Friday, May 20, 2016

So much more than "a splendid chatelaine"

In June 1936, British newspapers reported the death of Alice Blanche Balfour at the age of 86, and described her variously as either “a splendid chatelaine” or perfect sister”.

As can be seen from this version from The Gloucester Citizen, it would seem she was mainly remembered for her housekeeper duties for her bachelor brother, former British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour *, and even that she was a sister-in-law to Henry Sidgwick.

At least the obituary in The Times was more forthcoming and touched on Alice’s accomplishments in her own right; being an author, artist, prolific letter-writer and contributor to magazines. She had wide interests that included entomology, archaeology and even early genetics.

When Miss Balfour first became mistress of her brothers house in 1876, she could not foresee that she was committing herself to a life-time of the duties which usually devolve upon the wife of a statesman. Arthur Balfour had up to that time shown no special political promise. He was young, rich, and popular. It was not likely that a sister would long be his companion. But the unlikely happened, and he did not marry.
As the duties of her position increased, Miss Balfour allowed herself less and less time to develop the real bent of her talents, which were pre-eminently artistic and scientific.

Alice made the gardens at the family home of Wittingehame in Scotland famous for their colour and plant groupings but ... the deepest of her intellectual interests was always for natural science ... and she had ... the making of a true researcher: passionate love of truth, detachment from prejudice, and fine powers of observation and deduction.

It was inevitable that Alice had an interest in politics, being involved in the Primrose League and under her auspices the Young Conservatists Union was established. She was also involved in education and advancement of women, such as the Swanley Women’s Agricultural College which trained women in gardening, dairy, poultry and bee-keeping and other skills considered practical for women who had no choice but to earn their own living both at home and further afield in the Empire. Alice also founded the East Lothian Benefit Nursing Association. She was interested in archaeology and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland

Her book Twelve Hundred Miles in a Waggon published in 1895 tells of her challenging travels in often primitive and dangerous conditions with members of the Grey family (including Albert Grey a future Governor-General of Canada) through South Africa, Rhodesia and East Africa to Zanzibar. Her descriptions of this pioneering trip are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the colonial history of this part of the world.

Cover of later facsimile edition

After Arthur died in 1930, Alice retreated to her home at Wittingehame where she often made expeditions across the moors or to the seashore collecting insects. Her collections of butterflies and moths were bequeathed to the Edinburgh Natural History Museum.

Before her sight faded, she did many paintings of flowers and local landscapes. There is also a report that she enjoyed doing fantasy drawings of dragons for her nieces and nephews.

So where are Alices paintings today? Apart from those reproduced in Twelve Hundred Miles, the only ones to be found are in a series of stamps from the 1970s for Rhodesia just prior to it becoming Zimbabwe, such as these below.

Also as is too often the case with self-effacing women like Alice who lived their lives catering to the needs of prominent men, finding a decent image of her is a problem. If she ever had a formal portrait done, it is probably still in private hands as none is listed in the major galleries. This is the only one accessible online but in spite of the net covering her face, she looks to be a lively and approachable woman.

The Times obituary ends with this tribute:

Injustice she abhorred, and she was never unjust except, unfortunately, to herself. Some notion of the independence of mind she persistently underrated may be gathered from this story. An American diplomatist, after visiting her and her brother, recorded in his published letters that Lord Balfours sister was herself capable of governing the country. I never did think much of that mans brains,’ was Miss Balfours only comment.

* Perhaps now best remembered for the Balfour Declaration regarding the creation of a Jewish homeland. The Balfour home at Whittinghame became a school for Jewish refugee children during World War II and for some time afterwards. Alice is sure to have approved. Read about it here.