Nicholas Guppy: An Obituary

Nicholas Guppy, who has died aged 86, was a Trinidad-born botanist, writer, environmentalist and explorer whose career was associated with Guyana and the Amazonia. This obituary appeared in London’s Telegraph.

He first made his mark shortly after the Second World War when — still in his twenties — he led a number of expeditions into the interior of British Guiana (now Guyana) and afterwards to the northern Amazonian jungles, where he lived for several years among the Wai-Wai people.

Guppy also founded the Primitive Peoples’ Fund, now known as Survival International.

His expeditions were exotically recounted in two books, the first of which, Wai-Wai (1958), described remote regions of the upper Essequibo river on the Brazilian border, uncharted when Guppy first saw them in 1949 and penetrated only two or three times before.

His first encounter with the Wai-Wai, the reputed White Indians of legend and a tribe “untouched by civilisation, marvellous in the beauty of their painted bodies and feather ornaments”, was in September 1952, when Guppy set out for the rainforest with a small group of companions.

Guppy was greeted by “a dozen almost naked vermilion-painted men, carrying immense bows and arrows”; but the Wai-Wai warriors were friendly and smiling. He soon warmed to them, touched by their hospitality and charmed by their strange music, which was played on a type of bamboo flute on scales unfamiliar to some western ears; it was not unlike Gregorian chant.

In Wai-Wai, Guppy described the tribe’s complicated system of values, myths and expression, free from the neuroses and strains of “civilised” societies, and explained how they tackled economic, social, sexual, artistic and psychological problems.

But his preoccupation with vanished worlds was rudely interrupted in the late 1980s when Guppy, by then a “name” at Lloyd’s (a member of one of the syndicates which provided the insurance market’s capital), was engulfed by financial disaster. As he admitted in his second book, A Young Man’s Journey (1973), his sheltered background meant he “knew nothing about money except that it was hard to earn”.

His ruin was as comprehensive as it was slow — spread out, as his son Darius noted, over “many years of non-stop and paralysing stress” — and exacerbated by the dissolution of his second marriage. With a decade Guppy, a man who had always looked young for his years, became, suddenly and dramatically, old.

An only child of Huguenot descent, Nicholas Gareth Lechmere Guppy was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on December 22 1925 . As a boy, he would paddle by boat across the small strait that separated his family’s island from the mainland to attend school. It was an idyllic childhood ended abruptly by the death of his father after prolonged bouts of malaria, his mother’s subsequent decision to sell up and his emigration to England at the age of 12, a year before the outbreak of war.

From Kelly College, Tavistock, he went up to Trinity, Cambridge, to read Natural Sciences, taking a degree in Botany. He studied at the Imperial Forestry Institute in Oxford, and after a year at Magdalen College travelled to British Guiana with the Colonial Service, leading six expeditions into the interior. For two years he researched as a guest scientist at the New York Botanical Gardens.

Guppy’s distinguished ancestry included the Plantagenets; Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the Hellfire Club; and his grandfather Lechmere, who had abandoned his inheritance of Kinnersley Castle in Wales in favour of adventure to New Zealand. There he had been shipwrecked and had lived among the Maoris, thence to settle in Trinidad where he would marry Alice Rostant, the daughter of Creole aristocrats whose family had fled the French Revolution, and eventually discover and catalogue the tropical fish which bears the family name.

Strong women among Guppy’s forebears included the renowned inventor Sarah Guppy of Bristol and “Mad” Amelia Guppy, the first woman to navigate the Orinoco (at the age of 65).

In 1962 he married Shusha (née Assar), an Iranian singer and songwriter and a gifted author in her own right. Although the marriage ended after 15 years, the couple continued to live opposite one another in the same Chelsea street for the sake of their two sons, and to enjoy each other’s company.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Guppy and his wife moved easily in an intellectual milieu that included artists, such as Francis Bacon, and scientists including Julian Huxley.

At their home outside Cambridge , the couple dispensed hospitality to figures such as EF Schumacher, Nicholas Kaldor, the Polunins (father and son), David Attenborough and Teddy Goldsmith.

Guests would admire treasures from Guppy’s expeditions to the South Seas, Amazonia and the Antarctic — wooden statues of deities, spears and paddles, canoes and small monsters carved from ivory, a dried piranha here and an elephant seal tooth there, interspersed with Greek icons and modern works ranging from Calder and Kandinski to those of the local erotic potter .

Their conversations ranged from the culture of the primitive peoples Guppy had encountered on his travels, and from whom he believed modern man had much to learn, to the art which he collected, much of it abstract, and the classical music which played in the background.

Typically, Guppy insisted that his sons had a thorough understanding both of the Gospels and Darwin’s Origin of Species before their 12th birthdays.

His keen eye — “You know, Mr Guppy, you see just like an Indian,” said his admiring native guide on an expedition in Amazonia — led him to amass works of contemporary artists, in particular Alexander Calder (who became a close friend). In the late 1960s he was chairman of Sovereign American Arts, a New York listed art company.

But Guppy’s disdain for money as a means in itself — the stamp as much of his nature as of a family history which had found the making, losing and remaking of fortunes so easily accomplished — would lead to the disastrous decision to become a “name” at Lloyd’s.

In the late 1980s Guppy was one of the many “names” to be ruined in the Lloyd’s debacle, not only financially but in his spirit. When his son Darius was jailed for five years and fined for staging a jewellery heist in New York that involved making a false insurance claim against Lloyd’s — driven by what Darius’s fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson called his “Homeric code of honour, loyalty and revenge” — Guppy censured his son far more for his radicalism than his instincts.

Eventually, in 2004, a weak chest brought on by the hookworm which he had caught as a young man on the banks of the Essequibo forced Guppy to retire to the warmer climate of Bali.

There he lived out his years overlooking a beautiful bay, tended by his devoted third wife, Anna, and with a much-reduced collection of the treasures he had accumulated on his travels, including the ever-present hammock that for many years had served as a bed, slung beneath a tree .

In a ceremony conducted at sea attended by his wife Anna, sons Darius and Constantine and daughter-in-law Patricia, his ashes were scattered off the coast of Bali.

Nicholas Guppy, born December 22 1925, died May 16 2012

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