(George) James Henry Lees-Milne (6 August 1908 – 28 December 1997) was an English writer and expert on country houses, who worked for the National Trust from 1936 to 1973. He was an architectural historian, novelist and biographer: his extensive diaries remain in print.
Life and career
Lees-Milne was born into a prosperous manufacturing family on 6 August 1908 in Wickhamford, Worcestershire. He attended Lockers Park School in Hertfordshire, Eton, and Oxford University from which he graduated with a Third Class in History in 1931. From 1931 to 1935, he was Private Secretary to George Lloyd, 1st Baron Lloyd of Dolobran.
In 1936 he was appointed secretary of the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust. He held that position until 1950, apart from a period of military service from 1939 to 1941. During that time he was a regular contributor to the Trust's member newsletter, penning various features. He was instrumental in the first large-scale transfer of country houses from private ownership to the Trust. After resigning his full-time position in 1950, he continued his connection with the National Trust as a part-time architectural consultant and member of committees.
Lees-Milne was visiting Diana Mosley when King Edward VIII abdicated. His visit there was to examine the seventeenth-century house she and her husband Sir Oswald Mosley were then renting; he recorded later how he and Diana (her husband was in London) had listened to the King's broadcast abdication speech with tears running down their faces. He had loved her brother Tom Mitford when they were at Eton College, and was devastated when Tom was killed in action in Burma in 1945.
He married Alvilde, Viscountess Chaplin, née Bridges, a prominent gardening and landscape expert, in 1951. Alvilde Lees-Milne died in 1994. Both Lees-Milne and Alvilde were bisexual, and Alvilde is reputed to have had lesbian affairs with Vita Sackville-West and Winnaretta Singer, among others.
After thirteen years living at Alderley Grange, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire and a brief sojourn in Bath, he and Alvilde resided after 1974 at Essex House on the Badminton estate, also in Gloucestershire, while he worked most days in William Thomas Beckford's library at Lansdown Crescent. While living in Badminton he entered a feud with his landlord, the Duke of Beaufort, whose passion for foxhunting and autocratic manner appalled him. As a Trustee of the Bath Preservation Trust, he became a Founding Trustee of its Beckford's Tower Trust, established in 1977 to preserve and maintain the building and its collection for public benefit.
He was a friend of many of the most prominent British intellectual and social figures of his day, including Nancy Mitford, Harold Nicolson—about whom he wrote a two-volume biography—Deborah Mitford, and Cyril Connolly.
From 1947 Lees-Milne published a series of architectural works aimed primarily at the general reader. He was also a diarist, and his witty, waspish and extensive diaries were published in twelve volumes. Well received, they have attracted a cult following. Larry McMurtry commented that Lees-Milne, like Pepys and Boswell before him, was disarmingly open about his own failings—indeed, would not have known how to go about concealing them". Nicholas Birns observes that Lees-Milne spoke "so candidly about himself, his life, and his love of art and architecture that his authorial relationship with the reader becomes a privileged one, not to be readily or casually communicated, not to be flaunted or brandished." Lees-Milne, though, also wrote other works, which included several biographies—for instance of Harold Nicolson, The Bachelor Duke of Devonshire, and Lord Esher—and an autobiographical novel.
- The Age of Adam (1947)
- The Tudor Renaissance (1951)
- The Age of Inigo Jones (1953)
- Roman Mornings (1956)
- Earls of Creation: Five Great Patrons of Eighteenth-Century Art (1962)
- St Peter's: The Story of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome (1967)
- English Country Houses: Baroque, 1685–1715 (1970)
- Another Self (1970), an autobiographical novel
- William Beckford (1976)
- Round the Clock (1978)
- Harold Nicolson: A Biography, 2 vols. (1980–1)
- The Last Stuarts: British Royalty in Exile (1984)
- The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher (1986)
- The Bachelor Duke: A Life of William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, 1790–1858 (1991)
- Ruthenshaw (1994), fiction, a ghost story
- Fourteen Friends (1996)
- Ancestral Voices 1942–3 (1975)
- Prophesying Peace (1977)
- Caves of Ice (1983)
- Midway on the Waves (1985)
- A Mingled Measure (1994)
- Ancient as the Hills (1997)
- Through Wood and Dale (1998)
- Deep Romantic Chasm (2000)
- Holy Dread (2001)
- Beneath a Waning Moon (2003)
- Ceaseless Turmoil (2004)
- The Milk of Paradise (2005)
- Fergusson, James (29 December 1997). "Obituary: James Lees-Milne". The Independent. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
- Oxford University Calendar 1932, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1932, pg.299
- James Lees-Milne, Ancestral Voices (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975), 6n1
- Review of Diaries, 1971–1983 by James Lees-Milne, Sunday Express, retrieved 18 November 2007
- Michael Bloch 'James Lees-Milne – The Life' – see Sources
- 24 January 2012
- "Afternoon Drama, James Lees-Milne". BBC. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
- Michael Bloch, James Lees-Milne: The Life (John Murray, 2009), ISBN 978-0-7195-6034-7). An authorised biography.
- LEES-MILNE, James, Who Was Who, A & C Black, 1920–2015; online edn, Oxford University Press, 2014