Grey Gowrie, Lord Gowrie, who has died aged 81, was an exotic and brief-flowering cabinet minister in Margaret Thatcher’s second administration. Few members of her government were published poets and former lecturers in American and English literature and, with dark curly, Byronic hair, saturnine looks, a penchant for floppy bow ties and a fastidious, courtly manner, Gowrie looked the part of a flâneur rather than a Thatcherite politician. Even fewer resigned from government, as he did, not for incompetence or even scandal, but because he bluntly claimed he could not live in central London on a ministerial salary.
At the time, in 1985, £33,000 a year, which is what he was paid as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in charge of reforming the English civil service, was a comfortable executive salary. Gowrie’s bluntness about its shortcomings provoked ridicule, and overshadowed what had been a competent and engaging ministerial career, including two years as arts minister, for which his background and tastes in literature, poetry and fine art made him better qualified than most holders of that office.
His remarks that £1,500 a month was “not what people need for living in central London” and that in the context he felt he had “done my bit” were, he later conceded, “extraordinarily stupid”, adding that “it taught me a lesson that in politics it can be ill-advised not to put a gloss upon the truth”.
He had been effective as a minister in the six years since Thatcher had led the Conservatives to power in 1979, and had spent a year in cabinet with responsibility for civil service reform, cutting costs and staff before his sudden resignation. Within months he became European chair of Sotheby’s for seven years and latterly chair of Arts Council England and a number of other arts bodies, including the Booker prize panel that gave the award to Roddy Doyle’s novel Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993.
As arts minister Gowrie had deployed steeliness in refusing a rescue grant to the English National Opera, and at the Arts Council he also denied funds to a project for a film about the artist Francis Bacon. He was accused of metropolitan elitism and was said to have fallen out with Virginia Bottomley, one of his ministerial successors, over diverting lottery money to Rada rather than regional theatre. But he was a supporter of Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North statue outside Gateshead and oversaw its inauguration.
He was born in Dublin as Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven – known as Grey to his acquaintances and Greysteil to his close friends – and was the son of Patrick Hore-Ruthven, a captain in the Rifle Brigade, and the society beauty Pamela Fletcher. His father was killed during an SAS raid in Libya in 1942, and Grey and his mother spent the war on family estates in Ireland. His grandfather Alexander Hore-Ruthven was another soldier and a Victoria Cross winner, who served as governor general of Australia between 1936 and 1944. The boy was consciously christened after a Scottish ancestor, Patrick Ruthven, one of the assassins who murdered Mary Queen of Scots’ lover David Rizzio in front of her in 1566. Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland, had revoked the family title, Earl of Gowrie, in 1600 and it was restored only in 1945.
When Gowrie’s grandfather returned from Australia at the end of the war and became deputy constable of Windsor Castle, the boy went to live with him, mingling with the royal family. He claimed that this was something of a shock as he had been brought up by an Irish republican nanny to despise the British and their royal family, but he soon fitted in.
Gowrie joked that at Windsor Castle he had simultaneously been taught about art and the facts of life by being shown the Leonardo drawings in the royal art collection. After his mother’s remarriage, to another military figure, Major Derek Cooper, he moved back to Ireland and then was sent to Eton, succeeding to the earldom at the age of 15 on his grandfather’s death in 1955, before going to Balliol College, Oxford. Postgraduate work followed in the rather more demotic surroundings of Buffalo University in upstate New York, then by teaching at Harvard, where he became an assistant to the poet Robert Lowell.
He moved back to Britain in 1969 to lecture at University College London, and meanwhile took the Tory whip in the House of Lords. Although socially liberal and a member of the Vietnam protest generation while in the US, he was an economic “dry” and an early convert to what eventually became known as Thatcherite policies.
In the Lords under Edward Heath he became a government whip (1972-74) and then, in opposition, a Tory spokesperson on economic affairs (1974-79). On the side, he also became a fine art broker and dealer, selling Picassos and old masters on commission, mainly to wealthy American institutions, including on one occasion a Jackson Pollock, valued at $2m, to the Washington National Gallery.
After Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 he was appointed minister of state in the Department of Employment until 1981 and then – at his own request – deputy to the Northern Ireland secretary for two years (1981-83) during the height of the Troubles. Proud of his Irish roots, though he had eventually sold the family estate in County Kildare to the entrepreneur Tony O’Reilly, he served during the IRA hunger strikes, expressing quiet admiration for what he saw as the dying men’s misguided courage.
After the 1983 landslide election result, Thatcher made him minister for the arts. A published but lapsed poet – his book A Postcard from Don Giovanni had been released in 1972 – he became an assiduous attender of first nights and exhibitions, and found himself briefly pursued by the tabloids, whose censorious journalists could not believe that such a flamboyant figure did not also dabble in drugs. Gowrie denied it vigorously: “I do think that an arts minister has to spend time in low dives, but I don’t think he actually has to get stoned.”
By 1984 he had also been appointed chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in addition to his arts brief, and the following year Thatcher asked him to be education minister. However, he had already made up his mind to resign and turned the offer down, leaving for pastures new in the art world.
In 1999, after a prolonged period of declining health, Gowrie’s public life largely came to a halt when it was discovered he needed an urgent heart transplant. He spent five months in Harefield hospital in Middlesex waiting for a suitable donor before the successful operation in 2000. The stay prompted a resumption of poetry writing and he subsequently became chair of the Magdi Yacoub Institute, named after the hospital’s pioneering transplant surgeon who had carried out his operation.
Gowrie is survived by his second wife, Adelheid Gräfin von der Schulenburg, a journalist, known as Neiti, whom he married in 1974; by a son, Brer, from his first marriage, to Xandra Bingley, which ended in divorce, and a grandson, Heathcote; and by his brother, the writer Malise Ruthven.
• Alexander Patrick Greysteil Hore-Ruthven, Lord Gowrie, politician, born 26 November 1939; died 24 September 2021