BELL, Gertrude (1868-1926)
Plaque erected in 2019 by English Heritage at 95 Sloane Street, London, SW1X 9PQ, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
Traveller, archaeologist, diplomat
Archaeology and Ethnography, Politics and Administration, Travel and Exploration
GERTRUDE BELL 1868-1926 Traveller, archaeologist and diplomat lived here
Gertrude Bell is best remembered for her travel writings on the Middle East and her key role in establishing the modern state of Iraq. She is commemorated with a blue plaque at 95 Sloane Street in Chelsea, which she used as her London base for over 40 years.
Born into the sixth richest family in England, Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell had a privileged and liberal upbringing in North Yorkshire. In 1884 she was sent to school at Queen’s College, London, and stayed with her stepmother’s family at 95 Sloane Street in Chelsea. Described by Bell’s biographer as ‘a narrow, dingy house, all dusty red velvet and heavy furniture, with a lingering smell of tomcat’, number 95 would remain Bell’s London base throughout her life.
One of her longest stays was for six months in 1915 when she managed the London office of the Red Cross’s Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. Despite breaking down gender barriers in her own life, while in London she was an active campaigner against women’s suffrage, becoming one of the founding members of the Anti-Suffrage League in 1908.
TRAVELS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
Bell first visited Persia (now Iran) in 1892, and published a translation of the works of the Sufi poet Hafez when she returned. Persian was one of six languages she spoke, alongside Arabic, French, German, Italian and Turkish. In the summers of 1899–1904 she undertook a series of climbs in the Alps. In 1901 she climbed ten new routes or first ascents in the Engelhörner group in the Bernese Oberland, and one peak is named Gertrudspitze after her. Her ascent of the Matterhorn in August 1904 marked the end of her alpinism, and she turned her attentions back to the Middle East.
Over the course of the next 12 years Bell undertook six major expeditions, on horseback or camelback, through the deserts of what are now Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Her explorations spawned a number of classic travelogues, notably The Desert and the Sown (1907). She also published several archaeological works on areas unfamiliar to Westerners, including the scholarly monograph The Palace and Mosque of Ukhaidir: a Study in Early Mohammadan Architecture (1914).
Although Bell’s journeys were often gruelling and dangerous, she always ensured a touch of luxury was on hand. She travelled with a Wedgwood dinner service, silver candlesticks and hairbrushes, and two tents – one for her writing table and one for her bed and bath (in which she washed with lavender soap). She carried fashionable evening wear in her luggage, but hid guns beneath her petticoats and carried cartridges in her boots.
Bell’s mastery of Arabic languages and her first-hand knowledge of the tribal allegiances and geography of the Middle East made her a powerful figure in the world of politics and diplomacy. Some of her essays, collected together as The Arab of Mesopotamia, were given as an instruction manual to British officers newly arrived in Basra, and in 1917 she was appointed Chief Political Officer to the British Resident in Baghdad. She later played a considerable role in establishing the modern state of Iraq. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, she helped set Iraq’s boundaries and installed its first ruler, King Faisal, in 1922.
At the end of her life she turned once again to archaeology and established the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad in 1923. It was in that city that Bell died in July 1926, following an overdose of sleeping pills that she may have taken intentionally. King Faisal immediately ordered a military funeral, and she was buried that day in the British Civil Cemetery in central Baghdad.