My friend Sally Morphet was an immensely accomplished diplomat and academic; but those who also knew her in the company of her husband, Richard, former Keeper of the Modern Collection at the Tate Gallery and Bloomsbury enthusiast, could not fail to notice her arresting resemblance to the tall, slender and beautiful Virginia Woolf. Sally died last April, and though there was an obituary fairly recently in The Times, it would be a pity if the story of her colourful life was not made known more widely – which is why I’m posting this.
Sally and her twin sister were born in Aberdeen, to a family with robust connections to the Middle East. Her great-grandfather, Sir William Blake Richmond RA, had painted in Egypt; and her grandfather, Ernest Richmond, an architect, lived and worked there and in Jerusalem under the Mandate. He did important work in restoring the Dome of the Rock, but in 1924 resigned from his post in the Government of Palestine as a protest against the pro-Zionist position of the British Government; and two years later he converted to Roman Catholicism (which is why Sally’s middle name had the masculine spelling of the Saint of Assisi). Her father, Sir John Christopher Blake Richmond (1909-90), trained as an architect; but when the Second World War supervened, his skills as an Arabic speaker and his local knowledge of Jerusalem, meant that his war service was done almost entirely in Middle East. Sally and her twin were less than one month old when their father saw them for the last time in six years.
After the war they moved with their mother, Diana (née Galbraith, 1914-97), to Jerusalem, and three more siblings were born, with the twins attending school on the Via Dolorosa. Her father was expecting to work at the Palestine Archaeological Museum (its original name) or the Rockefeller Museum (which later became its more frequently-used name), but when war broke out following the foundation of Israel, the family was evacuated to Baghdad, where the British Foreign Office invited the father to join them as a diplomat. He served as Ambassador to Kuwait and Ambassador to Sudan before retiring to teach Middle Eastern history at Durham University.
In England Sally was educated at Mayfield Convent in East Sussex and then at the Catholic University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas, where her father was Consul-General. She then went up to read history and philosophy at Newnham College Cambridge from 1959-62, where she met Richard Morphet, and they married in 1965, enabling Sally to keep one foot firmly planted in the art world (to which, after all, she had hereditary access). Her first work was a researcher at the Central Office of Information (an agency that distributed information rather than gathered it), and she joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1966, working as a full time Research Analyst. She had a distinguished career, marked by almost an entire bookshelf of publications, on human rights, the environment, the role of NGOs, non-aligned Movement countries, peacekeeping, self-determination and on the UN Security Council.
Sally was in the diplomatic thick of it, as she specialised at first on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; from 1974 she turned her attention to the United Nations and more general international questions. For the FCO she covered all but one of the major Non-Aligned Movement Summit meetings since 1979. Given that the UK is not a NAM member, initially Sally had to attend the Summits accredited as a member of the press. But latterly the UK, along with other European States, was invited to observe the Summits as “Guests”, which made her life easier.
The majority of Sally’s work in the FCO was on political questions, even though she was also incredibly knowledgeable on the politics of development. (In the UN the differences between these issues are often blurred.) She travelled to Washington and New York every other year while she was working on global issues, and also went on official business to Geneva, Vienna, Singapore and Tokyo. Owing to her background she had special expertise on the way the Palestine question has been addressed by the UN, and she was the FCO’s leading expert on the work of the UN Security Council and peacekeeping.
Elected to the Board of Directors of the Academic Council on the United Nations for a three-year term in 1997, she retired from full-time work at the end of December 2000, where her final title was Head of the Global Issues Research Group, Research Analysts in the FCO. She wrote as a freelance and lectured at Birmingham, LSE, Warwick and St Andrew’s, and was appointed Visiting Professor at the University of Kent in 2001, a post that was renewed until December 2006. In the June Honours’ list 2002 she was appointed CMG. In February the next year she covered a further meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement for the FCO in Kuala Lumpur, and was one of two British diplomats who took part in a seminar on the Security Council in Hanoi in 2003.
Sally adored horses and was a keen rider: it is possible that the bad fall from her horse in Richmond Park in 2003 was connected with the distressing neurological disorder Diffuse Lewy Body Disease, the disabling effects of which Sally, her husband Richard and their daughters and friends bore with much good humour. –Paul Levy
Sarah Francis (Sally) Morphet (née Richmond), CMG; diplomat, b. Aberdeen 8 July 1940; m. (1965) Richard Morphet, CBE, 2 daughters; d. London 22 April 2014.