Gertrude of Arabia: the great adventurer may finally get her museum
She was an explorer, an archaeologist, a writer and a spy. Now there’s a campaign to save Gertrude Bell’s vandalised home
Tuesday 9 August 2016 08.00 BST
Back in the 1880s, the evening train from Middlesbrough would often stop right in front of a stately house in Redcar called Red Barns. Out would step Hugh Bell, the cultured and wealthy head of a sprawling iron, steel and chemical empire. As often as not, waiting to greet him as he strode up the garden path would be the daughter who would later find fame as an explorer, archaeologist, writer and spy.
Once a book-lined and pet-filled family home, Red Barns has fallen on hard times. But a campaign has now been launched to buy it and convert it into a memorial to Gertrude Bell, turning the spotlight back on to a woman who was, in the early 20th century, as famous as Lawrence of Arabia.
Gertrude was one of those rare individuals who have only to take up an activity to make a success of it. Aged just 20, she was the first woman to achieve a first in history at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. By her early 30s, she had mastered Farsi well enough to produce a translation of the Divan of Hafiz that is still admired in present-day Iran. She then became so successful a mountaineer that a peak in the Swiss Alps is named after her. And she was one of the first archaeologists – and certainly the first woman - to examine the Byzantine remains of Anatolian Turkey.
On the day her grandfather's iron and steel works opened, he rode through Newcastle in an aluminium top hat
Yet those are her mere add-on accomplishments. For today, Gertrude is mainly remembered as the woman who explored much of the Middle East, taking some of the earliest photographs of the monuments now being destroyed by Isis. The knowledge she acquired became invaluable to the British government during the first world war. In later life, Gertrude settled in Baghdad and took on the role of kingmaker to Faisal. Once the new monarchy was established, she threw herself into the creation of the National Museum of Iraq. She died in 1926, in Baghdad, almost certainly at her own hand.
Gertrude – whose story was told in Werner Herzog’s 2015 film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman – was not the only larger than life character in her family. The wealth that facilitated her Middle Eastern wanderings was originally created by her formidable grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, who had set up an iron and steel works in Newcastle and an aluminium plant in Middlesbrough. On the day it opened, he rode through Newcastle wearing an aluminium top hat. Despite their important role in the history of northeast England, the Bells are oddly unremembered. A blue plaque on Red Barns may commemorate Gertrude, but there is no statue of her let alone a museum.
Gertrude Bell’s home, Red Barns, in Redcar, in the 1920s.
The blue plaque at Red Barns Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
A rare opportunity has presented itself to right this wrong. In 1868, Gertrude’s father commissioned a new home for his young family in the heart of Redcar. Largely the brainchild of William Morris, the Arts and Crafts movement tends to be associated with southern England. But the Bells were to become enthusiastic patrons of the style in the northeast. In 1868, it was to Philip Webb, a man synonymous with Arts and Crafts, that Hugh turned.
Only Webb’s second commission as an architect, Red Barns bears a striking resemblance to the better-known Red House in Bexleyheath, London, which he had co-designed with Morris in 1860. A two-storeyed mansion built from hand-moulded bricks and featuring hipped roofs and soaring chimneys, Red Barns is described as Georgian vernacular revival by Historic England. Its interior was the work of Morris, who wallpapered it with blackbirds singing against a bright blue sky.
Red Barns is infused with Gertrude’s presence. It was here that she played games of “housemaids” with her brothers and sisters, dashing silently from the cellars to the attics while attempting to avoid being spotted by the servants. It was in the extensive gardens that she cultivated her lifelong love of flowers. Scrambling up the scaffolding as the house was extended in 1882 may have given her the head for heights that turned her into a mountaineer. Riding the ponies stabled at Red Barns gave her the confidence to ride across virtually unmapped tracts of the Middle East. And it was while living at Red Barns that she developed another lifelong passion that has made her such a gift to historians: letter-writing.
Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell and Robert Pattinson as TE Lawrence in Queen of the Desert.
Much taken with Webb’s work, Gertrude’s grandfather also commissioned him to design Rounton Grange near Northallerton, entrusting the interior decoration to Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. And his weekend retreat, the medieval Mount Grace Priory near Osmotherley, was also treated to an Arts and Crafts update. Given the family’s involvement with the industrial development of the northeast, it’s ironic that they should have chosen to associate themselves so strongly with an architectural movement whose practitioners were proudly anti-industrial.
After the first world war, luck ran out for the Bell family. They lost much of their fortune to death duties and increased competition in the iron and steel industry. Mount Grace Priory is now owned by English Heritage, which meticulously reproduced some of the original Morris wallpaper in its restoration. Otherwise, time has not been especially kind to their built legacy. Washington New Hall has been turned into apartments. And once the family’s fortune was gone, nothing could save magnificent Rounton Grange from the wrecker’s ball. In 1953, it was completely demolished.
The fountain that stood in the garden has been stolen
“Red Barns is Grade II* listed,” says Carol Pyrah of Historic England, “putting it in the top 8% of buildings in England in terms of its special architectural and historic interest.” Yet even so, it was converted into a pub and hotel. Now the hotel has closed, leaving the house vulnerable to vandalism. Stones have been thrown at the lovely “porthole” stained-glass window and, according to Jan Long, founder of the Gertrude Bell Society, the fountain that stood proudly in the garden where Gertrude planted flowers has been stolen.
In 2015, the Great North Museum in Newcastle hosted a successful exhibition entitled The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell, which has now moved to Kirkleatham Museum in Redcar. But members of the newly formed Friends of Red Barns think the house would make a perfect permanent home for the exhibition and have launched a campaign to save it from conversion into flats.
Redcar MP Anna Turley is spearheading the campaign. “I was becoming increasingly distressed at the visible decline of this historic building,” she says, “and was contacted by many constituents with the same concerns.” Now she is hopeful that a new museum could help kickstart tourism in an area badly hit by recent steelwork closures.
“The exhibition has shown the importance of an understanding of past events and issues that have ongoing significance in the Middle East in particular,” says Dr Mark Jackson, manager of the Gertrude Bell Photographic Archive at Newcastle University and co-curator of the exhibition. “Red Barns promises to provide inspiration for a host of initiatives that could sustain the building long term while making a very positive contribution to future society.”
The trains may no longer stop in front of Gertrude Bell’s childhood home. But the chance now exists to turn Red Barns into a memorial to one of the greatest women ever born in the UK.
The Extraordinary Gertrude Bell is at Kirkleatham Museum, Redcar, until 1 January; gertrudebellsociety.weebly.com
Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, CBE (14 July 1868 – 12 July 1926) was an English writer, traveller, political officer, administrator, spy and archaeologist who explored, mapped, and became highly influential to British imperial policy-making due to her knowledge and contacts, built up through extensive travels in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia. Along with T. E. Lawrence, Bell helped support the Hashemite dynasties in what is today Jordan as well as in Iraq.
She played a major role in establishing and helping administer the modern state of Iraq, utilising her unique perspective from her travels and relations with tribal leaders throughout the Middle East. During her lifetime she was highly esteemed and trusted by British officials and given an immense amount of power for a woman at the time. She has been described as "one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection".
Bell was born on 14 July 1868 in Washington New Hall, County Durham, England – now known as Dame Margaret Hall – to a family whose wealth enabled her travels. She is described as having "reddish hair and piercing blue-green eyes, with her mother's bow shaped lips and rounded chin, her father’s oval face and pointed nose". Her personality was characterised by energy, intellect, and a thirst for adventure which shaped her path in life. Her grandfather was the ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, an industrialist and a Liberal Member of Parliament, in Benjamin Disraeli's second term. His role in British policy-making exposed Gertrude at a young age to international matters and most likely encouraged her curiosity for the world, and her later involvement in international politics.
Bell's mother, Mary Shield Bell, died in 1871 while giving birth to a son, Maurice (later the 3rd Baronet). Gertrude Bell was just three at the time, and the death led to a lifelong close relationship with her father, Sir Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet, who was three times mayor of Middlesbrough (1874, 1883 and 1911), High Sheriff of Durham (1895), Justice of the Peace, Deputy Lieutenant of County Durham and Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding of Yorkshire. Throughout her life she consulted with him on political matters. Some biographies say the loss of her mother had caused underlying childhood trauma, revealed through periods of depression and risky behaviour.
At the age of seven Bell acquired a stepmother, Florence Bell, and eventually, three half-siblings. Florence Bell was a playwright and author of children's stories, as well as the author of a study of Bell factory workers. She instilled concepts of duty and decorum in Gertrude and contributed to her intellectual development. Florence Bell's activities with the wives of Bolckow Vaughan ironworkers in Eston, near Middlesbrough, may have helped influence her step-daughter's later stance promoting education of Iraqi women.
Gertrude Bell received her early education from Queen's College in London and then later at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at the age of 17. History was one of the few subjects women were allowed to study, due to the many restrictions imposed on them at the time. She specialised in modern history, in which she received a first class honours degree in two years.
Bell never married or had children. She befriended British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham on a visit to Singapore with her brother Hugo in 1903 and maintained a correspondence with him until 1909. She had a "brief but passionate affair" with Swettenham following his retirement to England in 1904. She also had an unconsummated affair with Maj. Charles Doughty-Wylie, a married man, with whom she exchanged love letters from 1913 to 1915. After his death in 1915 during the Battle of Gallipoli, Bell launched herself into her work.
Bell's uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles, was British minister (similar to ambassador) at Tehran, Persia. In May 1892, after leaving Oxford, Bell travelled to Persia to visit him. She described this journey in her book, Persian Pictures, which was published in 1894. She spent much of the next decade travelling around the world, mountaineering in Switzerland, and developing a passion for archaeology and languages. She had become fluent in Arabic, Persian, French and German as well as also speaking Italian and Turkish. In 1899, Bell again went to the Middle East. She visited Palestine and Syria that year and in 1900, on a trip from Jerusalem to Damascus, she became acquainted with the Druze living in Jabal al-Druze.She travelled across Arabia six times over the next 12 years.
Between 1899 and 1904, she conquered a number of mountains including the La Meije and Mont Blanc as she recorded 10 new paths or first ascents in the Bernese Alps. One Alpine peak in the Bernese Oberland, the 2,632 m (8,635 ft) Gertrudspitze, was named after her after it was first traversed by her and her guides Ulrich and Heinrich Fuhrer in 1901. However, she did fail in an attempt of the Finsteraarhorn in August 1902 when inclement weather including snow, hail and lightning forced her to spend "forty eight hours on the rope" with her guides, clinging to the rock face in terrifying conditions which nearly cost her her life.
Bell's workers at the Binbirkilise excavations in 1907
She published her observations in the book Syria: The Desert and the Sown published in 1907 (William Heinemann Ltd, London). In this book she described, photographed and detailed her trip to Greater Syria's towns and cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, Beirut, Antioch and Alexandretta. Bell's vivid descriptions opened up the Arabian deserts to the western world. In March 1907, Bell journeyed to the Ottoman Empire and began to work with the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William M. Ramsey. Their excavations in Binbirkilise were chronicled in A Thousand and One Churches. In 1907, they discovered a field of ruins in northern Syria on the east bank of the upper course of the Euphrates to the steep slope of the former river valley. From the ruins, they created a plan and described the ramparts: "Munbayah, where my tents were pitched – the Arabic name means only a high-altitude course – was probably the Bersiba in Ptolemy's list of city names. It consists of a double rampart, situated on the river bank "
In January 1909, she left for Mesopotamia. She visited the Hittite city of Carchemish, mapped and described the ruin of Ukhaidir and finally went to Babylon and Najaf. Back in Carchemish, she consulted with the two archaeologists on site. One of them was T. E. Lawrence. Her 1913 Arabian journey was generally difficult. She was the second foreign woman after Lady Anne Blunt to visit Ha'il.
In 1927, a year after her death, her stepmother Dame Florence Bell published two volumes of Bell's collected correspondence written during the 20 years preceding World War I.
At the outbreak of World War I, Bell's request for a Middle East posting was initially denied. She instead volunteered with the Red Cross in France.
Later, she was asked by British Intelligence to get soldiers through the deserts, and from the World War I period until her death she was the only woman holding political power and influence in shaping British imperial policy in the Middle East. She often acquired a team of locals which she directed and led on her expeditions. Throughout her travels Bell established close relations with tribe members across the Middle East. Additionally, being a woman gave her exclusive access to the chambers of wives of tribe leaders, giving her access to other perspectives and functions.
In November 1915, however she was summoned to Cairo to the nascent Arab Bureau, headed by General Gilbert Clayton. She also again met T. E. Lawrence.
Like Lawrence, Bell had attended Oxford and earned First Class Honours in Modern History. Bell spoke Arabic, Persian, French and German. She was an archaeologist, traveller and photographer in the Middle East before World War I. Upon the recommendation of renowned archaeologist and historian Lt. Cmdr. David Hogarth, first Lawrence, then Bell, were assigned to Army Intelligence Headquarters in Cairo in 1915 for war service. Because both Bell and Lawrence had travelled the desert and established ties with the local tribes and gained unique perspectives of the people and the land before World War I, Hogarth realised the value of Lawrence and Bell's expertise. Both Bell and Lawrence stood hardly 5'5", yet both could ride with great determination and endurance through the desert for hours on end.
Arriving in February 1916, she did not, at first, receive an official position, but instead helped Hogarth set about organising and processing her own, Lawrence's and Capt. W. H. I. Shakespear's data about the location and disposition of Arab tribes that could be encouraged to join the British against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence and the British used the information in forming alliances with the Arabs.
On 3 March 1916, Gen. Clayton abruptly sent Bell to Basra, which British forces had captured in November 1914, to advise Chief Political Officer Percy Cox regarding an area she knew better than any other Westerner. Cox found her an office in his headquarters, where she was employed for the two days per week she was not at Military GHQ Basra. She drew maps to help the British army reach Baghdad safely. She became the only female political officer in the British forces and received the title of "Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo" (i.e. to the Arab Bureau where she had been assigned). She was St. John Philby's field controller, and taught him the finer arts of behind-the-scenes political manoeuvering.
I went out last week along the light railway 25 miles into the desert it's the Nasariyeh Railway - ...it was so curious to travel 50 minutes by rail and find...General Maude, our new army commander, has just arrived. I've made his acquaintance…
While in the Middle East, Gertrude Bell became a witness to the Armenian Genocide. She remarked that in comparison to previous massacres, the massacres of preceding years "were not comparable to the massacres carried out in 1915 and the succeeding years." Bell also reported that in Damascus, "Turks sold Armenian women openly in the public market." In an intelligence report, Gertrude Bell wrote:
The battalion left Aleppo on 3 February and reached Ras al-Ain in twelve hours....some 12,000 Armenians were concentrated under the guardianship of some hundred Kurds...These Kurds were called gendarmes, but in reality mere butchers; bands of them were publicly ordered to take parties of Armenians, of both sexes, to various destinations, but had secret instructions to destroy the males, children and old women...One of these gendarmes confessed to killing 100 Armenian men himself...the empty desert cisterns and caves were also filled with corpses...No man can ever think of a woman's body except as a matter of horror, instead of attraction, after Ras al-Ain."
After British troops took Baghdad on 10 March 1917, Bell was summoned by Cox to Baghdad and given the title of "Oriental Secretary." She, Cox and Lawrence were among a select group of "Orientalists" convened by Winston Churchill to attend a 1921 Conference in Cairo to determine the boundaries of the British mandate (e.g., "the British Partitions") and nascent states such as Iraq. Gertrude is supposed to have described Lawrence as being able "to ignite fires in cold rooms".
Throughout the conference, she, Cox and Lawrence worked tirelessly to promote the establishment of the countries of Transjordan and Iraq to be presided over by the Kings Abdullah and Faisal, sons of the instigator of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1915–1916), Hussein bin Ali, Sharif and Emir of Mecca. Until her death in Baghdad, she served in the Iraq British High Commission advisory group there.
Another target of her efforts was thwarting the ambitions of Zionist movement. Gertrude Bell's hostility towards Zionism was as passionate as her advocacy of the Arab cause - she thought the Jews had no place in Palestine.
Referred to by Persians as "al-Khatun" (a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State), she was a confidante of King Faisal of Iraq and helped ease his passage into the role, amongst Iraq's other tribal leaders at the start of his reign. He helped her to found Baghdad's great Iraqi Archaeological Museum from her own modest artefact collection and to establish The British School of Archaeology, Iraq, for the endowment of excavation projects from proceeds in her will. The stress of authoring a prodigious output of books, correspondence, intelligence reports, reference works, and white papers; of recurring bronchitis attacks brought on by years of heavy smoking in the company of English and Arab cohorts; of bouts with malaria; and finally, of coping with Baghdad's summer heat all took a toll on her health. Somewhat frail to start with, she became nearly emaciated.
Some consider the present troubles in Iraq are derived from the political boundaries Bell conceived, to create its borders. Perhaps so, but her reports indicate that problems were foreseen, and that it was clearly understood that there were just not many (if any) permanent solutions for calming the divisive forces at work in that part of the world.
Mark Sykes, the British diplomat responsible for the Sykes–Picot Agreement, was not fond of her. He once described her as
"conceited, gushing, flat-chested, man-woman, globe-trotting, rumpwagging, blethering ass
As the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire was finalised by the end of the war in late January 1919, Bell was assigned to conduct an analysis of the situation in Mesopotamia. Due to her familiarity and relations with the tribes in the area she had strong ideas about the leadership needed in Iraq. She spent the next ten months writing what was later considered a masterly official report, "Self Determination in Mesopotamia". The British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold Wilson, had different ideas of how Iraq should be run, preferring an Arab government to be under the influence of British officials who would retain real control, as he felt, from experience, that Mesopotamian populations were not yet ready to govern and administer the country efficiently and peacefully.
On 11 October 1920, Percy Cox returned to Baghdad and asked her to continue as Oriental Secretary, acting as liaison with the forthcoming Arab government. Gertrude Bell essentially played the role of mediator between the Arab government and British officials. Bell often had to mediate between the various groups of Iraq including a majority population of Shias in the southern region, Sunnis in central Iraq, and the Kurds, mostly in the northern region, who wished to be autonomous. Keeping these groups united was essential for political balance in Iraq and for British imperial interests. Iraq not only contained valuable resources in oil but would act as a buffer zone, with the help of Kurds in the north as a standing army in the region to protect against Turkey, Persia (Iran), and Syria. British officials in London, especially Churchill, were highly concerned about cutting heavy costs in the colonies, including the cost of quashing tribal infighting. Another important project for both the British and new Iraqi rulers was creating a new identity for these people so that they would identify themselves as one nation.
British officials quickly realised that their strategies in governing were adding to costs. Iraq would be cheaper as a self-governing state. The Cairo Conference of 1921 was held to determine the political and geographic structure of what later became Iraq and the modern Middle East. Significant input was given by Gertrude Bell in these discussions thus she was an essential part of its creation. At the Cairo Conference Bell and Lawrence highly recommended Faisal bin Hussein, (the son of Hussein, Sherif of Mecca), former commander of the Arab forces that helped the British during the war and entered Damascus at the culmination of the Arab Revolt. He had been recently deposed by France as King of Syria, and British officials at the Cairo Conference decided to make him the first king of Iraq. They believed that due to his lineage as a Hashemite and his diplomatic skills he would be respected and have the ability to unite the various groups in the country. Shias would respect him because of his lineage from Muhammad. Sunnis, including Kurds, would follow him because he was Sunni from a respected family. Keeping all the groups under control in Iraq was essential to balance the political and economic interests of the British Empire.
Upon Faisal's arrival in 1921, Bell advised him in local questions, including matters involving tribal geography and local business. She also supervised the selection of appointees for cabinet and other leadership posts in the new government.
Throughout the early 1920s Bell was an integral part of the administration of Iraq. The new Hashemite monarchy used the Sharifian flag, which consisted of a black stripe representing the Abbasid caliphate, white stripe representing the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid Dynasty, and lastly a red triangle to set across the three bands symbolising Islam. Bell felt it essential to customise it for Iraq by adding a gold star to the design. Faisal was crowned king of Iraq on 23 August 1921, but he was not completely welcomed. Utilizing Shi'ite history to gain support for Faisal, during the holy month of Muharram, Bell compared Faisal's arrival in Baghdad to Husayn, grandson of Muhammad.
However, she did not find working with the new king to be easy: "You may rely upon one thing — I'll never engage in creating kings again; it's too great a strain.
Bell briefly returned to Britain in 1925, and found herself facing family problems and ill health. Her family's fortune had begun to decline due to the onset of post-World War I worker strikes in Britain and economic depression in Europe. She returned to Baghdad and soon developed pleurisy. When she recovered, she heard that her younger half brother Hugh had died of typhoid.
On 12 July 1926, Bell was discovered dead, of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. There is much debate on her death, but it is unknown whether the overdose was an intentional suicide or accidental since she had asked her maid to wake her.
She was buried at the British cemetery in Baghdad's Bab al-Sharji district. Her funeral was a major event, attended by large numbers of people including her colleagues, British officials and the King of Iraq. It was said King Faisal watched the procession from his private balcony as they carried her coffin to the cemetery