What monstrous ingratitude! Lord Curzon was the British statesman who left historic properties to the National Trust. Its thanks? To condemn what it calls his ‘racist ideology’ in the latest example of contempt for our proud heritage, writes RICHARD KAY
- Lord Curzon’s Kedleston Hall was handed over to the National Trust in 1987
- His other properties, Tattershall Castle and Bodiam Castle were also donated
- Kedleston website described Lord Curzon as ‘bereft of consciousness or charity’
- A biography for the former Viceroy of India focused on his ‘racist ideology’
Kedleston Hall is a Georgian jewel a few miles north of Derby built to rival Chatsworth. Its 18th-century Palladian facade and neoclassical architecture and parkland are just as impressive and it is one of the National Trust’s most popular visitor sites.
It was always the wish of its former owner Lord Curzon, a Viceroy of India and a nearly Prime Minister, that his childhood home, more a palace to showcase his exquisite collection of paintings, artefacts and furniture, should be opened up to the public.
And it was duly handed over by his heirs in 1987, 62 years after his death in 1925. By some distance he has been the most generous of benefactors to the National Trust — two of his other historic properties, Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire and Bodiam, in East Sussex, were bequeathed to the nation, along with provision for their maintenance. He also restored the Elizabethan mansion Montacute in Somerset, which the Trust also took over.
But this singular generosity was scarcely mentioned by the Trust on its Kedleston website. Instead, in what looks like yet another example of the organisation’s wilful misrepresenting of British history, the emphasis has not been on his munificence but raking over what it described as his ‘racist ideology’.
Kedleston Hall (pictured) is a Georgian jewel a few miles north of Derby built to rival Chatsworth. Its 18th-century Palladian facade and neoclassical architecture and parkland are just as impressive and it is one of the National Trust’s most popular visitor sites
Sour, mean-spirited and wholly lacking in the benevolence which Curzon bestowed on it, the remarks reduced one of Britain’s great figures from the early 20th century to that of a haughty imperialist.
Barely an accomplishment was mentioned in its biographical essay without a corresponding reference to failure.
It signed off with a quotation from a contemporary who sneers of Curzon that he had never known ‘a man less loved by his colleagues and more hated by his subordinates, never a man so bereft of consciousness or charity, or of gratitude’.
So much for even-handedness — these parting words were, of course, designed to make the reader less disposed to Lord Curzon’s triumphs. And this, remember, was on the very website which is supposed to be cherishing the gift of his outstanding philanthropy.
To many, such a casual demolition of the reputation of a man whose achievements feature in school history lessons — the man who was responsible for devising the deeply moving Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph which endures to this day — is yet another compelling sign of how the National Trust has manifestly changed from being the revered custodian of our national treasures to a lazy and infantile body intent on airbrushing history.
As well as monstrous ingratitude, it reveals a disturbing trend in the thought-processes of a 126-year-old organisation that seems incapable of learning from history but rather is contemptuous of it.
Two of his other historic properties, Tattershall Castle (pictured) in Lincolnshire and Bodiam, in East Sussex, were bequeathed to the nation, along with provision for their maintenance
This then is the current woke agenda of a body which devoted a year-long audit to establish which of its 300-plus properties were built from the proceeds of slavery and colonialism and which cannot resist gesture politics such as dropping the word ‘Easter’ from its Easter egg hunts, or forcing volunteers to wear rainbow lanyards to show support for LGBT+ rights.
And, of course, it’s all dressed up in Orwellian language.
Kedleston’s Eastern Museum and website have, we are told on the website, been revamped after a ‘year of listening’ to ‘local communities’ and ‘national thought-leaders’.
As if that was not calumny enough, the website then made matters worse by delivering a string of factual errors about Curzon’s life.
For example he was not ‘relegated to the backbenches’ in 1898 — that was, in fact, the year he was appointed viceroy.
He did not convert the ground floor of Kedleston into the museum in 1927: he had been dead two years.
Nor did he make ‘colonial’ expeditions to Persia, Russia and Korea before becoming viceroy. None of these places was a colony, and Curzon visited them as an independent traveller.
Further, the website said that he was asked to ‘stand down’ as an MP at the 1906 election; he was not a member of Parliament at that time.
Perhaps the most egregious reference is to the ‘Peacock Dress’ worn by his American-born heiress wife, Mary, for the Delhi Durbar of 1903. The essay says it was designed as ‘a deliberate political statement expressing British colonial power’.
This assertion has infuriated Curzon’s eminent biographer David Gilmour. ‘There was no colonial connotation to this dress,’ he says. ‘To suggest that she wore it as a deliberate embodiment of British superiority is simply wrong.
One of Curzon’s descendants, who asked not to be named, told us: ‘There’s too much negative from the National Trust and not enough positive. ‘Lord Curzon was a remarkable man and a great benefactor of the nation. He donated 14th-century Bodiam Castle in East Sussex and Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, both of which he had helped to restore, to the National Trust on his death in 1925′
‘To show such sneering contempt but also ignorance to someone who was one of the greatest benefactors of the National Trust in its history reveals the bias in their argument.
‘It seems they are trying to present him as a Cecil Rhodes character when in fact he was a great public servant and a faithful employee of the Crown. He was the most travelled man to sit in the Cabinet and incredibly knowledgeable of foreign affairs.
‘Outside politics he was chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery. Of course he had his faults — he couldn’t get on with people, even his own children — but to treat him like this is both unnecessary and absurd.’
Last night one of Curzon’s descendants, who asked not to be named, told us: ‘There’s too much negative from the National Trust and not enough positive.
‘Lord Curzon was a remarkable man and a great benefactor of the nation. He donated 14th-century Bodiam Castle in East Sussex and Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, both of which he had helped to restore, to the National Trust on his death in 1925.
‘He always wanted Kedleston Hall to go to the National Trust and it was his nephew, the 3rd Viscount Scarsdale, who inherited Kedleston Hall, who very generously gave it to the National Trust in 1987.
‘Lord Curzon was remarkable in terms of saving Britain’s heritage. The 3rd Viscount Scarsdale was particularly delighted he was able to fulfil Lord Curzon’s wishes in that sense. So there are three of Lord Curzon’s properties which have been given to the National Trust directly or indirectly.’
Yesterday the brouhaha over its appraisal of Curzon — highlighted by Spectator magazine columnist Charles Moore — forced the National Trust to take down the offending article to ‘check’ its content.
But the episode has left a distinctly unpleasant taste for those such as David Gilmour, whose 1994 biography of Curzon was updated last year.
‘I have been a member and supporter of the National Trust for some 40 years but I feel dismayed by some of the things they do.
‘As a biographer of Rudyard Kipling, I was particularly aggrieved by their suggestion that his house, Bateman’s, was tainted by slavery.’
One of the errors on the Kedleston website that particularly annoyed Gilmour was the absence of any mention of Curzon’s role in the Treaty of Lausanne signed with the Turks in 1923, the last outstanding matter of World War I.
‘It also claimed that he directed Middle Eastern policy after World War I when actually it was the Colonial Office run by Churchill.’
This singular generosity was scarcely mentioned by the Trust on its Kedleston website. Instead, in what looks like yet another example of the organisation’s wilful misrepresenting of British history, the emphasis has not been on his munificence but raking over what it described as his ‘racist ideology’. Pictured: Viceroy Lord Curzon and Lady Curzon tiger hunting in Hyderabad in 1902
So who exactly was George Curzon and why has he become the latest target of the National Trust’s relentless political correctness?
His career was certainly impressive. And it helped make him the figure who could later be so generous to the National Trust.
An MP at the tender age of 27, he was appointed Under Secretary for India just five years later. Before his 40th birthday he had secured the British empire’s most prized job: Viceroy of India.
He went on to be Chancellor of Oxford University in 1907, Lord Privy Seal in 1915 and Foreign Secretary in 1919.
Yet it was the speed and apparent ease of his ascent which made so many people hate him, a loathing that may have prevented him securing the highest office he craved — that of Prime Minister.
Too often he was mocked as a pompous figure of fun. Even as an undergraduate at Balliol — Boris Johnson’s old Oxford college — he was the butt of a satirical verse which was to haunt him throughout his distinguished, but frustrated, political career.
‘My name is George Nathaniel Curzon’, the ditty went, ‘I am a most superior person, My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek, I dine at Blenheim once a week.’
But there was some truth in it. He was clever and good-looking — and he knew it. But his stiff and rigid manner was in part because of the back brace that he had to wear for curvature of the spine. His childhood was miserable. The son of an austere clergyman who had unexpectedly come into the Kedleston estate, Curzon described his lineage as long but unremarkable.
He was largely raised by a brutal and domineering governess who made him parade around the local village in a dunce’s hat bearing the words ‘liar’, ‘sneak’, and ‘coward’. Eton then Oxford offered an escape.
So too did women. He was an accomplished womaniser at a time when being discovered with another man’s wife could lead to ruin. Curzon took great risk conducting many affairs and he had as much interest in other men’s wives as accumulating prizes for his scholarship. He was a member of The Souls, an infamous group of Britain’s social and intellectual elite.
Then in 1895 at the age of 36 he married Mary Leiter, who brought a fortune to the union. The marriage was a huge success and they would go on to have three daughters who blossomed into great society beauties — but not the son he craved.
Four years after their glamorous wedding, the couple were in India, the site of both his greatest triumph and greatest disaster. He devoted much of his energy as viceroy to conservation, restoring such wonders as the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Delhi.
He also helped preserve the country’s one-horned rhinoceros, a venture that is still bearing fruit today. He displayed considerable moral courage — and incurred the wrath of his compatriots — by punishing British Army regiments guilty of outrages against ‘natives’.
But he also presided over the Partition of Bengal in 1905, which led to scenes of communal violence, and he was eventually manoeuvred out of office by the ambitious Army commander General Kitchener.
Back in Britain, his despondency was deepened with the premature death of his adored wife. During his time as Chancellor of Oxford he had enjoyed a prolonged affair with the romantic novelist Elinor Glyn. She did not expect to marry him but nevertheless was shocked to read without warning of his engagement to another American heiress, Grace Duggan.
The marriage was a failure but politics still held an allure. Success as Foreign Secretary followed by a chance to succeed Bonar Law as Prime Minister in 1923. Here was an opportunity to be the first Viceroy of India to become PM.
Created a marquess two years earlier, it was not his aristocratic title but his lack of popularity, perceived arrogance and sense of entitlement that saw this glittering prize snatched from him and handed to Stanley Baldwin.
Two years later Curzon was dead of a haemorrhage, leaving an estate valued at £343,000 — £19 million in today’s money.
Winston Churchill, who neither liked nor was liked by him, wrote magnanimously of him: ‘The morning had been golden; the noontide had been bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid, and each was polished ‘till it shone after its fashion’.
In 1991, the National Trust angered Curzon’s heirs when they removed Persian rugs and a Louis XV table because they didn’t conform to Kedleston’s 18th-century Robert Adam design.
But the decision to ‘rewrite’ Curzon’s place in history now might be seen as a far greater betrayal of his heritage.
Asked about the biography of Lord Curzon on its website, a National Trust spokesman yesterday said: ‘This biographical article is an old piece of content. We have rigorous standards for fact checking our content but occasionally we do make errors and always correct them when they are noted.
‘We aim to share balanced and well-researched stories of all the places in our care. We have taken down this page while we review and fact check the content.’
Additional reporting: David Wilkes
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