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Authors: The Countess of Carnarvon

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BOOK: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey

He was also concerned that Almina was bored and had been suffering some health problems. She was somewhat nervy, but he commented to Winifred that Luxor seemed to agree with her. ‘I am glad to say Almina is looking better … the air on the hills is so pure and champagne-like. I am afraid she will have to have a small operation on our return, scraping the womb. I consider it comes chiefly from nerves but I am not a very nervous person, so perhaps am not a good judge.’

That first dig must have been extremely trying for any casual observer. After six weeks of hard labour and dashed hopes, Carnarvon brought operations to a close. The sum total of artefacts recovered was a single case for a mummified cat, which Lord Carnarvon gave to Cairo Museum. He was not discouraged. As he assured Winifred, ‘this utter failure, instead of disheartening me had the effect of making me keener.’

In 1907, the Carnarvons were back, and this time the Earl was well aware that he had previously been palmed
off with a site that the authorities knew was a dud. With the help of Gaston Maspero, Carnarvon chose a site near a mosque en route to the temples at Deir el-Bahri. He had gathered in the local coffee shops that there were rumours of a tomb, and after two weeks of hard digging, his team found it. It proved to be an important Eighteenth Dynasty tomb, that of a King’s son: Teta-Ky. There was a principal decorated chapel more or less intact, niches in the courtyard contained
figures (small servant figurines) and eight more painted
lined the corridors to the subterranean vaults. Carnarvon was incredibly excited – and hooked. He spent days taking photographs as a record of everything he found. He also donated a limestone offering table to the British Museum. Carnarvon knew that if he carried on in Egypt he would need professional help and interpretation. Gifts of antiquities were an excellent way of gaining attention. In the end Dr Wallis Budge of the British Museum became a close friend and frequent guest of the Carnarvons in London and at Highclere.

Gaston Maspero was still receiving disparaging letters from his inspector, Arthur Weigall in Luxor, concerning Lord Carnarvon’s excavations. To be diplomatic and to improve Carnarvon’s chance of success, Maspero suggested that he hire Howard Carter to supervise and advise on the excavations. In terms of subsequent events, the most significant event of this season was therefore the planting of a seed that led to a friendship between Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. It was to be another two years before they embarked upon a collaboration that lasted fourteen years and eventually, with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, ensured that their names are still remembered
by anyone with more than a passing interest in Ancient Egypt.

Howard Carter was born in London in 1874, the son of an artist who specialised in animal paintings. He had been in Egypt almost constantly since 1891, when he arrived as a precociously talented seventeen-year-old draughtsman. He rose to become one of the most eminent experts in the field, but in 1905 he had fallen on hard times. He had resigned earlier that year from the post he had held since 1899 as inspector of Lower Egypt for the Antiquities Service. There had been a fracas between French tourists and Egyptian site guards in which he supported the Egyptians, and his position became untenable.

In 1909 Lord Carnarvon engaged Carter to be his man in Luxor and was paying him a salary; the following year he built him a house that became known as Castle Carter. His concern was that Carter should be sufficiently well provided for to be able to get on with the job in hand. Carnarvon installed a dark room, which helped enormously with his photographic work. Castle Carter would also come in handy as a lunchtime rest point. Carter was delighted to have secured a financially generous, committed and serious-minded colleague. Despite the differences in the two men’s social background, they were a formidable alliance and became great friends.

This change in fortunes was exhilarating; Carnarvon was ecstatic. He adored the exquisite objects that he was discovering and before long established a reputation for his collector’s eye. ‘My chief aim … is not merely to buy because a thing is rare, but rather to consider the beauty of an object than its pure historic value.’ He was not merely
an aesthete, though. The book he wrote with Howard Carter about their five years’ digging at Thebes was a serious work, published by the Oxford University Press and illustrated with his own photos. Although he was regarded by many as a maverick, he was well liked by the locals, who referred to him as ‘Lordy’. Carnarvon was unfailingly courteous, one of the very last of the gentleman excavators.

Almina shared her husband’s appreciation of the highly aesthetic and was thrilled that now they were seeing concrete results, an abundance of gorgeous things. But Almina wouldn’t have been Almina if she hadn’t also looked for an outlet for all her restless energy. Before long, she found a way to stamp her genius for party organising on the local social scene.

One evening she organised an unforgettable dinner party in Karnak Temple. She appropriated all the staff from the Winter Palace Hotel and dressed them in costumes inspired by the
One Thousand and One Nights
. The Carnarvons received their guests in the temple of Rameses. Long tables set with crisp white linen, glass and silverware stretched the length of the chamber. The food and wine were, naturally, of the very best quality. Maspero sat at the head of one table of Egyptologists, the Carnarvons at another. The whole scene was flooded with moonlight as well as candles and lamps that Almina had arranged to throw into relief the columns of the Hippostyle Hall. When the meal finished, everyone wandered down to the Sacred Lake and contemplated in silence the breathtaking view before making their way back to the Winter Palace. Then the staff glided in and removed every trace of the event. It was as if the party had been a vision conjured up by one of the genies in Scheherazade’s
Arabian Nights

The Passing of the Golden Age

The Edwardian era came to a close with the death of Edward VII on 6 May 1910. He had been king for just nine years but had restored the sparkle to the monarchy and embodied the values and vices of the upper classes in spectacular form. Alfred de Rothschild, his longstanding supporter and friend, was terribly grieved. It was the beginning of a long slide into disappointment for Alfred, who was shortly to suffer the pain of having family and friends in both Britain and Germany, as the two countries lurched towards war.

The new king was in precisely the same boat. George V was related to virtually every crowned head in Europe. One of his first cousins was the Tsar of Russia; another
was, of course, the Kaiser. Victoria had made little secret of preferring Wilhelm II to George V, but the new King had identified Germany as a serious threat as early as 1904. He was right; there was disaster bubbling under, mud and horror and death on a scale that no one could imagine in an era when mechanised mass warfare was still inconceivable.

But Britain had a last few precious years of peace to relish before the carnage. Not that it was uneventful: 1910 was a year of political turmoil and, in a sign of the pressure of the times, Almina briefly became involved with political activism. But at Highclere, for now, all was calm. Or rather, all was the usual mad swirl of fun and adventure. Throughout 1910, Almina put on parties and balls, accompanied her husband on trips to Scotland for shooting, made the annual trek to Egypt. When they were in town, she and Lord Carnarvon – along with her mother Marie – were often at Alfred de Rothschild’s box at Covent Garden.

The Earl, meanwhile, was facilitating a piece of aviation history. He remained fascinated by motor cars and technology of all kinds. As early as 1908 he had begun to invite pioneers of aviation such as John Moore-Brabazon and Monsieur Gabriel Voisin to stay at Highclere. In 1909, when the brilliant young engineer Geoffrey de Havilland was casting around for somewhere to store and test his experimental aircraft, Moore-Brabazon suggested he use his sheds on the edge of Highclere estate and approach Lord Carnarvon for permission to carry out a test flight off the lower slopes of Beacon Hills. In November of 1909, de Havilland and his assistant loaded the biplane that was the prototype for the famous Gipsy Moth into a lorry and took it to Highclere. When Lord Carnarvon and Mr Moore-Brabazon
visited the men, who were staying at the local pub, they were hugely impressed. Carnarvon said de Havilland could use the fields, and promised to keep the grass mown.

Over the next ten months, de Havilland made numerous test flights. The first were tiny hops but gradually, as he tweaked the design, the flights grew longer. He was lucky to escape several crashes, but by the end of autumn 1910 he had kept the aircraft airborne for more than 50 feet, banking to the left over the road into Highclere, turning a full circle and then landing. Lord Carnarvon, who witnessed this flight, was ‘elated at the success which attended the efforts of the flying men.’

That autumn there was a family celebration. Lord Carnarvon’s half-brother Aubrey was getting married, and no one, least of all the groom, could quite believe his luck in acquiring such a lovely wife.

Aubrey was careless with money and physically frail, just like his older brother. He had terribly poor eyesight and unconventional taste in clothes, but his gestures were expressive and warm and, like Lord Carnarvon, he was wholly unpretentious. Mary, his intended, was the daughter of Anglo-Irish nobility: the 4th Viscount de Vesci, and was tall, elegant and very well educated; she also moved in the most fashionable circles. Aubrey met her through his friend Raymond Asquith, the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s son, who was a great friend of his from Oxford, and whose sister Violet was one of Mary’s confidantes. Opinion on Aubrey’s spectacular luck divided the Asquith siblings, with Raymond happy to acknowledge that Aubrey would be a very fortunate man on his wedding day and Violet sniffily retorting that he was quite undeservedly blessed.

Mary seems to have thought that he would brush up well enough to be taken to Gosford Castle in Ulster to meet her grandfather the Earl of Wemyss. She was more worried about curtailing the overflowing parties of drunken diplomats at Pixton, the house in Somerset he had been gifted by Elsie, his mother.

Aubrey might have been a scruff and a dilettante, but he was also an acknowledged regional expert on the Middle East. He had been in Egypt in 1904 and then gone to Constantinople on a two-year diplomatic posting. He was reasonably fluent in Turkish, Greek, Albanian and Arabic as well as French and German, and well liked across the region. (So well liked that, just before the outbreak of the Great War, he would be approached by the government of Albania and asked whether he would like to become king. He cabled home.
Have been offered throne of Albania stop may I accept love Aubrey
. The Earl’s reply was terse and to the point.
No. Carnarvon

Aubrey and Mary were married on 20 October 1910 at St James’s, Piccadilly. It was a quintessential Society wedding, and Almina was insistent that the couple should begin their honeymoon at Highclere. The children, Porchy and Eve, were particularly delighted with that suggestion, since they adored their bumbling, exuberant uncle.

It wasn’t long before Aubrey’s dress returned to its naturally chaotic state, and the house parties at Pixton were made only marginally more dignified by the introduction of Mary’s elegant friends.

Aubrey and Mary were given her mother’s magnificent house at 28 Bruton Street as a wedding gift. They were living just a few doors down from Almina’s mother Marie,
and round the corner from Carnarvon HQ in Berkeley Square. The family network was extremely handy when Lord and Lady Carnarvon were abroad, as they very frequently were. Porchy remembered lots of stays with his grandmother, who was only too pleased to look after the children and spoke nothing but French with them.

Almina was by this time thirty-six years old. She had been married for seventeen years, had metamorphosed from a slightly suspect young unknown to the public face of the Carnarvon partnership. As her husband’s health got worse, she took on more and more of the hosting duties, more of the networking that sustained their lives. These days, Carnarvon preferred to ask connections from Egypt to stay at Highclere. He was beginning to acquire a notable collection of small exquisite works of Egyptian art. Carnarvon appropriated the breakfast room for his ‘Antiques Room’ and – through the British Museum – organised proper display cupboards to be made. Almina had to ensure that the staff completely cleared the Dining Room at the end of an evening because the family would have to breakfast in there from now on.

Small details like this were not enough to keep Almina occupied. Her vast energy lacked outlets and she was patently looking around for something other than the social whirl and household management to occupy her.

For a while she seems to have thought her passion might be politics. The year 1910 was a big one in British politics. In 1909 the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Liberal government, David Lloyd George, had proposed the ‘People’s Budget’, which included radical reform of the tax system, explicitly designed to redistribute money from the
wealthy to the poor via an increase in social welfare. More controversially, it also included a land tax. The budget was rejected by the House of Lords, causing a furore and triggering a general election in January 1910 that produced a coalition government led by the Liberals in alliance with the Irish Parliamentary Party. The Liberals won just two more seats than the Conservatives and promptly began to try to limit the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation. By the middle of the year, everyone was waiting for another general election to be called since the government was virtually deadlocked, particularly over the budget and the issue of Home Rule for Ireland.

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