One of the last direct links to a great equestrian adventurer of the 20th century has died, with the passing of Jean, Lady Polwarth (Jean Cunninghame Graham) at the age of 90.
She and her family were close friends of the famed explorer, Aimé Tschiffely, the most influential Long Rider of the 20th century after his 10,000-mile ride from Buenos Aires to Washington DC in the 1920s.
Jean’s great-uncle was Robert Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936): Famous author, traveller, explorer, politician and adventurer, a man of extraordinary talents, tireless energy and considerable courage. His friend and contemporary Joseph Conrad remarked: “When I think of Cunninghame Graham, I feel as though I have lived all my life in a dark hole without seeing or knowing anything.”
During the course of an event-filled childhood, young Jean Cunninghame Graham spent many happy hours with both her great-uncle and his equally well-known friend, Aimé Tschiffely.
Tschiffely’s bestselling book about the journey, Tschiffely’s Ride, was published thanks only to the intervention of Cunninghame Graham, and the two men went on to become close friends.
When Cunninghame Graham (affectionately known as ‘Don Roberto’) died in 1936, he left his estate to his nephew, Admiral Sir Angus Cunninghame Graham, Jean’s father. Because he was a Naval Officer, and frequently at sea for long periods, he had to decide whom to appoint as “Literary Executor” to that estate. He decided in 1937 that Aimé and his wife Violeta were the obvious choice.
When Aimé died unexpectedly in 1954, Violeta automatically carried on until 1975, when she asked Sir Angus if she could retire. “He, in turn,” Jean told the Long Riders’ Guild, “appointed me to take charge of my great-uncle’s literary estate”.
When Violeta died in 1980, Jean, now Lady Polwarth, discovered she had also inherited Aimé’s literary estate.
Lady Polwarth spent many years protecting and promoting the literary legacies entrusted to her by the Cunninghame Graham and Tschiffely families. Since 2001 Jean has worked with The Long Riders’ Guild to reissue many of Aimé’s books in the Tschiffely Collection. In a final burst of academic activity, Lady Polwarth wrote a critically acclaimed biography of her famous uncle, entitled Gaucho Laird.
“The Tschiffelys were real friends to both my parents, as well as to my brother and myself. I can remember Aimé teaching my brother Robert to spin a rope cowboy style in about 1937,” Jean recalled.
Alexander Maitland, a close friend of both Jean and Violeta and esteemed author of biographies of Wilfred Thesiger, John Hanning Speke and Robert and Gabriela Cunninghame Graham, said when he heard of Lady Polwarth’s death: “I shall always think of Jean as an eloquent ‘keeper of the flame’; both of her great-uncle, R B Cunninghame Graham, and A F Tschiffely, his devoted friend and biographer.”
In the Autumn of 2005, Jean Cunninghame Graham announced that she was bequeathing the Tschiffely Literary Estate to Basha O’Reilly, one of the Founding Members of The Long Riders’ Guild and a good friend of Lady Polwarth.
“Her efficiency, energy and humour will be sorely missed.”