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A Unique Collection of Essays & Personal Photographs

Edited by Christopher Morton & Philip N. Grover, published by Harper Press and the Pitt Rivers Museum to accompany Wilfid Thesiger in Africa: A Centenary Exhibition
ISBN 978-000-732524-5, £25

Review published in Country Life, May 2010

My first reaction on handling this volume was querulous; do we really need another book on Thesiger? I revere his writing, but my shelves are already loaded with memoirs and variant biographies. Arenít the publishers scraping at the bottom of the barrel and doing a disservice to the man.?

I was wrong. This is not a patched up commercial venture but a labour of love, made possible by a grant from one of Wilfrid Thesigerís oldest friends. Nor are the various scholarly contributors shy of investigating the personal motivations at work beneath the iron-hard carapace that he presented to the world. The result is a fascinating fusion of revealing insight and image, even if it is arguably more of an exhibition catalogue for his existing fans than a self-sustaining book.

Theisger's years in Africa, at the beginning and the end of his life, are usefully likened to book-ends framing the critical ten years of achievement (from 1946-1956) out of which were born his two classic works: Arabian Sands and The Marsh Arabs.

The youthful African book-end is composed of his childhood in the British Legation in Abyssinia, his first youthful labours as an explorer (the voyage into Danakil), followed by his experiences in the colonial administration of the Sudan. This culminated in the Second World War campaign to liberate Abyssinia from the Italian fascists and return it to its rightful indepedence, which Thesiger once explained to me was for him a personal crusade.

The older African book-end is composed of three broad themes: his exploration of the monasteries and mountains of a peaceful Abyssinia in 1959, his travels and friendships amongst the nomads of northern Kenya and his many journeys through southern Morocco between 1955 and 1969. The latter were always undertaken with Kathleen Thesiger, his adored mother and favourite travelling companion. Even at the age of 85 (in 1965) she completed a 6,000 mile Saharan journey, sleeping in twenty different hotels or dossing down on the desert sands without a murmur of complaint.

This period would be a mere footnote to his life, if it did not also reveal the subtle transformation of Thesiger from a youthful explorer-traveller to a world-class photographer who has left to the nation a priceless archive of some 38,000 negatives. I finished this volume, feeling not so much that I had scraped a barrel as broached a new cask. I now long for the same team to publish two more books concentrating on a single aspect of Thesigerís photography: one containing his Moroccan images, the other focusing on the anthropological-like zeal with which he chronicled the ordeal of male circumcision.

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