Born: November 26th
Died: 1939-September 24th, 2021
In the current British political climate it is hard to imagine a Tory party appointing as minister for the arts someone who taught and wrote brilliantly about American and English literature, loved jazz and classical music so much that he allegedly spent as much on his hi-fi as some people do on cars, published poetry of marked intensity and power, and was a formidable connoisseur and authority on 20th-century painting, numbering Hockney and Bacon among his close friends.
The Earl of Gowrie, known as Grey, was all these things, and more. He was also an influential junior minister for Northern Ireland at a sensitive time (1981-1983) – a job he specifically requested, to general incredulity. It indicated how much his Irish roots meant to him, an aspect of life also increasingly reflected in his poetry.
Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven (Grey Gowrie) was born in Dublin in 1939. His glamorous mother, Pamela Fletcher, was the unlikely product of a Church of Ireland dynasty of hunting parsons, and through his father, Patrick Hore-Ruthven, he was descended from the Wexford Hore family, as well as the Scottish Ruthvens; the Gowrie title was revived in 1945 for his grandfather, a distinguished soldier and governor-general of Australia. Pat Hore-Ruthven was killed in the Desert War in 1942, and Grey and his brother spent much of their youth in Castlemartin, Co Kildare, and (after their mother’s second marriage to Maj Derek Cooper) in Dunlewy, Co Donegal, beneath Mount Errigal. But part of his childhood was also spent in grace-and-favour apartments at Windsor Castle, where his grandfather was lieutenant governor. The ability to move easily in different worlds, aided by his Byronic good looks and formidable charm, never left him.
My job, as an Irishman with a Scots name and a German wife, working […] for a very English government… was to try and explain the politics of the tribe to the politics of the purse
After studying English at Oxford he taught in the universities of SUNY Buffalo and Harvard, where he worked with the poet Robert Lowell, who became a close friend and enduring influence. Gowrie then took up a lectureship at University College London in 1969 and published a well-received book of poems, A Postcard from Don Giovanni, in 1972. One poem, Outside Biba’s, deserves its place in any anthology of the era: it ends “No war now, no one poor under thirty,/All the Cold War babies dressed to kill”. He also dealt in art, triumphantly selling a Bacon turned down by the National Gallery of Ireland to Elton John. But politics were taking over; a Heathite Conservative, he survived the transition to Margaret Thatcher, who took to him, slightly to her own surprise. On her victory in 1979 she made him minister of state in the department of employment, before he took on the Northern Ireland post, under Jim Prior. Gowrie was responsible for prisons, the first government representative to meet the families of the hunger strikers, and crucial in ending the protests – a classic tragedy, he said, since it was an epic clash of wills affecting an entire society. He addressed the job with commitment and compassion; Hillsborough under the Prior-Gowrie aegis, he later said, was “the Avignon of the Wets”.
Presenting the Ewart-Biggs Prize in 2003, Gowrie recalled “My job, as an Irishman with a Scots name and a German wife, working, somewhat to his surprise, for a very English government… was to try and explain the politics of the tribe to the politics of the purse… I explained that both orange and green had an appetite for public spending undreamed of by Grantham or Finchley. ‘You mean like Scotland?’ ‘Yes, prime minister.’ For a microsecond I saw the prospect of Home Rule tremble before me. Our eyes met. But the moment passed.”
More seriously, Gowrie was influential in Prior’s suggested initiative of “rolling devolution” for Northern Ireland in 1983, incorporating an element of incremental power-sharing. It was an idea ahead of its time, which was derailed by opposition among his colleagues and within the North; Gowrie was a particular object of suspicion for Ian Paisley, who viewed this exotic minister (in his green Loden coat) as a Donegal republican. His part in decriminalising homosexuality in the North did not help (“We’re not trying to make it compulsory, Dr Paisley”).
Northern Ireland was followed in 1983 by his high-profile stint as arts minister, in some ways a perfect posting. His hospitable bohemian flat in Covent Garden (the despair of his security detail) was a focus for an eclectic range of friends in the art world and beyond. But in 1984 he left politics to become chairman of Sotheby’s, while continuing a high public profile, chairing inter alia the arts council and the Booker jury (in another Irish connection, it awarded the prize to Roddy Doyle for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). However, a serious heart condition declared itself in 1999, and in 2000 at the age of 60 he underwent a heart transplant, carried out by Magdi Yacoub at Harefield Hospital.
Though further health problems intervened, met with exemplary fortitude and even insouciance, the last 20 years of his life were marked by creative fulfilment and great personal happiness. This would not have been possible without his long and happy marriage to Adelheid (“Neiti”) von der Schulenberg; of the many gifts fortune bestowed on him, marriage to her in 1974 was – as he knew – the greatest. Castlemartin having been sold to Irish businessman Anthony O’Reilly, and a subsequent Kildare house, Sandymount, to the Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, Gowrie divided his time between Wales and London, but visited Ireland frequently. His Irish youth and connections feature in the poetry which he had returned to writing while waiting for his operation in Harefield. The powerful third section of his 2008 Carcanet volume, Third Day, is called The Domino Hymn: poems from Harefield, and examines the theme of reprieve and even resurrection. It was praised by Dennis O’Driscoll in the Times Literary Supplement for its “unflinching” eloquence and utter lack of self-pity and querulousness: qualities as true of the man as of the work.
He is survived by Neiti, his brother the writer Malise Ruthven, his son Brer by his first marriage to Xandra Bingley, and his grandson Heathcote.