Mark Bence-Jones: obituary in The Times (24 April 2010)

[ Source: available online; accessed 10.03.2011. ]

If Mark Bence-Jones was born in the wrong century, with a demeanour from a different age, it cannot be said to have caused him any problem at all as he moved between England, Ireland and India, writing books on his favourite themes family history, country houses and the Raj.

His magnum opus is Burke’s Guide to Country Houses, Vol. 1, Ireland (1978). Although this splendid series petered out after just three more volumes on English counties, Bence-Jones set it off in phenomenal style. Much of Ireland then was still terra incognita in terms of recording the architecture of country houses, but Bence-Jones included them all, whether lost or left in ruins as a result of the Troubles, or surviving in varying degrees of decay. The quantity and variety of old photographs was astounding (the more so as this predated the Irish Architectural Archive), from old books and family albums showing columned halls, domed staircases, turreted stables, vast glasshouses, horse-drawn carriages, vintage open-top limousines and ladies in long skirts.

Bence-Jones had a mastery of family history to which few can aspire today, and every name of a family tree, once glimpsed, was instantly and forever impressed on his mind. He wove them into a never-ceasing fount of humorous stories.

The young Bence-Jones had an unusual childhood, growing up in India where his father, Colonel Philip Reginald Bence-Jones, was head of the engineering school at Lahore. Year by year the monks at Ampleforth would ask when young Mark was arriving at school but war made return to England impossible, although the family travelled widely in India, spending winters in Karachi. Mark built forts in the garden with a team of servants to help him.

His mother, part French and part English, had been brought up in Alexandria and Bence-Jones liked to recall that he was the first child passenger to fly the India-Egypt run.

When the family returned to the British Isles after the war his father bought a rambling Irish country house near Cork, Glenville Park. Mark Bence-Jones studied history at Pembroke College, Cambridge and became a devotee of Monsignor Alfred Gilbey, the unofficial chaplain to the Catholic aristocracy. From Cambridge he studied agriculture at Cirencester as a prelude to running the family farm in Ireland.

He wrote three books on India, Palaces of the Raj (1973), Clive of India (1987) and The Viceroys of India (1982). The first was a pioneering treatment of British architecture in India, looking at it seriously as an academic subject.

Bence-Jones was devoted to his parents, although his father was a somewhat frightening figure who in later years always wore a green eyeshade. Colonel Bence-Jones had been employed on the Blue Nile dam and had helped to rebuild the old Waterloo Bridge in London. He also spent an energetic spell working for the Cowdray family businesses. On one occasion while serving in the First World War, Colonel Bence-Jones told Churchill that he had got the wrong hat. When Churchill looked doubtful, Bence-Jones threw the hat in the air and shot two holes clean through it with his revolver. “You’re right,” agreed the astounded Churchill.

The family had a long association with Ireland and his great-grandfather William Bence-Jones, a strenuous opponent of Gladstone’s Irish Land Act, built a house at Lisselane, Co Cork. He was vigorously boycotted but survived. Bence-Jones’s book Twilight of the Ascendancy (1987) reflects these experiences.

He also wrote an anatomy of Ireland, The Remarkable Irish (1966), and was consultant editor of the widely acclaimed Burke’s Irish Family Records.

Glenville Park was a typical rambling Irish country house. His father made a chapel from three small rooms, introducing stained glass and a stone altar by Seamus Murphy. Hospitality, though it could be copious, was also irregular.

Two leading lights of the Irish Georgian Society arriving famished after a long drive and begged a sandwich. Receiving no answer, they asked where the kitchen was. I don’t really know, said Bence-Jones famously.

On another celebrated occasion, on a bitterly cold night, dinners for adults and children were proceeding in different rooms, the children’s breath billowing out like clouds. Leaving the table, the young found the family supply of whisky. The adults, hearing the merriment, rapidly displaced them, prompting the children to move on to the port and the brandy.

After his marriage in 1965 to Gillian Pretyman the family divided their time between her house by the River Orwell in Suffolk and Glenville. Both husband and wife were great, and simultaneous, raconteurs and dinner guests had diplomatically to follow both, otherwise the competitive story telling became deafening. He took an interest in the gardens of both houses, adding statues, balustrades and fountains.

His novels, although largely forgotten today, showed a gently wicked touch. One friend was surprised to find herself described as taking off all her clothes, and would tear out the offending page as she moved from house to house.

Bence-Jones was a devout Catholic, and ceilings at Glenville were emblazoned with arms of Catholic families such as the Howards. As Chancellor of the Irish Association of the Knights of Malta, he was involved in the work of its Ambulance Corps as well as attending the annual pilgrimage at Lourdes.

Bence-Jones’s preferred method of travel was to stay in country houses, or rajah’s palaces, often for quite long spells. Stories of overflowing baths abound. He was the co-author, with Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, of a volume of The British Aristocracy (1979); a chapter he wrote on the character of an aristocrat is held by friends to be a portrait of himself.

He is survived by his wife Gill and by a son and two daughters.

Mark Bence-Jones, author, was born on May 29, 1930. He died of heart failure on April 12, 2010, aged 79.

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