Plan for Gertrude Bell blue plaque in London sparks controversy

Explorer, diplomat and writer born in north-east England ‘did not have anything to do with London’, says biographer

English Heritage has been accused of trying to claim for London the remarkable north-east England-born explorer, diplomat, archaeologist and writer Gertrude Bell.

The charity has said it is planning a blue plaque in the capital for Bell as part of its push to get more women from history recognised. Only 14% of the more than 900 blue plaques in London are dedicated to women.

But Graham Best, who has written a biography of Bell, has said a plaque in London is inappropriate. “She didn’t really have anything to do with London apart from her grandmother living there in a lovely house in Cadogan Square,” he said. “Is this a case of cultural appropriation?”

Bell stayed at the Knightsbridge house on numerous occasions but her true home was the family home Red Barns in Redcar, a place where she grew up and returned to during her numerous travels and adventures abroad. A blue plaque already exists there, which means, Best argues, a duplicate is not needed in London.

“The thing with Gertrude Bell is that everyone is trying to appropriate her as a person. She is deeply misunderstood.”

Best said Bell was a complex character and does not easily fit into defined narratives. She was born in 1868, in Washington, to a staggeringly wealthy northern family who made its fortune in iron.

Her extraordinary life and achievements have become known through her diaries, letters and books. Bell was a traveller, writer, linguist and archaeologist who, in her day, was as well known as her friend TE Lawrence, if not better known.

She did so much it is sometimes difficult to pick out the greatest and more eye-catching achievements of her life.

It could be the important role she played in the establishment of the state known as Mesopotamia, now Iraq, after the first world war. Or her being one of the first archaeologists to examine the Byzantine remains of Anatolian Turkey.

Or the 53 hours she survived on a rope during a blizzard on the previously unclimbed north-east face of the Finsteraarhorn in the Swiss Alps in 1902.

Best argues that Bell’s greatest creative achievements were her translations of the Persian poet Hafez.

But there are also many uncomfortable truths in Bell’s life that have been swept under the carpet, Best argues, including her fervent opposition to women getting the vote. Bell was secretary of the northern branch of National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage as well as being on its national executive committee.

Bell’s remarkable life was the subject of the 2015 Werner Herzog film, Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman. Best is scathing about the film, which was a commercial and critical flop. “Queen of the desert? She would have completely hated that. It was everything that she didn’t want to be.

“The thing is everyone is trying to grab hold of Gertrude Bell and say yes, she’s one of us. But she’s not.”

Best published his book, Bezique, the Private Life of Gertrude Lowthian Bell, in the summer ahead of the 150th anniversary of Bell’s birth on 14 July.

English Heritage is still seeking permissions from building owners for the London plaque for Bell but it has been approved by its panel of experts and is expected to happen in 2019.

In a statement English Heritage said the blue plaque scheme was designed to celebrate notable people and their connections to London buildings and commemorated many who have lived in other parts of the country and other countries.

Bell, the charity said, was a figure of international renown and is commemorated in various locations across England and as far afield as Iraq.

Howard Spencer, senior historian at English Heritage, said: “When considering anyone for a blue plaque, English Heritage undertakes extensive research on that person’s achievements and their connections with London buildings. This is then reviewed by the independent experts who make up the blue plaques panel.

“In the case of Bell, the London address selected was a family home where she stayed regularly, and with which she was associated for over 40 years.”


Mark Brown Arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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