The aristocratic British hunter Denys Finch Hatton is well-known to this day as one of history’s most reliable guides. 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 this, of course. But there’s a different side to the man who bagged big game and hobnobbed with the British elite in Mombasa.
Finch Hatton was right at home among them. He was the son of an earl, but he 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 the man’s-man of the hunt. 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.
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.”
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.
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
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.”
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, 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.
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.
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 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.
If you think the sofa bed is too formal for a safari jaunt 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.”
The mahogany campaign sofa bed fully assembled with the bed extended.
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.”
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.
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 Africa. 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.
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.”
They would go on to win others, as the Prince’s movies were to have a profound effect on hunting, tourism 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 land 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.
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 East Africa, as Sarah Wilson can attest.
She wrote a three-part series for her blog Ratty’s Rambles that chronicles what she deemed an Out of Africa exploration of the region. 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.
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 Africa 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.”
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: “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.”
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
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 East Africa 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 Africa, 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 East Africa 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.by