Lutyens was Rupert Baring's godfather and a central figure in his childhood. The elder of his two sisters, the artist Daphne Pollen, wrote a glowing account of their childhood, I Remember, I Remember (1983), in which Lutyens emerges as an endearing, brilliant and amusing figure.

In later life Lutyens walked the house and garden with Baring, modestly demonstrating principles and small felicities in the design. He pointed at a flight of two semi-circular steps in the north court: they were round, he explained, to welcome you in, and there were two steps because they led into two further compartments in the garden. His great ambition in the building, Lutyens said, was to achieve the right 'angles of light', in particular in the moulding of the windows, where any hint of sharpness had to be avoided in the edges and joins.

Rupert Baring was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge. He had a keen eye and was a crack shot with a rifle and a brilliant child cricketer. His mother, a beautiful, warm-hearted figure, whose shimmering portrait by Ambrose McEvoy hangs in the Walker Gallery in Liverpool, died when Baring was 11, and his sisters Daphne and Calypso played a protective role in his upbringing.

He grew to be an exceptionally fine-looking man, with more than a touch of the matinee idol. In 1934, the year of his father's death, Rupert Revelstoke, as he had now become, married Flora, daughter of Sir Thomas Fermor-Hesketh, later the first Lord Hesketh. She was a slight, dark-haired pocket Venus. The Revelstokes made a handsome couple sitting together in court the following year after a former girlfriend of his, Angela Joyce, an actress and sometime Miss England, whom he had known when an undergraduate, had sued him for breach of promise of marriage. He refused to settle and endured having his love letters read out in court and published in the newspapers.

Joyce's suit was unsuccessful but press interest was enormous. Leading articles called for the law to be altered, arguing that a woman should not be able to claim damages for not obtaining the position she hoped for as the wife of a rich man. The law was duly changed, and Revelstoke remained the last man to be sued in this way. After the case the hotelier Rosa Lewis threw a party to celebrate and the whole episode was depicted in the drama series The Duchess of Duke Street (1977), in which Revelstoke's character, 'Lord Haslemere', was played by the young Christopher Cazenove.

Revelstoke had inherited his father's enthusiasms for theatre and for real tennis (an open-air court for the game was built on Lambay in 1922), but not for finance. He spent just two years with Barings, in Liverpool and in New York, and while in New York mixed in the circle of Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. The writing of lyrics and verse was a lifelong fascination. He kept typed and bound volumes of what he called his 'doggerel'. One of the largest of these projects was his verse version of Aesop's fables and he was flattered that Sir John Betjeman thought them doggerel, 'but good doggerel'. The film-maker Michael Powell, another friend, wrote the screenplay for his film Black Narcissus (1946) - in fountain pen in two days - while staying with Revelstoke at Lambay. Powell also had a plan for a musical film to be made at Lambay, about the transformation of an island paradise into a nuclear station. It was at first entitled E=MC2 and changed to Sea Birds Don't Sing. Cyril Cusack was to play the main part, but the project never came off.

Revelstoke had served in the Territorial Army in the 1930s and during the Second World War masterminded the collection and distribution of Red Cross parcels to be sent to prisoners of war.

The break-up of his marriage to Flora in 1944 was a great blow to him, but he was devoted to their two sons and four grandchildren and her two daughters by her second marriage.

After the war Revelstoke lived increasingly at Lambay, in later life coming off five or six times a year to visit Dublin and London. Mechanisation and the encroachment of modern life, making it hard to find people happily adapted to the rigours of the island, saw the permanent population drop from more than 20 to a fluctuating four or five. Ten years ago the Dublin council asked Revelstoke to cull the large herring- gull population on the island, as the birds were flying from the island to feed at rubbish dumps close to the airport, creating a danger of bird-strikes. The cull was carried out for several years and Revelstoke wrote to the Irish Times suggesting the burning of rubbish or the moving of these dumps as an additional, better solution.

Latterly, he was wonderfully resigned, content and philosophical about life and happiest when gardening in winter or playing chess in the early hours of the morning.

In 1902 his father had commissioned the Irish Naturalists' Society to make a complete survey of the island's flora and fauna; and in the last four years a team of scientists from Trinity College Dublin repeated the exercise, also including a reconsideration of the archaeological evidence of Neolithic burial cairns, the graves of the Iron Age 'shore people', and Roman artefacts. The visits of these scientists and the plans for the book that it is hoped will soon be published were part of the methodical organising of his memories that Rupert Revelstoke went through when he knew his life was drawing to its end.

(Photograph omitted)

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