© 1987
  The Face Behind The Flowers 
Her life embraced art, politics, the threatened environment and a quest for a very elusive Amazon flower. Most of all all Margaret was an brilliant story-teller .
 Uncovering the Secret Life of Margaret Mee
Tony Morrison 

Chapter Two - A Short Walk in Mayfair

Margaret Mee was one of the 20th century's most accomplished botanical artists. She was British and lived almost half of her life in Brazil. Margaret is best remembered for her meticulous compositions of Amazonian flowers, many of them extremely rare and some now bearing her name.

Her life had many peaks. She had strong political leanings and made her first mark in the 1930s. In the late 1960's Margaret's talent as an artist created a stir in London and in 1988 she became a household name coast to coast in the USA. The lavishly illustrated book In Search of Flowers of the Amazon Forests* had just been published when in one of those quirks of a life she died in a car accident in England. This is the story of my search for the woman behind a face which charmed millions. The quest began in 1970 and reached four continents


Continuing from Chapter 1, London, England

Tuesday April 28th 1987

Westminster in the heart of London and Amazonia are poles apart. Or at least they seem to be at first glance. The elegant London buildings, the abbey, cathedral and the home of the British parliament are far removed from the humid river backwaters I knew so well. But I had to start somewhere and I turned to John Brocklehurst a long-time friend. John Brocklehust straddled the gap between the easy going people of the forest and London's rich and powerful. "John, I need to take up your offer to meet Sally Westminster"

I was a frequent visitor to his very welcoming 'flat' and he replied " Just say 'when' Tony and I'll ask her to join us for dinner. I'll need to look in my diary as the 'Brocklehurst Arms' is always crowded at this time of year"

One could be forgiven for thinking he had in mind dinner in a local 'pub or hotel emblazoned with his name but 'The Brocklehurst Arms ' was simply John's private joke. His comfortable home lay conveniently within calling distance of Big Ben or the Palace of Westminster and was open to all his friends. Sometimes as many as three were staying at one time. A noble lord in one room, an ambassador in another and an a family from Thailand in another was an average mix. "You know the form. The drinks are free . Help yourself". He did not need to move from his chair. His friends knew their way around and he watched helpfully over the top of his dark rimmed spectacles

We had met in Peru in the late 1960's and been firm friends very since. A good six feet tall , thinning hair and an extraordinarily straight back John was always dressed immaculately except pehaps on Saturdays when he would head for the lazy country rivers of Hampshire and some fly fishing. That was his image but beneath was an exceptional character moulded by years of work as an expert in silverware in London's exclusive Mayfair and as he put it, 'four years as a guest of the Japanese'. He had spent the second world war in Thailand as a prisoner or slave labourer on the Burma Railway best known for the film story 'The Bridge over The River Kwai'. Now retired he returned frequently to Thailand and Pakistan to see people he had known since those notorious years.

Our last journey together had been in Peru a year before. One evening he had said rather rashly. "I must tag along on one of your Amazon journeys" and that led to a trip to the remote 'Isthmus of Fitcarrald' an arduous trek in dense forest between two great rivers. John was then sixty seven and quite determined to carry all his bags unaided. It had been a fascinating journey with many high points. His fly fishing line had snagged repeatedly much to the amusement of the Nahua a long lost tribe. Then back in a decrepit riverside village of stilted palm thatched houses we had enjoyed drinking beer and watching the humid tropical world pass by. Canoes loaded with people slipped in and out from a steep red earth bank. Women with laundry, slim girls with flowing glossy black hair and dozens of football mad children nodded 'buenas tardes' while wondering why we were there. Apart from South Americas's greatest discovery of natural gas just a day before and ten minutes away by helicopter we were lost in a time-warp. The single lodging house carried a sign in Spanish above the rickety balcony saying 'Please do not urinate from here'. So we placed our chairs carefully out of range of any humorist and gazed at the unruffled Amazon world of Peru. Back in the heart of Westminster and settled on a sofa I said "You will not forget Lizzie in a hurry " I mentioned her name between a gulp of excellent Scotch and painful memories of enormous, exceedingly blood-thirtsy mosquitoes.

"Have another, that was a donation to the cause from.... " and he raised his glass to a high ranking government manadarin. We laughed about the simple hardships of our trip."Give me Thailand or Pakistan any day". John still had to be convinced that my passion for South Amercan jungles was justified. "After that trip in Peru I gave a copy of your book to Sally Westminster and she enjoyed it immensely. She always mentions it."

I wondered. Perhaps it was the same copy I had seen in Margaret's home in Santa Teresa. Who was the Duchess? Her name carried a lot of weight and our paths had often come close to meeting through the small London based Anglo Peruvian Society. Now I was focusing on Brazil and how Sally Westminster had come to know Margaret Mee. John asked for some background.

"Last year I was following the footsteps of 'Lizzie' but this time it's another English woman traveller,....He looked up smiling in his Johnish way. " You seem to be making a habit of them?" His eyes twinkled with interest. I continued , " This time it's Margaret Mee .... almost eighty and who lives in Rio" And I added "She's a totally different cup of tea"

Lizzie's story was one of adventure, history, hardship and her sudden death in remote Amazonia. Margaret's was adventure filled to overflowing with artistic talent" She's a great friend of Sally Westminster and I'm intrigued. There has to be a reason" Even at this early stage of my search for Margaret's background its connection with British aristocracy had grabbed my nose for a 'story'.

John turned to his glass fronted bookcase and selected an enormous volume. He breathed deeply and uncomfortably. " Are you alright, John? " He wheezed slightly " Yes I'm OK it is just my chest. I smoked too much and the Thai weed in the camp didn't help" He smiled with his well loved smile and turning to me " It was godawful stuff. We called it 'Hag's Bush' , Eh what?" That was John at his best. Unforgiving and with humour. I never liked to ask him about his straight back.

He turned the pages of the standard reference work to anyone of note in the Britain. " The Westminster title is short and curious" he said, glancing at a page " It begins here and you will soon discover the story. The most I can tell you about Sally is that she is a delightful woman, very adventurous, thoughtful and extremely kind." Then he added "There's a bit more than that but perhaps it's best left for now" John was discretion and etiquette bundled securely. I didn't pursue the matter and he continued.

"Sally is the widow of the fourth Duke of Westminster. He died in 1967 and almost from that day she began to travel alone to the far flung parts of the world. She visited Peru which is why she has links with the Society" John said I could read the book in my local library so I pressed for some other information. "As well as Peru she knows Brazil, Borneo, parts of the Sahara desert, Fiji and as a good deal of others. Her main passion is for a flock of prize sheep she keeps on her land at Wickwar in Gloucester. Here, read it for yourself while I 'phone to see if there's a table in the Thai restaurant just around the corner". He passed me the book.

Immediately I saw the family line of the Westminsters.

' Grosvenor.... '

The present duke was Sixth Duke and he had been born in 1951.He was Britain's wealthiest man and the family name was synonomous with much of central London. Sally was some way below on the family tree and had married the Fourth duke, Gerald in 1945. Gerald's father was a son of the First Duke and Sally's father was given simply as George Perry. So who was George Perry. "John. you must know something. You have implied there's more". He was quiet. "Have another scotch" He said and put the book back on the shelf. We turned to chatting about Peru. But uppermost in my mind was Margaret's friendship with Sally Westminster. Somehow her past and present just didn't square.

Wednesday April 29th 1987

My next stop was just off Grosvenor Square - named after the Westminster family and home of the embassy of the United States of America. It had been the scene of many demonstrations including the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960's.

The most violent was in March 1968 when the police made 200 arrests, 86 people were injured, fifty people were taken to hospital including twenty five police. The actress Vanessa Redgrave representing the Workers Revolutiomary Party delivered a letter of protest to the embassy.

Less well known is how the name was given to......... to be continued

This account is based on notes, recordings and diaries. If any inaccuracies are noticed please send an e-mail. The editor will be pleased to insert corrections. Everyone mentioned in the text has received my special thanks and I take this opportunity to say 'thank you' again. TM. All the material is available without charge for scholars worldwide and other non-commericial use. A credit would be appreciated. For commercial use please request permission from the editor.

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