Obituary: Alexander Charles Robert Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the 9th Marquess of Londonderry, aristocrat and landowner

9th Marquess of Londonderry: An unconventional aristocrat whose life was beset by personal and financial misfortune
9th Marquess of Londonderry: An unconventional aristocrat whose life was beset by personal and financial misfortune
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BORN: 7 September, 1937, in County Durham. Died: 20 June, 2012, in Richmond, Surrey, aged 74

The 9th Marquis of Londonderry was never a conventional aristocrat and in a challenging life he suffered many disappointments both personal and financial. He inherited considerable family assets in 1965 – including the grand Londonderry House at the foot of London’s Park Lane, the estate in Wynyard Park in County Durham and the opulent Mount Stewart in County Down.

In many ways Londonderry would have preferred a musical or academic life. He was a talented musician and became an accomplished pianist and an authority on the music of Franz Liszt. Londonderry was also a fine linguist with a profound knowledge of European art and literature.

Alexander Charles Robert Vane-Tempest-Stewart, always known as Alistair, was the son of Robin Vane-Tempest-Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, heir to the Londonderry title.

He had two older sisters, of whom the younger, Annabel, became better known as Lady Annabel Birley and later Lady Annabel Goldsmith, wife of Sir James Goldsmith and mother of Jemima Khan. He was educated at Eton where he founded a jazz band called the Eton Five.

The family is one of the oldest in the peerage and had gained a high social profile in the 1930s when the then marchioness entertained extravagantly at Londonderry House. Many senior politicians and royalty were regular guests – including the Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, who proclaimed himself as her “attendant ghillie”.

Londonderry’s father was an arch-appeaser (labelled the “Londonderry Herr” at Westminster). He died in 1949. Londonderry’s youth was not easy. His mother died of mouth cancer in 1951 and his father became a chronic alcoholic and died of liver failure in 1955.

Londonderry battled to put the family affairs in order. He renovated Wynyard Park, which the art historian Nicholas Pevsner described as “the most splendid 19th-century mansion house in the county.”

Londonderry was, however, forced to sell Wynyard in 1987 to the property developer and owner of Newcastle United FC, Sir John Hall.

Tax and an unhappy management of the family affairs continued to cause Londonderry financial problems. Londonderry House was sold to Hilton Hotels, which then built the skyscraper that exists to this day, while Mount Stewart was made over to the National Trust.

Londonderry was not the most diplomatic of aristocrats. He upset the establishment soon after he inherited by attacking the monarchy and then, in 1958, marrying the 17-year-old Nicolette Harrison, a blonde beauty.

They had two daughters and a son who, as heir to the Londonderry title, was given the courtesy title of Viscount Castlereagh. However, when the baby was 18 months old, blood tests established that he was not, in fact, Londonderry’s, but the son of the 1960s pop star Georgie Fame.

The scandal caused much distress to the family and the couple divorced in 1971. The following year Londonderry married a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, Doreen Wells. That marriage ended in divorce after 17 years but Londonderry was soon to face a further humiliation.

Lady Cosima Somerset, whom Londonderry publicly accepted as his daughter by his first wife, was well known in society and became a close friend of Diana, Princess of Wales. Lady Cosima claimed that her biological father was the nightclub pianist Robin Douglas-Home, nephew of the former prime minister, Sir Alec Douglas Home.

Robin Douglas-Home was well known in London club circles and was a former lover of Princess Margaret. To add to the scandal Douglas-Home killed himself in the 1960s.

Londonderry tried to settle down and overcome these personal disasters. He committed himself to music and writing and helped in the education of young students. He assisted in the careers of young pianists – notably John Ogdon and Leslie Howard, both of whom became pianists of international renown.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Franz Liszt in 1986 Londonderry invited the legendary pianist Earl Wild to give a series of three recitals of music by the composer (Wild About Liszt) at Wynyard Park. All three proved hugely popular and made splendid use of the imposing house.

But the Londonderry jinx continued. In 1993 Nicolette committed suicide by jumping off the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Londonderry’s second marriage was dissolved. For many years Londonderry split his life between his villa in Tuscany and a house in Shaftesbury, Dorset.

He much preferred to remain away from the social scene – he never, for example, took his seat in the House of Lords – and quietly furthered his studies of Italian and French literature.

Lord Londonderry is survived by the two daughters of his first marriage and two sons by his second. His eldest son, Viscount Castlereagh, succeeds to the title.

Alasdair Steven