Charitable self-made duchess of Cardigan Clarissa Eden dies aged 101

As the then richest woman in Britain, at the age of 92 she helped save the national treasure, House of Fraser. As the grande dame of contemporary arts, she was as formidable in her…

As the then richest woman in Britain, at the age of 92 she helped save the national treasure, House of Fraser. As the grande dame of contemporary arts, she was as formidable in her expertise, presence and sex appeal as anyone today. Clarissa Eden was a warm, generous woman with a mischievous sense of humour who adored her husband, Sir Frederick Eden, one of Britain’s longest surviving former Prime Ministers, and who raised their five children, while fostering many young artists and musicians.

Clarissa Eden, British Countess and Political Influencer, Dies at 101. Photograph: Alfred H Kitchener/Getty Images

She was best known for leading the purchase of Victoria and Albert Museum for £20.1m, which became the basis for the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1985, which underwrites more than 80% of Britain’s contemporary art galleries and is seen by the government as one of the UK’s most vital cultural contributions.

In addition to its contribution to the national value of British art, she helped to secure a building on the south bank of the Thames for this wonderful historical art exhibition and proved a major backer for exhibitions and musicians. She was especially happy to see the return of the Royal Academy of Music to its traditional location on Pall Mall.

Among those she befriended was Tracey Emin, whose 1988 exhibition The Past culminated in a letter from Clarissa Eden, rejecting the impressionist painting of pregnant naked women that Emin was requesting as her gift. Ego Rotter knew, from the start, that her spiky ebullience had an endearing openness. She loved travel and was delighted when the royal family threw Clarissa Eden the (single) Marquess of Cardigan a party.

Clarissa, the formidable former politcally inspired duchess of Cardigan. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Born into a wealthy aristocratic family in St Ives in 1893, she was a superb performer and was crowned Lady Chichester at the age of 19. She was educated at St Mary’s School in Lincolnshire, read art at the Royal College of Art in London, and joined the Territorial Army during the first world war, serving with the First Artillery. Later, at the age of 31, she became a Queen’s Counsel and went on to work with three British governments, first at the Ministry of Information in the 1930s. In 1952, she married her godson, Fred Eden, and the following year became Countess of Cardigan. They moved to Camberwell, South London, where she was made patron of a charity, and devoted herself to promotion of the arts, community service and raising five children.

Her real love was photography and she loved establishing and nurturing British artists and designers – she started the House of Harrods’ International Photography Show, then introduced distinguished international photographers at Conservative Party conferences. She exhibited contemporary art in the House of Cards public house in Southbank Place, then in the early 1980s she started hosting a gallery in Camberwell, adding artists and designers to her eclectic contemporary society programme.

In 1974 she became a patron of the Victoria and Albert Museum and in 1981 became its Duchess of Cardigan, her real name. In 1999 she was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2014 was awarded the Lanesborough Medal for Lifetime Achievement. She used her considerable social power and elegance to launch some long-planned art museum renovations at Camden Town, London and Glyndebourne House, Northamptonshire.

In 2010 she was awarded an MBE for her services to the arts and was awarded an honour of chivalry in 2011, becoming a Commander of the Art Newspaper’s Lanesborough Medal for Lifetime Achievement. In 2010, she and her friend, Titian, helped house a new Renaissance exhibition at the V&A.

Clarissa was a duchess, horse owner, horse trainer, matriarch, fashion designer, art patron, philanthropist, doting mother, fearless royal collector, lifelong champion of the arts, and best friend to all. She was best known for her most enduring interest: the energy, delight and fun she brought to enjoying life. In her final weeks of life she wanted nothing more than to be swept out of bed into her friends’ arms. She died peacefully at home on 31 March 2018 at the age of 101. She is survived by her husband, children Leslie and Alice, and five grandchildren.

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