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Lees-Milne, George James Henry

    Full Name: Lees-Milne, George James Henry

    Other Names:

    • "Jim"

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 06 August 1908

    Date Died: 28 December 1997

    Place Born: Wickhamford Manor, Worcestershire, UK

    Place Died: Tetbury, Gloucestershire, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), preservation (function), preserving, protection (maintenance function), and sculpture (visual works)

    Career(s): preservationists


    Architectural Historian and preservationist; diarist. Lees-Milne was eldest son of George Crompton Lees-Milne (1880-1949), a Lancashire mill-owner, and Helen Christina Bailey (Lees-Milne) (1884-1962). He attended Lockers Park boarding school (Hempstead Hertfordshire), Eton College, 1921-1926, and Grenoble University, 1927-1928, before entering Magdalen College, Oxford. He graduated in modern history in 1931. A chance discovery of a brutish renter desecrating a William Kent building in north of Oxford purportedly led Lees-Milne to vow to preserve the country houses of England. Having attended a stenography school at his father’s insistence, Lees-Milne acted as secretary to George Lloyd, 1st Baron Lloyd of Dolobran (1879-1941), at the time high commissioner to Egypt, 1931-1934 and then briefly to Sir Roderick Jones (1877-1962), owner of Reuters, 1934-1935. Raised an Anglican, he converted to Catholicism in 1934. When Philip Henry Kerr, 11th Marquess of Lothian (1882-1940) instituted a larger role for country houses in the National Trust the same year, the writer Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962) secured Lees-Milne the job of administrator (“secretary”) to the new Country Houses Committee (later renamed Historic Buildings Committee) of the National Trust in 1936. He remained there until 1966. Lees-Milne, together with the political influence of grandees such as Lothian, saved these building from Depression-era debt and disbursement by changing enacting the National Trust Acts 1937 and 1939, allowing families donate their houses to the Trust and occasionally remain in them. These began with two important estates in 1934, Montacute and Barrington Court. When Britain entered World War II, Lees-Milne joined the Irish Guards, 1940, but was discharged the following year as a lieutenant and returned to the Trust. Traveling by bicycle and sometimes train (gasoline was rationed) he identified and saved the estates of Ham, Cliveden, Polesden Lacey, Knole, Petworth, Stourhead, and Osterley by 1945. Architectural treasures were not his only criteria. Lees-Milne added the homes of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) (in Chelsea), that of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) and Henry James (1843-1916) (in Sussex) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) (in Hertfordshire). During this time he kept careful diaries of his work which were later published. His first book was one on architectural history, The Age of Adam, 1947. The same year he met Bernard Berenson at Berenson’s Villa I Tatti. A life-long homosexual (disclosed in his posthumous diaries), he met Alvilde Bridges (1909-1994) in 1950, a wealthy divorcée living in France, marrying her the following year. He relinquished his position at the Trust, retaining a status of architectural advisor to live with her at La Meridienne, at Roquebrune, département Alpes Maritimes, France, where she created gardens. He ceased his diary entries at this time (Fergusson). In Italy, Lees-Milne met and worked with the British art writers Hugh Honour and John Fleming who had residence there. His 1956 Roman Mornings was awarded the Heinemann prize. Two books on baroque architecture, one of Italy and the other of the Iberian peninsula were published in 1959 and 1960. The couple returned to England in 1961 to Alderley Grange, near Wotton under Edge, Gloucestershire. He returned to diary-writing in the 1970s and reverted to Anglicanism. In 1971 the couple moved to Essex House, Badminton. Lees-Milne wrote most of his later works at William Beckford’s library and home in Bath, which Lees-Milne used as his office. He resigned as architectural advisor from the Trust in 1966 but remained on the properties committee until 1973. His wartime diaries, Ancestral Voices, appeared in 1975 followed by Prophesying Peace in 1977. In 1980 he brought out the first volume of his two-volume biography of the diplomat (and Vite-Sackville spouse) Harold Nicolson (1886-1968). The first of the two diaries of his published in his lifetime, Caves of Ice, appeared in 1983 and the second, Midway on the Waves in 1985. His People and Places: Country House Donors and the National Trust was issued in 1992. The evaluations contained in their memoirs, of his friends, National Trust donors and others shocked the reading public. Alvilde’s health declined first and she died of a stroke in 1994. Encouraged by the notoriety of his diaries, he published Fourteen Friends in 1996 with sketches of Sacheverell Reresby Sitwell and others whom he termed formative for him. Lees-Milne himself succumbed to cancer at the end of 1997. His ashes–as were his wife’s–were scattered in the garden at their Essex House. His later diaries were published Lees-Milne’s architectural histories have not withstood the test of time. Though engagingly written they failed to produce lasting documentation or insight for art history. His fame today largely rests upon his deft portraits of contemporaries. “Jim Lees-Milne was careful of his carapace. He said he preferred buildings to people, yet his appetite for social activity was indefatigable.” (Fergusson). His critics accused him of snobbery, a jibe at his criticisms of the governing class. More of a stylist than a social historian, his diary entries cannot be relied upon for biographical data. They were praised by such unlikely readers as the Southwestern author Larry McMurtry in his 2009 Literary Life: A Second Memoir.

    Selected Bibliography

    The Age of Adam. London/New York: B.T. Batsford, 1947; Tudor Renaissance. London/New York: Batsford 1951; The Age of Inigo Jones. London: Batsford, 1953; Baroque in Italy. London: Batsford, 1959; Baroque in Spain and Portugal, and its Antecedents. London: Batsford. 1960 (see Bazin’s critique, p. 439); Earls of Creation: Five Great Patrons of Eighteenth-Century Art. London: H. Hamilton, 1962; Saint Peter’s; the Story of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967; English Country Houses: Baroque, 1685-1715. Feltham: Country Life Books, 1970; [diary:] Prophesying Peace. London: Chatto and Windus, 1977; William Beckford. Tisbury, Wiltshire: Compton Russell, 1976; [diary:] Caves of Ice. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983; Fourteen Friends. London: John Murray, 1996.


    Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986, p. 439; Lees-Milne, James. Prophesying Peace. London: Chatto and Windus, 1977; Lees-Milne, James. Caves of Ice. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983; Fegusson, James. “Milne, (George) James Henry Lees-.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Bloch, Michael. James Lees-Milne: the Life. London: John Murray, 2009.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen


    Lee Sorensen. "Lees-Milne, George James Henry." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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