John Armstrong
January, 2017

A legacy in its precise legal sense is a gift, usually of money, left in a will. But it has also acquired a larger - and very important - meaning.

The legacy of a person or a society is what they are remembered for. It sums up their contribution. On the grandest scale a legacy endures over long periods of time.

The legacy of the Roman Empire is around today in the languages of Europe, in much of the architecture of the Western world and in the legal systems of several countries. On the scale of an individual life, someone’s legacy might be a garden or an art collection. Or as with Wall-Street broker Lemuel Benedict it might be a novel idea for breakfast. At the Waldorf Hotel in 1894 he requested a dish of eggs, ham and hollandaise sauce - now known around the world as eggs benedict in his memory. The bigger ideas of a person’s legacy has four major aspects to it:

One: the desire to influence the future
Two: the fear of a legacy turning into a liability
Three: legacy as a corrective to our failings
Four: legacy as the expression of our own best selves
Let’s look at each in turn.

The desire to influence the future

At its core, the idea of legacy builds upon a basic fact of existence. Our actions have consequences. And the chain of impact does not by any means terminate with the end of one’s own life.

The notion of legacy taps into major concerns of existence. Because life is limited - and because we tend to become more conscious of this as we age - it is unsurprising that we can get drawn to the idea of things that can outlast us.

Or, in life there is so much we don’t get round to; there are things we’ve been turning over year after year at the back of our minds. They become projects that can be assigned to the open future.

It might be something quite abstract like an obelisk - a column of granite standing alone on a lonely stretch of moorland or intimate, like a park bench overlooking a favourite view. One might be moved by thoughts of how a certain Nathaniel, Lord Crewe has influenced posterity and kept his name alive in the minds of at least some people. He had been Bishop of Oxford and when he died in 1721 he left money to the University, mostly for very worthy purposes. But in addition he set aside a sum to ensure that at the end of each summer term various dignitaries professors and officials enjoy champagne, strawberries and peaches at a garden party before honorary degrees are awarded. It was a whimsical, eccentrical gesture but it influences our sense of who he might have been and perhaps it gave him a lot of fun, in the early 18th century, trying to imagine what his parties might be like in 1969 or 2015.

But more than anything, his legacy was a vote of confidence in the future. Lord Crewe was saying - in effect - that he believed that human appetites would endure.

This spirit was described, in much more elevated terms by an Anglo-Irish Louis MacNeice (1907 - 1963). In his beautiful and moving poem Fanfare for the Makers he sends out a splendid salute to all those who make things that will outlast them. In particular he is impressed by those who lay down projects that they themselves cannot possibly see completed. And he writes with tender admiration of the kind of person who …

In old age plants an avenue of limes

And before they bloom can smell them, before they span

The road can walk beneath the perfected arch

The individual who plants the trees imagines (MacNeice says) those not yet born, who will walk there. In imagination, they will ‘walk there with him’.

The legacy is an act of belief in them; a conviction that they will understand and appreciate. The poet knows this cannot be taken for granted.

We cannot know how the future will see us or what it might be like. The avenue might suffer a blight, the land might be sold and developed; people might reject the imposition of order on nature and find avenues unattractive. What MacNeice admires is not sure knowledge but something else: the willingness to take the risk, to be generous now towards the unknown citizens of the future.

The legacy that becomes a liability

The impulses behind the idea of leaving a legacy are often grand, generous and hopeful. But, ironically, the idea of legacy has developed - in recent times - more pessimistic overtones.

In any area of rapidly evolving technology, particularly around IT, an earlier practice might soon get outmoded.

A large company may have invested very substantially in core processing systems. It was all very cutting edge and exciting when they started ten or fifteen years ago. Over the years they have added many new functions, but adapting them to the old system and - therefore - further embedding the outmoded technology in their whole operation.

It is now terrifying and hugely expensive to try to take apart these vast systems. But this will leave them vulnerable to new competition which operates from a later and much more efficient platform.

This is the business version of a universal human problem: the moment where loyalty to the past becomes a disadvantage rather than strength. Or, to put it from another perspective, it is the hidden danger in what may otherwise be an act of generosity.

The legacy may turn out quite different from the benefactor’s intentions. It ends up being at odds with innovation. It ties people to what seemed like a great idea at the time. It creates a painful tension between loyalty (or even legal obligation) and eagerness to grasp the opportunities which seem to be passing by.

It’s giving a name to a dread that has gripped people since the eighteenth century. Namely, that the wisdom of the past is not the best guide to the practice of the future. That attempts to bind people to traditional ways (which is what a legacy becomes, in time) stop being ways of making sure they are safe and becomes, itself, a threat.

A legacy might have the best possible intentions behind it, and yet the very fact that it is the product of a particular era means it has to originate in ignorance of the needs of the future. 

For instance, in the 1890s a formidable woman called Lady Wallace left a collection of paintings put together by her husband, Sir Richard, to the British nation. She stipulated that the contents of the collection could not be sold nor could new acquisitions be added. Nor could any works from other collections be hung alongside the works donated. This was the formation of the Wallace Collection, which is now one of the great galleries of London. But the terms of the bequest were almost disastrous - for reasons that Lady Wallace could hardly have foreseen at the end of the 19th century.  Like most nineteenth century aristocrats Lady Wallace did not give much thought to the question of visitor numbers; she was not concerned about how many people would come to see the collection she was giving to the nation.

But around a century after she made her historic gift governments - who were relied upon for financing the infrastructure - became very concerned with just this thing: were enough people visiting the collection to warrant public money being disbursed.

Galleries typically bring in visitors by putting on exhibitions of borrowed works (the blockbuster show was invented exactly to do this). But the terms of the benefaction specifically prevented this. And for some years the Collection was in the very strange position of holding immensely valuable resources and yet being chronically short of funds to maintain them.

And then, more recently there has been another turn. Private funds have been secured and the Galleries (in Manchester Square, just north of Oxford Street) have now been refurbished and are exceptionally splendid.

One hundred and twenty years after Lady Wallace’s will the Wallace Collection is probably closer now to the spirit of her intentions than ever before.

Although the story of the Wallace Collection has a happy ending, the tribulations endured point a more troubling possibilities: the unintended legacy; the legacy that becomes a burden.

Even what one might call the ‘ironic’ legacy where a twist of fate intervenes to reshape a legacy in unexpectedly menacing terms.

For instance, part of the legacy of US President John F Kennedy has been to make style count as much as substance in political campaigns. He didn’t set out to do this. His charm and apparent ease in front of the cameras in the very first presidential debate in September 1960, against Nixon, meant that from then on no-one could hope to be elected President without absorbing that lesson.

It’s most obvious with large political decisions. When the framers of the US constitution opted for a rigorous separation of powers - deliberately leaving the President, the Supreme Court and the combined forces of Congress and the Senate in a state of tension - they made a decision which continues to shape the politics of America.

Their legacy is still unfolding. The example highlights a darker aspect of legacy: we do not know, and cannot know, quite how our best intentions will play out.

The intended legacy and the actual consequences may diverge in profound ways. The Founding Fathers hoped to avoid tyranny - and in this they can surely be judged successful.

But the system they chose meant that at critical moments there was no single, overarching authority able to take historic decisions. It was evident in 1939 when President Roosevelt was unable to take the US into the opening stages of World War II - one of the great misfortunes of the Twentieth Century.

Legacy as a corrective to the failings of one’s life

In the past certain people openly regarded a legacy as a way of compensating for the imperfections of their lives.

Wrongs committed in life could be atoned for by the right sorts of endowments: and posterity has often had cause to be deeply grateful for this.

At Westminster Abbey Henry VII paid for the construction of a chapel (called the Lady Chapel). He believed that by providing lavish funding for this in his will he would make good the failings and sin of his life. This legacy was conceived of by him as a way of balancing out things he had got wrong in his life.

It remains one of the most beautiful buildings in England and it illustrates in a very grand way a natural impulse: the desire to put right, to make amends, to make something very good happen because we are conscious that at times we may have made rather bad things occur.

Henry was sustained in this approach by a specific religious belief. He held that his endowment - his legacy - would be taken into account by the God who would judge the fate of his soul.

In more secular terms the same underlying concern was articulated by Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar. At critical point in the play, Caesar has been murdered and Marc Antony makes an oration at the funeral. (It starts with the celebrated line ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears’.) As he gets going Anthony points out the chilling fear:

The evil that men do lives after them
the good is oft interred with their bones

He’s giving voice to the midnight worry that the good things we’ve done, or the kind and generous things we’ve at least tried to do, will soon be forgotten. But the worse aspects of our conduct, the things we regret - or that we would need a patient, sympathetic hearing to explain and justify - will be our monument in the minds of others. We’ll be remembered for the things we’re least proud of.

It was precisely such worries that appeared to bring about a powerful change of direction in the mind of one of the great legacy makers of the modern era: Alfred Nobel (1833- 1896) - founder of the Nobel Prize.

Alfred came from a Swedish family of armaments manufacturers. He became hugely successful following his invention (and patenting) of dynamite - a much more reliable and controllable explosive material than hitherto known. His invention found extensive use in mining and on large construction projects like the railways which involved blasting cuttings and tunnels.

But understandably it was particularly well known in associating with military use. He was also an extremely astute industrialist.

In 1888 Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludwig, who had made a fortune in the oil industry, died in the south of France. A French newspaper, confusing the brothers, published a scathing obituary of Alfred.

They called him ‘a merchant of death’ because of his role in development of military hardware. It was not perhaps entirely fair since - to put it quietly - it was not Nobel himself who raised armies, made bellicose speeches, declared war or dispatched armies to the corners of the earth.

All the same, Alfred Noble found it extremely distressing reading. He was still in his mid-fifties. And he set out, in the later years of his life, to shape a legacy that would mean he was remembered for entirely different reasons.

Nobel gave almost all of his money - one of the great fortunes of the age - to fund the prizes he had in mind: in the year he died, 1896, the sum amassed from global enterprises was the equivalent of 1.7 million GBP. Figures of course change wildly over time.

To give an idea of the purchasing power of that sum, a modest but comfortable suburban house around London cost around GBP 500. (The endowment is reported to be worth - currently - in the order of half a billion US dollars.) Originally the prizes were awarded in five categories: Literature, Medicine, Physic, Chemistry and Peace. A prize for economics was created later - in 1968 - in Nobel’s memory (with the prize fund donated by the Swedish Central Bank).

In very significant part the prizes were successful because of the lavish funding. They came to represent an ideal of the just reward for pure endeavour.

They functioned as an international court of appeal for brilliance, genius and heroic intellectual endeavour. The prizes may not always have been given to all who fully deserved them. The omission of literary greats Tolstoy, Marcel Proust and James Joyce form the list of laureates is sometimes remarked by cultural pundits. But it is really a compliment in disguise.

For it assumes that the list of Nobel Prize winners ought to be the true and final record of the highest achievement. It’s an astonishing reputation.

A singular development is that although the amount of money given is very high by the standards of prizes, the awards are often given to people whose careers are already thoroughly successful and to whom the money is not of much direct personal consequence.

The prize money is, in fact, frequently handed on to a relevant charity or good cause by the winner. (Contrast this with the Bill and Melinda Gates approach which is precisely to limit the life of the endowment; the ‘legacy’ may be open ended, but the strategy is different.)

Legacy as expression of one’s best self
The ideal legacy is one in which a person’s best qualities - their most important insights, the finest features of their character - are furthered in the future by the actions of their lifetime.

The impact of Florence Nightingale upon nursing is a perfect instance of this ideal. In 1854 she arrived with a small contingent of volunteer nurses at Scutari (now a suburb of Istanbul) to help care for British soldiers who had been wounded in the early battles of the Crimean War.

There she witnessed the appalling state of the military hospital: the hygiene was so poor that it was common for patients to die in hospital of infections, rather than from the injuries that had originally brought them in.

She set out with immense energy and intelligence to improve conditions. And she did bring about very important changes at the Scutari hospital. She became known as ‘the Lady with the Lamp’ - because she would often go round the immense, dark wards late at night bringing a gentle smile or kindly word.

However, her ambition was not simply to improve things in one place and time. She wanted to improve nursing as a whole. She sought - very effectively - to harness public opinion and political will in support of better practice. Despite not having a vote, she badgered leading politicians, wrote endless memos to the War Office and the Home Office; despite being manically reclusive she was a brilliant (though thoroughly unconventional) publicist for her ideas.

She drew up regulations, she established training guideline and in 1860, she founded an institution - the first professional nursing school in the world - at St Thomas' Hospital in London. Her legacy has been immense.

Florence Nightingale deliberately set out to create a legacy. But that’s not always how it happens.
There are remarkable cases in which people have created things which have outlasted them - which have formed a fine legacy - to some degree by accident.

One of the most loved and most visited gardens in Great Britain is the one created at Sissinghurst Castle by Vita Sackville West and her husband the Harold Nicolson. They bought Sissinghurst in 1930. It was a sad ruin of a place, with no garden at all just weeds and heaps of rubbish.

It was not at all their first choice of where to live. Vita has very much wanted to live in her old family home - the great house of Knole - where she had been happy as a child. But she was cut out from inheriting it and spent the rest of her life (perhaps understandably) resenting the fact. Sissinghurst, however, was to be her opportunity to remake a version of her lost inheritance.

She turned what she had lost into a legacy.

Very significantly, Vita and Harold made a monument not to the whole of their characters, but only to their better aspects. They were difficult, volatile, very selfish people in fact. It would not be difficult to paint an unattractive portrait of them. Their beautiful, serene, ordered-yet-free, flowing-yet-disciplined garden is not a candid self-portrait of them as a couple. It is something more interesting than that: a reflection of their best aspects purged of all the folly, meanness, anxiety and chaos which one would have noticed in actually living around them.

Each was thwarted. Vita didn’t get to own the family mansion. Harold never played the important role in politics he craved. But all the time they were in fact making the thing they would be remembered for and that would stand as an astonishing contribution to the nation: their garden.

As is inevitable, legacy is at time bound up with luck. Circumstances entirely out with the control of the individual may be decisive in securing their reputation.

This has been the case with Coco Chanel. The aesthetic legacy of Chanel has been profound; she created a ‘timeless’ style of elegant simplicity.

Before her, high fashion had been premised on leisure and endless help. The Edwardian lady was dressing largely for display. Chanel had an equal ambition for beauty and grace but managed to translate them into a more practical language.

She was also remarkably lucky. Her dealings in occupied Paris (she lived at the Ritz Hotel) were far from impressive. But it was not an era of relentless exposure and this side of her life was allowed to remain in the shadows, until comparatively recently. It was only in 2011 that classified documents relating to her wartime activities as a Nazi intelligence agent were brought to light.

It could all have been so different: if the troubling reality had been widely known much earlier her style would surely have been tainted.

As it is, her ideas have been so widely absorbed that they have, now, a life of their own.


Leaving a legacy is - like all great human ambitions - agonisingly poised between strategy and chance. Because it is oriented to the future a person’s legacy is subject to unknowable eventualities. The best intentions may founder; something which seemed minor at the time may turn out to be hugely consequential. It’s the same with all the big things in our lives: there’s an element of risk.

In a beautiful poem about the Greek hero Ulysses - called simply Ulysses - the poet Tennyson tries to define an ideal attitude with which ambition can face uncertainty:

Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tennyson invites us to accept the philosophy of ‘it may be.’ The imponderables cannot go away. But we can - like his hero - set out to do great things and leave a fine legacy.