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making sense of empire

Emily Hourican talks to Jessica Douglas-Home -- author, painter and theatre designer -- about her grandmother, Lilah, youngest daughter of the 7th Viscount Powerscourt, who made a remarkable journey around India before the First World War

IF I wish to know what the Irish people think, I do not, unlike de Valera, look into my own heart. Which is why I cannot answer when Jessica Douglas-Home asks: "I was warned that the Irish do not like the British Empire and all that we stood for then. Is that true?"

It's an impossible question, particularly when asked by the great-granddaughter of Lord Powerscourt, while standing in the ballroom of Powerscourt House (it turns out that it's pronounced 'Prscrt' by those in the know. Aristocrats seem to consider long vowel sounds much as we might consider rats).

Jessica, an author, painter and theatre designer, has never visited the one-time family estate before. She was here to hang an exhibition of beautiful photos taken by her grandmother -- Lilah Wingfield, youngest daughter of the seventh Viscount Powers-court, in India in 1911, a visual record of a remarkable trip.

Not only did Lilah attend George V's fantastically lavish Durbar (his two-week proclamation as Emperor before a quarter of a million loyal Indian subjects), she then travelled around India with two family friends as chaperones, behaviour quite unheard-of for unmarried aristocratic girls of the time.

Lilah was the fifth of five children, a 6ft beauty who had grown up in the kind of Spartan conditions usual to the children of the Anglo-Irish ("Freezing houses, no heating, no fires, not even a hot water bottle, and never anything but bread and milk for supper," says Jessica.)

Her father died suddenly when Lilah was 16, and, with typical haste, the estate went to her brother, and the rest of the family moved to London. "Harsh, but normal," is how Jessica describes the events. "It's how people kept the big estates going. No dividing them up, like the French."

The Durbar of George V was a most grandiose piece of regal chest-thumping, involving a vast tented city the size of Edinburgh -- from which 90,000 rats had been exterminated -- complete with its own farms, railway, telegraph and post offices, as well as electricity. These days, nothing remains of that mighty spectacle; "some of it is a slum, the rest a windswept, desolate scrubland," Jessica says.

Visiting it is clearly a moment akin to Shelley's Ozymandias; "Nothing beside remains ... The lone and level sands stretch far away." And yet, according to Jessica, the people of India still remember, with affection, the heyday of Empire.

"In Delhi they came to the exhibition of Lilah's photographs in their hordes, with tears in their eyes. The people are grateful for the rule of law we established, the railways, the language, the education at the time was fantastic."

Hence the question I cannot answer, about the reactions of Irish people to similar historic reminders. Jessica's advance information, from friends living here, was not to expect a similar show of delight. In the event, she is pleasantly surprised by the general reaction both to the photographs and her accompanying lecture.

After the Durbar, Lilah set off on a tour of India, including the Khyber Pass on the Afghan border, and a stay with India's only female ruler, the Begum of Bhopal. She took a series of vivid photographs, and kept a diary, detailing her encounters. This diary later disappeared, although the photographs remained as part of a substantial body of work that Lilah accumulated over the years. The diaries resurfaced, serendipitously, in a second-hand shop some 12 years ago, and were passed on to Jessica by someone who recognised the connection.

"I had known Lilah. She was a woman full of character. After reading the diaries, I thought she was even more intelligent. I think it was her Irishness that brought alive to me her relationship to India, because Ireland definitely had an influence on her. The longing for independence. Although she was not Catholic, because of that, she had a sensitivity about what the Indians were feeling."

Lilah's escapade indicates a streak of daring, as well as cultural sensitivity, that seems to run through the family. Jessica, too, has also had her share of unexpected adventures. She was married to Charles Douglas-Home, nephew of British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home, and editor of The Times from 1982 until his untimely death from cancer in 1985, aged 48.

While married to Douglas-Home, they spent some years transporting sensitive books and information behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s to Eastern Bloc intellectuals, including Vaclav Havel. When extracts from the Securitate files were published in Romania in 1997, she figured prominently, described as "O doamna foarte periculoasa" -- a "very dangerous lady".

"It was much more dangerous for the people we met," she insists. "They were the brave ones, not us. Some were rounded up and arrested, put into prison for a few days. They were always followed and bugged."

So how did she get involved? "Everything happens by chance in life, doesn't it? I happened to meet this group of philosophers at Oxford around the time of the Prague Spring, who would go in on tourist visas, bringing books and giving seminars.

"I met them at a time when they wanted to expand into the humanities. I agreed to give a talk on the history of art, and it spread from there. It was called the Underground University."

At the time, eastern Europe's intellectuals were, many of them, feeding boilers of the institutions where they had once held positions of honour.

"They had these wonderful little rooms where they would study or write and then every hour or two, go and stoke the boiler, then back to work. It was very romantic meeting them in those situations.

"We talked in code and passed notes to each other. Then, as things got worse and worse in their own environment, they would write small articles for us to smuggle back home, and we would get them printed in the newspapers. The hope was that the wider world would read what was actually happening, as opposed to the propaganda."

Despite her evident sang-froid and correct insistence that the set-up was more dangerous for those she was meeting, Jessica nevertheless admits to "run-ins with officials. But Alec Douglas-Home had been the British PM relatively recently, albeit for a short time, so his name was a protection in a way. I always felt quite safe. I felt that if anything really bad happened to me, people would try and save me."

After communism fell, things changed. "We did keep in touch, but it was never the same. They are still friends if ever one saw them, but it was never quite the same once the whole thing broke. They took over all the institutions they had been thrown out of -- Vaclav Havel became president. Others became foreign ministers, ministers of culture. We enabled them, by keeping them abreast of work. That was the thrilling thing. Because of that, they were able to take positions of power when the time came."

The only country Jessica has maintained strong links with is Romania, where she is involved with something called the Mihai Eminescu Trust, an attempt to save the remarkable architectural heritage of Transylvania and Maramures, entire Saxon towns, some with fortified churches and synagogues. Prince Charles is the trust's royal patron, and Zac Goldsmith and Patrick Leigh Fermor are also involved.

"Yet again, by chance, one was thrown into it," she says. "Once Communism fell, the whole of this area, about the size of Wales, did a mass emigration back to Germany, where they were originally from. They left behind these beautiful buildings and lovely way of life, all empty.

"Perhaps 10 people in each village remained. It was an emergency."

And as such appealed to the responsive and coolly daring sides of Jessica's personality; the family tradition of cultural sympathy and risk-taking.

Stamped, limited-edition copies of Lilah Wingfield's photographs are for sale via www.glimpseofempire.com For information on the Romania trust, see www.mihaieminescutrust.org

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