The Hon Benji Wellbourne: Aristocratic activist

Life as we know it: No. 86 

Dj Taylor
Saturday 12 December 2015 17:31
The Hon Benji Wellbourne
The Hon Benji Wellbourne

Although born into the upper reaches of the British establishment, Benji had a decidedly unconventional childhood. His father was one of those “hippie peers” of whom the newspapers made so much fuss half a century ago, and the family estate in the Shropshire Hills echoed to the sound of psychedelic music and the jangle of mock-gypsy caravans negotiating its gravel drives. The Incredible String Band dropped by in 1968 and shot a promotional film which can now be found on YouTube. Benji is the small boy looking on in the background as the sitars strike up and the hippie girls pirouette.

It was not to be expected that such a laxly raised child as Benji would find the educational process easy. Asked to leave Winchester at 16, he spent a year travelling to Afghanistan and back, met the Rolling Stones in Morocco, then enrolled at a London art school. There were solemn experiments with red poster paint, peacock-feather collages and roomfuls of crucified poultry. His first exhibition coincided with the elevation of his grandfather, Lord Wellbourne, to the Cabinet, and was marked by a headline that ran: “Peer's grandson slaughters chickens: says it's art.”

All that, of course, was 30 years ago, and in the intervening period, though still interested in art, Benji has taken a more philosophical turn. He has described himself as “an enemy of privilege” and his hereditary title (which still, for some reason, appears on his cheque book) as “hilarious”. There was a much-publicised interview in one of the Sunday supplements a few years back in which he quoted the lyrics of John Lennon's “Imagine”, and announced that he was transferring the title deeds of his cottage in Northumberland to a women's refuge and donating most of his trust fund to an obscure environmental ginger group.

In his mid-fifties now, still decked out in the harlequin jackets and rainbow scarves of his youth, Benji leads a peripatetic life. Winter usually finds him staying with friends in Scotland. The current Lord Wellbourne, ever tolerant of his younger brother's foibles, has put a converted barn on the estate at his disposal. Various alternative communities to which he has supplied funding over the years are usually glad to see him. He is a nice, quiet, friendly man, although, it has to be said, notoriously reluctant to help with the washing up.

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