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.
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
TO READ CHAPTER ONE
from Chapter 1, London, England
April 28th 1987
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"
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"
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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"
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'.
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.
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.
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.
I saw the family line of the Westminsters.
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.
April 29th 1987
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.
well known is how the name was given to......... to be continued