Catherine Tennant, Telegraph astrologer with a questing mind and a love of conversation – obituary

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Catherine Tennant: despite her developing interest in the stars, which led to her publishing two books on the subject, she would say: ‘You have to take it with a pinch of salt’ - Nigel Howard/Evening Standard/Shutterstock
Catherine Tennant: despite her developing interest in the stars, which led to her publishing two books on the subject, she would say: ‘You have to take it with a pinch of salt’ - Nigel Howard/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

Catherine Tennant, who has died aged 73, was an aristocratic Bohemian and astrologer who wrote horoscopes for the Telegraph, Vogue (as Wanda Starr) and Tatler.

When her lifelong interest in astrology became professional she looked into her own chart. She was unsurprised to discover there that her great reluctance to have an early night was indeed written in her stars.

A visitor to the farmhouse she shared with her husband Sir Mark Palmer might chance upon Mick Jagger or Steve Winwood, the circus founders Nell and Toti Gifford, the fashion queen Issy Blow, the writer Clover Stroud, the designer David Mlinaric or the antique dealer Christopher Gibbs. Friends of all ages and backgrounds were captivated by her wit, wisdom and warmth. There was no ceremony and all were welcomed.

Known to some as Big Cath, Catherine Tennant was larger than life in every sense. Her style was not the waxed jacket and gumboots of the Cotswold matron. Long shapely legs clad in tartan or leopard-print tights stretched out from the folds of bright floral frocks, cinched at the waist with a gold belt.

Emerald green stiletto heels with white polka dots were a favourite. She once spent an entire lunch discussing the merits of cardigans with the poet James Fenton: she was seldom seen without one, usually in a lively red or blue angora.

The great outdoors was enjoyed from a distance. Catherine Tennant was invariably to be found installed at the table in her lettuce-green kitchen, cigarette held dramatically aloft. Uninterrupted puffing was facilitated by a series of Bic lighters suspended on strings from the ceiling above the table.

Bull terriers ambled in and out. A horse dealer might look in with a flash of gold teeth, searching for the dashing equestrian Sir Mark; her two children – the future model and artist Iris and the stone carver Arthur – mingled. People came and went without explanation or greeting, giving the impression of a being in a play. Catherine was the star of the show and had all the best lines.

For it was not astrology which brought an endless throng to her table, but her gift for conversation. She had learnt the art at the feet of her eccentric uncle Stephen Tennant, who had been the lover of Siegfried Sassoon. “You weren’t allowed to be boring with Uncle Stephen,” she recalled. “If you didn’t say things which interested him he’d throw you out of the house.”

Catherine Tennant
Catherine Tennant

Her mother’s family were bluestockings: the journalist Polly Toynbee was her first cousin and her older sister was the writer Emma Tennant. Colin Tennant, the friend of Princess Margaret who brought the jet-set to Mustique, was her half-brother. The baby of this voluble family, Catherine learnt to entertain from an early age.

Her talk ranged from classical mythology, through medieval literature, psychology and politics, to high gossip and affairs of the heart. Synchronicity and systems of divination were abiding enthusiasms. Catherine Tennant liked to get to the bottom of things, teasing out the deeper meaning of everything from the Eleusinian Mysteries to the EU.

Time appeared to collapse under her scrutiny, ancient history made vivid through her gaze. While she considered her next point, she would utter the word “Yes”, drawing more syllables and meaning from it than many could cram into a whole sentence.

Her library was extensive, its ceiling a rich dark blue, with hand-painted gold stars which twinkled in the firelight. In latter years she pored over the internet, a digital Prospero.

Her findings were often years ahead of their time, including a fascination with near-death experiences, or uncovering the link between inflammation and illness. Early hominids were another area of interest and she was delighted to discover that ricotta had first been produced by the Neanderthals.

Her love of talking was so great that even full immersion in water could not quell it. While friends swam up and down a pool, she would wade serenely back and forth so as to be able to carry on chatting.

Catherine Tennant with her daughter, the model-turned-artist Iris Palmer - Nigel Howard/Evening Standard/Shutterstock
Catherine Tennant with her daughter, the model-turned-artist Iris Palmer - Nigel Howard/Evening Standard/Shutterstock

Despite her fierce intelligence and strong convictions, Catherine Tennant had an ardent and tender nature. This made her supremely lovable: her heart was as vast as her brain. She was kind to the lovelorn and able to coax a smile from the most tearful visitor.

Laughter was never far away. In her final illness, while discussing some minor difficulty, a visitor made the passing remark: “Oh well, worse things happen at sea.” After a dramatic pause, Catherine spoke: “THINK how ghastly it must be at sea.”

The daughter of the second Lord Glenconner and the wife of a baronet, Catherine Tennant was much too unconventional for snobbery. Nevertheless, her aristocratic double moniker yielded occasional fun. When she was meeting some film producers at the Groucho Club in Soho to pitch an idea, one of the executives asked if she had a title. “Yes, I’ve got two actually,” she told him.

Catherine Elizabeth Tennant was born on November 10 1947 and brought up between Glen, the Glenconner seat in the Scottish borders, and her parents’ London house in Swan Walk, overlooking the Chelsea Physic Garden. She read English Literature at University College London before getting a job at Vogue.

After marriage to Sir Mark Palmer on Midsummer’s day 1976, the couple decamped to Gloucestershire; occasional stints in painted gipsy caravans ensued. Her children were baptised in the River Windrush, travelling down to the sunlit water meadows in a horse and cart.

The Palmers lived first at Sherborne, and lately at Coln St Dennis, overlooking the valley in which, she maintained, the Romans had constructed shrines to Orpheus. She wrote a book, Beauty for Free, about creating face-creams and unguents from hedgerow plants, and became immersed in Jungian psychology, a system she later refuted.

Her growing interest in the stars saw her publish two books, A Box of Stars and The Lost Zodiac. But she retained a dash of scepticism about her craft: “You have to take it with a pinch of salt,” she said; when she first contributed to the Telegraph in 1995, a profile emphasised her “gently optimistic readings and positive advice”.

Catherine Tennant’s occasional short stories and paintings revealed great talent, but her questing mind and love of company were better served by the evanescent medium of conversation. Sometimes, late into the night, she would burst into song; her voice was made to sing the blues, husky and soulful. Send Me the Pillow You Dream on and Love is Like a Cigarette were favourites.

She is survived by her husband and their children.

Catherine Tennant, born November 10 1947, died June 4 2021

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