God Save the Desert Queen: Defending the Memory of Gertrude Bell

Archaeologist, alpineer, cartographer, curator, diplomat, explorer, nation-maker, political advisor, translator, spy, writer: what do these different careers have in common? All were practised by Gertrude Bell (1868­–1926) throughout her remarkable life. In a letter written to Bell’s step-mother in 1926, George V admiringly described her as ‘One who…will prove lasting benefit to the country’. Yet his words highlight a tragic irony: Bell’s life and works risk being forgotten. Her childhood home, Red Barns, located in the North Yorkshire seaside town of Redcar, is being considered for demolition, thus destroying a significant memorial to one of the 20th century’s most influential figures.

Red Barns (050) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle
Red Barns (050) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle

Tracing Gertrude Bell across the globe is an impressive but also depressing endeavour. Her remaining traces are the token blue plaque at Red Barns, a memorial window in Rounton Church, an exhibition room in the National Museum of Iraq, and finally the Gertrudspitze – the Alpine peak named in her honour after she became the first to successfully ascend the mountain. She crossed the globe many times, almost always in order to defend the Arab people and their culture. She protected archaeological sites from exposure by over-zealous Oxford university professors, and led attempts to reinstate stability in the Middle East after the withdrawal of British, French and Ottoman Empires. She spoke at the League of Nations against creating a Jewish state in the centre of Palestine. She negotiated with Arab leaders throughout the 1900s as a diplomat, and secured safe passage of supplies through the Middle East during World War One so they could reach the British army. She was not the typical historical stereotype of a bigoted colonialist, but an admirer of the Arab people and the Middle East (so much so that she became known as ‘Khatun’, meaning ‘desert queen’). Her achievements gained recognition across continents, and yet today, few people in Britain have heard of her.

While only a few books recount her life, several films also overlook her legacy in the Middle East. Despite being her friend and protégée, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) ignores its protagonist’s debt to Bell. Meanwhile, the maps Bell painstakingly drew based on her travels are incorrectly attributed to a man in The English Patient (1996). Werner Herzog’s Desert Queen (2015)  is a more recent attempt to revive interest in Bell, but his biopic was slammed for failing to make Bell ‘add up to more than a series of voguish poster-girl poses’. The film reduced her life to a series of short-lived romances, taking little interest in her meticulous grasp of the Middle East’s complexities.

Gertrude Bell (004B) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle
Gertrude Bell (004B) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle

It seems unlikely that an under-informed public will clamour for the preservation of Bell’s home. Yet the transformation of Red Barns into a monument and museum is the only way to maintain her family’s heritage, who were renowned Victorian industrialists and philanthropists in their own right. Their presence in the North East changed a generation’s fate: her grandfather pioneered efficient steel manufacturing methods in the North East, and founded a multitude of companies that created an economic boom in Middlesbrough and Wearside.

But Bell’s home should be preserved not only because it would be living testimony to Bell and her family, but also because it is an architectural feat. Designed by the renowned architect Phillip Webb (1831–1915), Red Barns is an exemplar of Arts and Crafts architecture. But today the house is in ruins after it was turned into a school and then a hotel, which has been left it derelict since 2013. The ornamental fountain has been stolen from the pond, and the stained-glass windows have been destroyed and boarded up. Anyone who saw Red Barns in its heyday would be surprised at its bleak appearance today, which substantially differs from the carefully cultivated gardens and beautifully designed interiors that appear in Bell’s photographs. Red Barns is nevertheless in a better state than Rounton Grange – the family home Bell moved into upon her grandfather’s death. All that remains is a fraction of its gardens and the glass house. It was demolished in 1953 after an attempt to gift it to the National Trust was deemed financially unviable.

Red Barns interior (052) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle
Red Barns interior (052) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle

Red Barns awaits a similar fate. Although the MP for Redcar, Anna Turley, is campaigning to save the building and turn it into a museum devoted to Bell, two years after The Guardian reported on the campaign, her office can only state that it is currently negotiating a ‘delicate deal’ to buy the building. But history does not give much hope for a successful outcome. Local councils have been trying to buy historical homes since the 1920s at a time when socio-economic circumstances were leading to their decline. Yet through a combination of suspect council dealings, lack of investment, and the desire for new-builds in the more modern Art Deco, and then brutalist styles, many masterpieces have been lost to the wrecking ball. Although numerous homes are listed or registered as significant historical buildings, shady schemes by avaricious property developers can circumvent the laws protecting them.

A recent example is Wakefield council’s sale of Clarke Hall, when government spending cuts meant the council could no longer afford to run the Jacobean hall (a listed building since 1953) as a museum. In 2015, Clarke Hall’s buyers ripped out the kitchen’s oak panelling and plastered over much of its original ceiling . Although an application for planning permission to alter Clarke Hall’s education centre in 2014 is viewable on Wakefield Council’s website, the are no traces of anything surrounding the sale of the building itself. This seems suspicious: the sale of Clarke Hall was presumably far more complex, since it permitted major changes on building.The mistake may have been a bureaucratic one, but the missing record may could suggest that private developers are manipulating planning regulations.

The treatment of Clarke Hall is a startling reminder of how badly councils manage historic properties. It raises fears over what property developers might do to Red Barns – which is in a considerably more fragile state than Clarke Hall. Anna Turley may have her heart in the right place, but there is little evidence to suggest her plans for the house are anything more than idealistic dreams.Asked to provide a statement on the subject, Cleveland Council said they have encouraged the current owners to stabilise the state of the building ‘and are satisfied that refurbishment will continue’ (Bob Norton, councillor spokesman and cabinet member for economic growth). In other words, the council have agreed to the building’s refurbishment by the present owner. But making sure that this is sympathetic to the building’s past is near-impossible. Indeed, the council minutes from February 2018, which discusses the future of Red Barns, are revealing:

There are no legal powers to require restoration of a listed building, only to require minimal preventative or repair work to be carried out, culminating in the power to compulsorily acquire. These powers, in the form of statutory notices, are intended to assist where negotiations are unlikely to deliver a satisfactory outcome. However, there are significant financial implications in pursuing such powers which means they are generally used only in exceptional circumstances. 

In other words, Cleveland Council cannot force the current owners to prevent the property from becoming derelict unless they are prepared to put the funds aside to buy Red Barns themselves. This is hardly at the top of the council’s agenda. Although Cleveland Council admits it has a ‘role is to monitor Grade-listed buildings and make sure they are being maintained properly’, it views the sale of the property as a contractual matter between buyer and seller, and not a matter of public interest. Planning permission to turn Red Barns into flats was granted in May 2014, and two attempts have already been made to convert Red Barns into flats in 2015 and 2016. It is only a matter of time before they will succeed in skirting around the same conservation laws that should have protected Clarke Hall.

Red Barns interior (053) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle
Red Barns interior (053) | © The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle

There is another ironic twist to this tale. When the museum Bell established in Baghdad, Iraq after her retirement from political office (as both a member of the British Embassy and advisor to the Iraq monarch King Faisal) was looted and damaged during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was closed immediately for major restoration. In 2015, after ISIS showed videos of the destruction of archaeological sites in Mosul, its re-opening was brought forwarded. The museum re-opened as the National Museum of Iraq, boasting an entire wing called the ‘Gertrude Bell Exhibition’.

Back in Britain, there has been no such progress on preserving Bell’s derelict former home. Britain is lagging embarrassingly behind Iraq in protecting its history and heroes, with the government relying on charities such as the National Trust and English Heritage to manage the preservation of historic sites. While the European Union is a proponent of cultural sites, with Brexit on the horizon, it seems even more likely that their preservation will be ignored. Britain is crying out for a radical overhaul of its cultural protection policy, but the public is barely aware of the fate of such buildings or their historical significance.

Turning Red Barns into a property development hardly does justice to Bell and her valuable legacy. If Red Barnes is left in the hands of private developers then it remains outside of the public realm – where I believe it belongs –  opening the site to the threat of dereliction and decay. In the absence of government action or funding, the only hope for Red Barns is if the public can take matters into their own hands, raise money to buy the property, and provide resources for its restoration. We must take up the challenge with the bravery which Bell spoke for those she wished to protect and the same rigour with which she defended the Arab people. If we fail, then we will lose the indisputable queen of the desert to the unforgiving sands of time.