19 DECEMBER 1981, Page 19

In search of Sir Harry

Roy Kerridge

When I was a small boy, one of my greatest treats was being allowed to look at my grandfather's 'big red books', huge bound volumes of essays and photographs, with such titles as People of All Nations and Wonders of Land and Sea. Sometimes they came in sets of seven, and all with the same glossy sharp-edged pages which must have made them seem very modern in Edwardian days.

Leafing through the pictures of posed, sullen-looking tribal villagers, of volcanoes, waterfalls and fossilised trilobites, I would often find a veiled mystery, a colour plate hidden by a sheet of tracing paper. Gently peeling this away, a !painting would be revealed, as, fortunately for the now displaced tribe of illustrators, colour photography had not then come into its own. My favourite pictures were those by Sir Harry Johnston, which had a magic all their own.

Years rolled on, my grandfather's belongings were dispersed and sold, yet still I remember some of those pictures — the mammoths crashing through a splintery pine forest, the African birds and beasts, including Sir Harry's discovery, the okapi, and, particularly, 'The Last of the Ogres'.

A splendid fellow in ginger whiskers, the Ogre emerged, roaring and brandishing a club, from a most insanitary cave, its floor heaped with straw and the remnants of cannibal feasts. His sluttish, sulky wife skulked behind him. Lavish use of Purple characterised Sir Harry's paintings, and the Ogre's dark complexion gave a good opportunity for the use of this colour, offset by flame-red tufts of hair along the arms and legs. A boy could look at this for ever, and never think he was pandering to a soppy love of fairy tales, for was there not a text to match the picture, explaining that early half-humans probably lived side by side with our ancestors for a time, giving rise to our stories of wild men, giants and ogres?

Sir Harry wrote many of the essays, describing wild Africa's animals and people with great sympathy and humour. I later found that he held the touching faith in science common to men of his time, and the Ogre's slight resemblance to an enraged aborigine may have been due to an evolutionary idea of the races of Mari. Whatever his views when he first went to Africa as an artist, naturalist and explorer, Sir Harry soon became a champion of negroes, and even travelled to the southern states of America to see what progress they were making there. In my mind's eye, I see an odd confrontation: an old sharecropper laying down his blues guitar to answer the knock on his shanty door, and there is Sir Harry, a diminutive yet superbly polite and charming English gentleman with a military moustache and a hat which he raises as he asks if he may come in and perhaps ask the man of the house and his good lady a few questions.

The more I found out about Sir Harry, the better I liked him, even though his views on science and religion are no longer my own. He is remembered today, if at all, as the discoverer of the okapi, a strange longlegged, velvet-skinned relative of the giraffe, which wanders the shadowy depths of the Ituri Forest, home of the pygmies. While Special Commissioner for Uganda at the turn of the century, Sir Harry led an expedition into the Congo to return some pygmies to the exact spot from which German adventurers had seized them for exhibits at a trade fair in Europe. If the Germans were under the illusion that pygmies were animals, Sir Harry was not. Before long the pygmies' relatives ran from their leaf shelters in the boles of great trees to greet those they had mourned as dead. This must have been very gratifying for Sir Harry, and he was doubly rewarded when the little men procured him skins of an animal hitherto unknown in the West, except from Stanley's vague references to a 'forest donkey'. From the scraps of okapi presented to Sir Harry, he accurately recreated the complete animal, even down to the purplish sheen on its hide, and today `Okapia johnstoni' may be seen at both London and Bristol Zoos, tallying exactly with Johnston's painting of it.

In my view, Johnston should be ranked along with Thorburn, Audubon and Edward Lear as a great naturalist-illustrator. Like Lear, he was a man of many parts, and wrote many books on Africa and the Empire, a work on British mammals, some fairly creditable novels and a lengthy treatise on Bantu languages, his life's work. As an administrator, he helped to bring Western civilisation to Nyasaland and Uganda in an age when civilisation seemed unquestionably worth having, especially if you were an African at the mercy of Arab slave traders. Sir Harry chased these cutthroats out of British territory with the aid of a Sikh regiment he had brought over and had dressed in uniforms of white, black, brown and yellow, the colours of the people who were to benefit equally from British rule.

Arab and African involvement in the slave trade, which only ended this century, has never been a talking point in the race relations and black spokesmen industries. The second slave trade, as run by Arabs and ended by white imperialists, has yet to find its place in most history books. Of course, if domestic slavery were to be abolished in Africa, thousands of people would starve, as those unfortunates with no family to care for them, children and old people, would not survive without black masters willing% take them in. This is a very different matter from raiding, butchering and kidnapping, with long forced marches in the blazing sun. Johnston came to Africa as an artist, stayed as an imperialist with the idea of introducing white settlers, and ended as one of Kipling's Protectors of the Poor. Far from being a six-foot muscular aristocrat from the shires, fortified by Norman blood and having survived Eton, Sir Harry was a little squeaky-voiced man from the suburbs, a fact which gives hope to all of us in similar circumstances.

Filled with a longing to see the originals of Sir Harry's paintings, I began a search for Sir Harry, or rather for his living relatives. The quest was somewhat less rigorous than my hero's search for the okapi, and it took me to some of England's most idyllic villages and into the homes of some of the most agreeable people I have met, who feted me with tea and hot buttered crumpets.

Sir Harry died in 1927, at the age of 69, and now lies buried in the churchyard at Poling, a quiet hamlet at the end of a long lane in West Sussex. Beneath the fresh flowers on his grave, I could see the inscription in the language of the Buganda tribe, which, translated, reads that by his fair treatment Sir Harry has shown that Great Britain wishes all the people of the Empire to be free. This was dictated by Uganda's Kabaka of the day, Sir Duadi Chua, father of the late and much-lamented King Freddie. Sir Duadi was only a boy when he first met Sir Harry, and when he was older he journeyed to Poling and stayed with the Johnstons at the Priory. A country house of monastic origin, the Priory is now restored to its earlier glory after a period of neglect. With its yew trees and flint mediaeval walls, it may have seemed soothing to Johnston after years of harsh African sunlight. All the same, he preferred to paint in a small cottage still standing nearby, its roof now covered with cooing doves. Poling Priory is listed in most books about haunted houses, but its present owners dismissed such tales, and showed me around gaily.

'This is a happy house', they said, as they pointed out the wild daffodils rescued by Sir Harry from gypsies who plundered the woods for flowers to sell to market gardeners, then as now. No Johnstons live in Poling today, but Sir Harry's niece, Agnes Graburn, lives at Wepham, a few miles away, high among the Downs overlooking Arundel Castle and the win ding river Arun. She had only one painting by her uncle, but amply made up for this by her anecdotes about him, such as the time when he taught an African queen to ride a bicycle, and about the ghosts that infested his house. Soon I had enough ghost stories to entertain generations of children, the best audience for such yarns. Johnston's wife, Mrs Graburn's Aunt Winnie, seems to have been a strong-minded woman, for when young Agnes was ordered to sleep in the haunted room she dared not disobey. Indeed, it was the ghosts who objected, and in a fit of pique one of them hurled the bedside candle high onto a ledge above the door. Descending to a more material plane, Mrs Graburn told me of meeting the Kabaka and his secretary, one in a robe of blue and one of red. New ideas of freedom have banished this royal house from Uganda, but Africa's loss is the Spectator's gain, for the present heir, Prince Ronnie, makes a lively contributor. A vigorous and artistic tribe, the Buganda are under a shadow of fear today. They have given us at least one Christian martyr and many powerful Anglican preachers, and their sophisticated court music, played on xylophones and said to resemble modern jazz, still survives, if precariously, in Obote's sorry republic.

Tearing myself reluctantly away from the comforts of the Graburns' home, and armed with further Johnston addresses, I next set out for the village of Etwall in Derbyshire, to see Mrs Graburn's cousin Jack, who owned many of the pictures. Cousin Jack's house proved a gold mine for all connoisseurs of Johnstonia. He and his wife had laid framed pictures on the bed in rows, the original illustrations for Johnston's book, The Story of a Slave. These horrific drawings are testimony to an evil that has not entirely passed away, for I have recently spoken to a Somali whose brother was seized by Arabs and carried away in a dhow to be a neutered harem boy. Joyce Cary, in his epic novel Castle Corner, well describes an Arab raid in what is now north Nigeria.

Jack Henderson owns Sir Harry's collection of hunting trophies, which a museum is restoring for him. On his walls, I recognised many of the paintings I had marvelled over as a boy, of brightly coloured tropical birds in exotic landscapes, of okapis, elephants and of many other animals. In his family album Jack showed me a jovial Sir Harry riding in an open car driven by a younger Mrs Graburn. Fascinated, I pored over Sir Harry's books, and found 'The Last of the Ogres' again. Mr Henderson explained the Ogre's red hair, as apparently Sir Harry decided that this prototype of Man should be partly Irish. Unwisely, he revealed this while standing for Parliament as a Liberal Imperialist, in a constituency well stocked with Irishmen, and so lost the seat.

Sir Harry's nephew showed me a Johnston family tree he had drawn up, and then took me outside to see his nature reserve, a fenced-off pond surrounded by rare trees, such as sequoias, and inhabited by many unusual species of wild duck and by a family of peacocks. 'When I was a boy I used to stay with Uncle Harry at the Priory, and I always admired his peacocks', I was told. 'I vowed that when I grew up I would keep peacocks too'.

My final imposition on the hospitality of kind-hearted strangers took place at Severn Stoke, a cheerful village near Worcester, much frequented by extremely coarse fishermen. Here I met Mr Henderson's son John, the agent of the local landed estate. His wife turned out to be the vivacious daughter of a retired colonial governor, and knew Africa well. Taken on a tour of the rambling old farmhouse, I was shown some of Sir Harry's finest pictures, large oil pain tings of stags among heather, a slain warrior on a tribal battlefield, African scenes of forest, lake and bird life and, best of all, in the boys' room, a vivid portrait of a group of crocodiles, malicious, grinning dragonlike creatures, lying heaped on top of one another, all legs, tails and scales. Had Sir Harry been less scientific and adventurous, he might have been another Arthur Rackham. Glancing through a copy of his British Mammals, I found myself wishing that I could have seen 'The Last Wolf of Britain' at the same impressionable year as that in which I saw the Ogre. Apart from this one, the paintings in Mammals are not his best.

Despite all his achievements, there was something impish and child-like about Sir Harry. Many of his novels were sequels to stories by Dickens, the characters changing, in bizarre ways, to men and women sharing the author's somewhat non-Dickensian interests. If this article on Sir Harry is to have a sequel, I should like it to take the form of an art-book of Sir Harry's paintings, brought out at Christmas-time by an enterprising publisher. It is long overdue.