Past Lives

Gertrude Bell at Mount Grace Priory

How industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell’s Arts and Crafts mansion became a retreat for his granddaughter Gertrude between her Arabian adventures

Image: Gertrude Bell

In the small parish church of St Lawrence in East Rounton, North Yorkshire, there is a stained-glass window depicting scenes that are somewhat unusual. On the left is the Matterhorn in the Alps above an image of Magdalen College, Oxford, and on the right there is a view of al-Khadimain mosque in Baghdad with a camel train above it. Designed by Douglas Strachan, this remarkable window is dedicated to the memory of an equally remarkable woman, Gertrude Bell (1868–1926).

Gertrude was one of the most accomplished women of her age. She enjoyed mountaineering; wrote a number of books; spoke Persian, Arabic, French and German; translated Sufi poetry; and studied photography, cartography, botany and archaeology. Recognised as an expert in Arabian desert travel and politics, she served as an adviser to kings and politicians, and played an instrumental role in the foundation of modern Iraq.

Gertrude spent her early years at her family home of Red Barns in Redcar. Her grandfather, industrialist Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, lived in Rounton Grange, a large country house that he built close to Mount Grace in 1876. It was designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Philip Webb, with interiors created by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones.

Lowthian Bell’s interest in the Arts and Crafts movement appears to have stretched to an appreciation of all things medieval. After receiving a letter from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings expressing concern about the future of Mount Grace Priory, he purchased the estate himself in 1898.

As Gertrude’s letters show, she knew the priory well and visited the ruins often with friends or for picnics. It may not be too fanciful to think that her interest in archaeology sprang from witnessing the investigations that took place here in the 1890s.

After studying modern history at Oxford, Gertrude set out to travel the world, gravitating towards the Middle East, where she settled. During her travels abroad she mentioned the priory many times in her letters home. Gertrude’s last visit to Mount Grace was in 1925, when she returned to visit her parents Hugh and Florence before her unexpected death in Baghdad in 1926.

Words: Mark Douglas

Illustration: Jasmine Whiteleaf