Obituary: James Lees-Milne

By Fergusson, James | The Independent (London, England), December 29, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: James Lees-Milne


Fergusson, James, The Independent (London, England)


James Lees-Milne, architectural historian and writer: born Wickhamford, Worcestershire 6 August 1908; Private Secretary to the first Lord Lloyd 1931-35; staff, Reuters 1935-36; Secretary, Country Houses Committee, National Trust 1936-44, Secretary, Historic Buildings Committee 1945-51, Adviser on Historic Buildings 1951-66; FRSL 1957; FSA 1974; married 1951 Alvilde, Viscountess Chaplin (nee Bridges, died 1994; one stepdaughter); died Tetbury, Gloucestershire 28 December 1997.

Shy, droll, diligent, well- connected, James Lees-Milne was an enigmatic and provocative figure, one of the last of the great amateurs and always the first to decry his achievements. A heroic saviour of historic houses (he would say he preferred houses to people), he was a mischievously accurate diarist and author of one of the best autobiographies since the Second World War.

As executive of the National Trust's Country Houses Scheme from its inception in 1936, he was more or less single-handedly responsible for beguiling suspicious, desperate and sometimes medievally old-fashioned owners into handing their priceless family properties entire into the care of the trust, for assessing the architectural (what would now be called "heritage") worth of individual houses, the importance of their contents and estates, and negotiating for them a future that was, under the first National Trust Act of 1907, secure and "inalienable". Through his agency, the complexion of the National Trust changed completely, and, at a time when the death of the country house was widely predicted, he saved many houses from extinction, from being knocked down or vandalised, turned into country clubs and police colleges, hotels or picturesque ruins, their contents and history dispersed for ever. Britain's wider reputation as a guardian of its historic landscape owes much to his work: the trust under his careful direction pioneered the post-war opening of historic houses to the public which led in turn to the 1960s' "stately homes" boom. Lees-Milne's three volumes of wartime diaries, beginning with Ancestral Voices (1975), are already necessary texts of reference. Mixing Mayfair in air-raids with visits by train and bicycle to backwoods baronets and squires without heir, they are by turns hilarious, outrageous, acute and touching. They were followed by three further volumes, the most recent of which, Ancient as the Hills, covering the years 1973-74, appeared in July. Lees-Milne was an architectural historian, an able biographer, an aspirant novelist and, in Another Self (1970), his autobiography to 1942, when his diaries begin, the author of an extraordinary book, poignant, funny, often angry, that marries all three genres. When John Betjeman first read it, he wrote to the publisher Hamish Hamilton, it had the same impact on him as had Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. All his life Lees-Milne seemed to himself "another self". This was one of his virtues as a diarist: a dispassionate quality which wouldn't spare his own character from his snaggy barbs, which drew precise comedy from his own downfalls. The portrait in his autobiography of his father, a minor Worcestershire landowner whom strangers loved but who couldn't stand the sight of his elder son, ranks for its comic intensity with Osbert Sitwell's of Sir George ("Ginger") Sitwell or Lees-Milne's childhood friend Nancy Mitford's fictional "Farve". "Art," writes Lees-Milne, was anathema to him. The very word had on him the effect of a red rag upon a bull. He turned puce in the face and fumed at the mere mention of it; and his deadliest, most offensive adjective was "artistic". It denoted decadence, disloyalty to the Crown, and unnatural vice. Suspecting his son perhaps of all these things, George Lees-Milne decided that after Eton the boy Jim should "stand on his own feet". He drove him to London forthwith and enrolled him at Miss Blakeney's Stenography School for Young Ladies in Chelsea.

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