Denys Finch Hatton portrait

British Society in the African Bush

Denys Finch Hatton on Safari in the African bush
A still of Denys Finch Hatton in the documentary titled Edward VIII: The Lion King. Image courtesy the producers.

The aristocratic British hunter Denys Finch Hatton is well-known to this day as one of history’s most reliable guides in the African bush. He took the royal playboy the Prince of Wales (eventually, the throne-ditching Edward VIII) on two lavish safaris in East Africa, the first in 1928. The Prince would chronicle his experiences using a series of 8mm film cameras, his footage and his conservation efforts to become one of the greatest legacies in home-movie history. We have the film Out of Africa to thank for a view of Finch Hatton that limits him to a man’s-man of the hunt, but there’s a different side to him that made him right at home among the aristocratic globetrotters he took on safari.

Denys Fitch Hatton in the African bush
Denys Finch Hatton during his days in Africa. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

He was the son of an earl who felt the English upper classes in the UK led claustrophobic lives. He had known for two decades that he could be who he wanted to be and do what he wanted to do in Africa. But what truly fascinates me about Denys is that he was the ultimate marksman, entertainer and event planner rolled into one; a fact that, quite frankly, surprises the hell out of me given that all I had known about him from Out of Africa was that he was a roving guide who shot lions and tracked elephants. I’m actually glad that the movie presented such a limited point of view of him that it sent me on a summer-long reading jag during which I devoured biographies about the enigmatic man.

Sara Wheeler Reading from her biography of Denys Finch Hatton
Sara Wheeler reading from her biography in the documentary. Image courtesy the producers of Edward VIII: The Lion King.

I enjoyed Sara Wheeler’s Too Close to the Sun the most, and not just for the fascinating story his life made but for her lyrical style of writing. She proclaims his is “an ordinary story of big guns and small planes” but her narrative paints an extraordinary picture that moves “from the smoky orange lights of the Café Royal to the geometry of the desert hills in the Northern Frontier District.” She adds, “[His story] is infused alternately with the whiff of cordite, of elephant spoor, and of a bucket of eau de cologne tipped over onto the linoleum of an Eton schoolroom.”

Denys Finch Hatton portrait
Denys Finch Hatton during his years as a student.

Reading about his background as an aristocrat making his mark upon the society within this famed institution, which has educated princes and the landed gentry since 1440, helped me to see how he developed as a man of style. This combined with the fact that the documentary points out how Finch Hatton created safari camps that were oases of luxury were the inspirations that fueled today’s literary design adventure. Under the tents he set up that would form a meandering pattern of dots on the African map, canvas bars held the finest libations, the rise and fall of piano concertos by Mozart wafted across the landscape during the evening meal and livelier music crackled from phonographs during nightcaps.

King, Country and Comfort illustrates furniture used in the African bush
The cover of the “For King, Country and Comfort” catalogue from Christopher Clarke Antiques has a grandfather clock and a piano in the mix—illustrative of the effort that went into making the bush feel like the luxurious lives lived back home!

The table was set with crystal and china. Ice-making machines had been transported into the bush, and the camp staff ironed the linens for the tables and the beds! The Daily Mail paints the experiences he created this way: “Edward’s entourage had restaurants and ballrooms under canvas, drank chilled champagne from crystal goblets on daily picnics, dined on four-course, silver service banquets, and travelled with their own piano. They also took a phonograph with a library of classical and jazz music: the prince filmed a group of solemnly bemused Maasai tribesmen, listening to Mozart in the bush.”

Elegance Under Canvas

British Campaign Furniture: Elegance under Canvas
“British Campaign Furniture: Elegance under Canvas” by Nicholas A. Brawer.

The milieu that made these experiences luxurious enough to please these illustrious Brits would not have been possible without the production of campaign furniture that has a storied history in the UK, the evolution of which is surveyed in British Campaign Furniture: Elegance under Canvas. “British officers of high social position in the Georgian and Victorian periods (1714-1901) took it for granted that when they set out on a military campaign in Africa or India they could enjoy the same standard of living as they did at home,” wrote the book’s author Nicholas A. Brawer. “While ‘under canvas,’ as life in camp was called, an officer and a gentleman assured himself a high degree of comfort by using specially designed pieces of campaign, or knock-down, furniture.”

Dining in the African bush
Dining at Cottar’s 1920s camp, the milieu similar to the elegance Denys achieved on his safaris with a long list of members of the British elite.

I’ve always been intrigued by campaign furniture and have seen a number of historical images of camp life during the day but finding ones to exemplify evenings on par with the affairs Finch Hatton produced don’t seem to have made it into the public domain. Calvin Cottar, who was interviewed in the documentary, has created a 1920s-style camp that he says has the same feel as the ones that Denys would have created in the African bush, which can be experienced through his family’s safari services. It’s interesting to me how recreating the backdrops for similar encounters these days often means foregoing form in favor of function.

An outdoor bath at Cottar’s.
An outdoor bath at Cottar’s.

Case in point are the outdoor bath shot from the safari company above and the film clip from Out of Africa below, which shows Robert Redford, who pays Denys in the film, washing Meryl Streep’s hair. Her character is, of course, his love interest in the film, Karen Blixen. The bathtub and the wash basin are made of canvas, the latter piece of ingenuity billed as a wash basin/champagne bucket by African Sporting Creations, a site that sells what seems to be an identical version.

Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep’s hair in Out of Africa
Robert Redford washes Meryl Streep’s hair in “Out of Africa.”

Though the newer pieces are cleverly functional, the casual feel to the canvas makes them far less elegant than the antique and vintage items offered by purveyors that specialize in campaign furniture and travel items from the past like Christopher Clarke Antiques. The company also sells catalogs that advertised the furniture popular among explorers during the 18th -, 19th– and early 20th– centuries, which are veritable historical surveys of the genre.

Furniture Fit for Heroes catalog
Furniture Fit for Heroes catalogue. Image courtesy of Christopher Clarke Antiques.

Case in point are the “Furniture Fit For Heroes” Catalogue and the “My Barrack Room” Catalogue, both of which illustrate how homey campaign life could be.

My Barack Room Catalogue
The cover of “My Barrack Room” Catalogue that advertises campaign furniture. Image courtesy of Christopher Clarke Antiques.

Furniture runs the gamut from beds made of a thin metal armature that extends from a trunk to formal upholstered sofa beds. The Thompson Trunk bed below is an example of the former, the structure designed for draping mosquito netting around the sleeper; and the mahogany campaign sofa bed below it illustrates the latter.

Thompson Trunk Bed campaign worthy
The Thompson trunk bed. Image courtesy of Christopher Clarke Antiques.

If you think the sofa bed is too formal for a safari jaunt in the African bush led by Finch Hatton, consider this description from the documentary describing the Prince of Wales’ second trip to Africa: “On his second safari, Edward was deeply happy filming big game with his motion picture camera. He was joined in the bush by the Nairobi glitterati, including the governor, the Baron and Baroness von Blixen, and his current mistress Lady Furness.”

Mahogany campaign sofa bed fully assembled

The mahogany campaign sofa bed fully assembled with the bed extended.

Disassembled mahogany campaign sofa bed

The disassembled mahogany campaign sofa bed ready for travel.

It is the drive toward a sophisticated normalcy within such untamed settings that fascinates me about this story and the existence of antique campaign furniture. The fact that Finch Hatton was an avid reader and one of the elite who couldn’t fathom the bush without their books, I imagine he would have had something similar to the book cabinet below to protect the titles he packed. Made of mahogany, the catalog describes it as having “two adjustable shelves behind glazed doors to provide plenty of space for an officer’s library.”

mahogany book cabinet example of campaign furniture
A mahogany book cabinet. Image courtesy of Christopher Clarke Antiques.

The level of “civilization” achieved with these building blocks of a cultured life is quite remarkable, a desire to maintain decorum explained in the documentary by Sara Wheeler: “Everyone got dressed for dinner, and it was as if they’d brought the high-life of Nairobi down there to the bush, and they had a high time for quite a few days.” Viscountess Furness, whose nickname was Toodles, would write romantically about the trip, remembering the “nights of rhapsody” she shared with the Prince.

Lady Furness on Safari in the African bush
Lady Furness on Safari with Prince of Wales. Image courtesy the producers of Edward VIII: The Lion King.

When I began writing this essay, I had no idea that the trajectory of time would lead to the present, as it has in several cases you’ll discover below. First is the fact that Lady Furness is the aunt of Gloria Vanderbilt and great aunt of Anderson Cooper. She was one of a handful of people who witnessed first-hand the new course that was being set by the royal family, which included a move toward wildlife conservation in the African bush. This focus meant Denys Finch Hatton was able to leave a significant legacy by being instrumental in changing the laws from hunting with a rifle to shooting with a camera in a vulnerable part of the continent. I like knowing these things about the man who brought so much more to East Africa than his skills tracking big game.

Denys Finch Hatton article the Times advocating for change in hunting the African bush
An article by Denys Finch Hatton in the “Times,” a piece that helped to sway opinions in London. Image courtesy the producers of Edward VIII: The Lion King.

I also like knowing that the Prince, a man who will forever be known as a royal playboy, would become the unlikely savior of the Serengeti. His rousing speech to the East African Dinner Club in London on June 27, 1929, was “the first crack in the door that swung open to ignite change.” This entreaty and an article penned by Denys, which appeared in the Times the next day, touted the unseemliness of unsportsmanlike conduct, which they deemed the act of shooting animals from moving vehicles. Before long, the matter was being debated in the House of Lords, and even the Archbishop of Canterbury had something to say about it. As the documentary states, “The Prince and Denys had won the first round.”

photographic safari in the African bush
Where Denys Finch Hatton and Bror took the Prince on Safari in Africa. Image courtesy Ker & Downey.

They would go on to win others, as the Prince’s movies were to have a profound effect on hunting and tourism in the African bush, and the wildlife of Africa—and impact that would last well beyond his lifetime. I salute the bravery of these two men who advocated for change without sacrificing an ounce of style! The photo above is proof of their legacy: it’s of a recent photographic safari being led by Ker & Downey on the same expanse of the African continent where Finch Hatton and Baron Bror von Blixen took the Prince to hunt tigers early in his time in Africa—just before he traded his rifle for a machine that would record his adventures.

A parade of elephants in East Africa
A parade of elephants in East Africa. Image © Sarah Wilson.

If you’re already keeping tabs for next year’s summer reading list, I highly recommend Sara Wheeler’s book Too Close to the Sun and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night. The legacy continues in the East African bush, as Sarah Wilson can attest.

Sarah Wilson in East African bush
Sarah Wilson on her “Out of Africa” excursion to East Africa. Image © Sarah Wilson.

She wrote a three-part series for her blog Ratty’s Rambles that chronicles what she deemed an Out of Africa exploration of the African bush. Two posts provide excellent examples of campaign furniture still being used in African safari lodges, one highlighting her tour of the Serengeti and another sharing her experiences at Singita Grumeti.

Karen Blixen and Deny Finch Hatton
Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton in Africa in the 1920s. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

In the first post, she explains just how strongly Finch Hatton’s influence continues to this day: “Here [at Legendary Lodge in Arusha] we met Rupert Finch-Hatton from Hoopoe Safaris who was providing a vehicle and guide for our weeklong sojourn. He is apparently the great great nephew of Denys Finch-Hatton (yes—the one in “Out of Africa”) although when I mentioned it to him, he looked weary of this constant link that every tourist must bring up—sorry Rupert!” He was featured in the documentary as well, his continuation of the Finch Hatton legacy in the African bush noted by the film’s producers. Sarah wrote that the experience of having this latest generation of Finch Hatton’s inform her tour set her firmly in “yesteryear.”

Karen Blixen in African bush
Karen Blixen in Africa. Image courtesy WikiMedia.

I have to admit everything about this piece I’ve worked on for the past several months appeals to the romantic in me, such as Sarah’s remark about her stay at the Legendary Lodge in the African bush: “This lovingly maintained colonial plantation home could have been Karen Blixen’s and is full of history—you could feel it seeping out of every corner.”

Sabora Tented Camp in East Africa
Sabora Tented Camp in East Africa. Image © Sarah Wilson.

Sarah shares her experience at Sabora Tented Camp, which she describes as “nestled right in the middle of the Serengeti Plains” within “a stunningly decorated 1920s style explorers’ camp with a treasure trove of lavish antiques and artifacts, heavy wood, rich Persian rugs and an abundance of crystal, silverware and glass.” She adds, “Being out on the plains, you really do feel anchored in with the Serengeti wildlife.”

Advocacy in Africa Today

Mount Anderson is a South African refuge
Sun gleams on the exterior of the loges at Mount Anderson. Image © Mount Anderson Water Preserve.

Sarah’s father Michael Rattray and his wife Norma own Mount Anderson Water Reserve, a unique South African retreat set within the mountains above the town of Mashishing (Lyndenburg) in the Mpumalanga Province. The nature reserve, South Africa’s first ever private water catchment reserve, has been owned by the Rattrays since the 1980s, the development of which they continue in earnest after selling the MalaMala Game Reserve. The family is now focusing all of their energy on conserving and protecting this pristine area, its fresh water a lifeblood for local communities and the Kruger National Park.

Given how star-struck I would have been had I been introduced to the East African bush by such a storied name, I asked Sarah how it felt to be touring the Serengeti with a Finch Hatton. “It was an absolute honor to be introduced to East Africa by Rupert, who is as passionate about this part of the world and its people as I would have imagined him to be being Denys’ ancestor,” she said. “East Africa has lost none of its romance from yesteryear and I was privileged to experience it with those who feel its rhythm and still lose themselves to its music—it is a magical place. It’s as Karen Blixen wrote in Out of Africa, ‘The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility.’”

The above video of scenes from Mount Anderson provides a feel for the luxury that is available to visitors who trek to the African continent, the scenic wildlife shots possible thanks in no small part to a prince and an aristocrat who saw how the slaughter taking place on the continent was a detriment to the world. Now that is a worthy campaign!

The second example of a clear trajectory to the present that I mentioned earlier is the fact that Rupert Finch Hatton is embarking on jaunt across the East African bush that everyone can follow on Instagram. I can’t wait to see what adventures he will have as the romance of the continent continues its mesmerizing pull for me!

The Modern Salonnière and British Society in the African Bush © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. 

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6 thoughts on “British Society in the African Bush

  1. Thanks for stopping by, Pandora, and for taking the time to read the piece. It was such a satisfying one to write. I bet your clients would be avid collectors of campaign furniture given the great eye they have for antiques. Wishing you a beautiful Thanksgiving holiday!

  2. Saxon, fascinating. What a journey you take us readers on and what a new view of the Prince. I also just went to the Louis Vuitton exhibit in NY with some campaign furniture that was exquisite. You have connected the dots for me. Thank you Saxon!

  3. Aw: thanks, Jana! I do love a good story and I did think the prince deserved a bit of good air time! I’m so glad you enjoyed the piece. I hope you’ll write about the LV exhibit in NY because I wanted to see it. And I so appreciate you taking the time to read my writing. It means so much to me…

  4. What a great read, I read through twice! You have opened a door for many other threads of interest and books to discover. It was a fascinating era, I admit in any “safari” movie, the camp and its set up was often the most interesting to me; it’s a curious concept to try and recreate home to such a degree. Thank you. I will certainly be subscribing to receive future posts.

  5. I’m so happy you enjoyed the romp through the bush, Sarah! I have always been fascinated by the same, quite in awe of what it took them in terms of manpower to take their home life to the wilderness, in fact. I appreciate your readership so much and I celebrate what you and Jana are doing on your platform – writers rock!

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