Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Robert Kime. A decorator by royal appointment.

Robert Kime
A decorator by royal appointment
08 DECEMBER 2015| By Elfreda Pownall

Scott Fitzgerald was wrong: the very rich are not so very different from you and me. “It’s the same in a palace or a cottage, people want to sit down comfortably and slop around,” says Robert Kime. And nowhere can they slop around in such comfort as in the homes created for them by this antiques dealer and interior decorator.

A new book, Robert Kime, by Alastair Langlands, the first ever published on his work, shows 12 homes he has designed since 1985. When the Prince of Wales took over Clarence House after the death of the Queen Mother, Kime was called in to redecorate, and his work is shown in the book. He was also the choice of Gela Nash-Taylor, co-founder of Juicy Couture, when she and her husband John Taylor, bass guitarist of Duran Duran, bought a 17th-century manor house in Wiltshire, which is also shown. There  is an exquisite hunting lodge, decorated for one of the five dukes whose stately homes Kime has worked on, as well as a beach house in the Bahamas, and a Provençal farmhouse. Homes belonging to the Kimes are included too: a tiny Irish cottage, a tin house built from a former village hall, and his present home, a warren of rooms above his shop near the British Museum.

And it is here, sinking into a sofa of cloud-like softness, that you realise that the very rich  are different – at least in the sofa department. “Palace or cottage – you just scale it up or down,” says Kime, flicking through the book. “I didn’t think I was the sort of person who wanted  a book. And, though there are decorating principles here, it’s not a decorator’s book, it’s more a summation of what I do,” he says. He is right. It is not about the latest look or the “new” colour; it is more a design biography, showing a personal style he has perfected, using historical knowledge, and an uncanny ability to put a room together so it looks and feels right.

Born in Hampshire in 1946, Kime was first interested in antiques on a small scale. He collected coins as a schoolboy and speculated about their history. He left school at 16 with four A-levels and worked on archeological digs in Greece and Masada. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he was reading history when a sudden family crisis meant he had to sell his mother’s furniture to raise money. It was heart-rending to have to lose the pieces he had grown up with. “But selling them was how I learned,” he says. “It was vital to get the maximum price for every item.” To do so, he learned as much as possible about each piece, its ideal price and buyer. “It stopped me being an amateur,” he says.

It was also early training. He was soon dealing antiques to pay for university, even selling objects  to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Undergraduates are usually moved to different rooms every year,  but Kime persuaded the bursar of Worcester College to allow him to keep his room, so antique dealers would know where to find him.

After leaving Oxford, Kime used  that charisma and confidence to  attract the renowned scientist Miriam Rothschild. Within half  a day of their meeting she had commissioned him to sell an attic-full of her family’s 18th-century furniture, and later helped him set up his first antiques shop. The extraordinary variety and quality of the furniture and objects in his shop, and later in a warehouse adjoining his home in Wiltshire, was a magnet for antiques dealers: Arts and Crafts tables, textiles from Ghana, Uzbekistan and Turkey, French farmhouse linens, metal lanterns, fossils, Iznik tiles, deep-buttoned Victorian sofas were all on view and wonderfully arranged in the warm and beautiful homes made by Kime and his late wife Helen Nicoll, the creator of the Meg and Mog children’s books.

Kime became an interior decorator by default, giving up his Fridays to design houses for people who, after seeing his warehouse and his home, asked him to make their home  look just like his. He is considered  the most erudite and prestigious decorator in Britain, yet it is difficult to discover just how he does it. There is a story of him turning up to help a friend who didn’t like her sitting room. He came armed with one mirror, two pictures and three strong men. All he did was re-arrange everything, and by the evening its owner said it was perfection.

“It’s not about the things,” he says, “they are far less important than how you live in the room.” But plainly the “things” inspire him: “Wonderful,” he says, grinning when he tells you where he found a particular chair or rug. “Most of my rooms begin with a rug,” he says. “And then you have your star piece, maybe a mirror or a picture, and it all just fits into place.”

Recently Kime has been unable to find all the antiques and vintage fabrics he needs, so he has copied some of his favourites. A typical example of his care with these  new designs is one of the hand-embroidered fabrics. “For this yellow pattern I used four different shades, from nearly-green, to almost-brown to yellow, to pale primrose,” he says. “That way, the fabric looks lively, and it is the way the original vegetable dyes would have aged.” This is a man who has trained his eye since childhood, who creates calm, comfortable and eminently covetable interiors.



 “A room should represent the absent owner, its arrangement is the owners memory”

In the newly published book by Alastair Langlands, Robert Kime reveals that he follows in the tradition Mario Praz ‘s Philosophy of Furniture and that his rooms represent the character of their owner.  From this point of view, this beautifully produced book becomes even more fascinating.   Not only can the reader observe the genius of Kime’s work but also take pleasure in attempting to gain insight into the character and personality of the owner.

The Dining Room South Wraxall Manor. Photographer Tessa Traeger.

Considering Robert Kime’s importance for many years as the undisputed King of interior decoration, this book is remarkably understated and discreet. Decorator to half the aristocracy, a plethora of rock stars and most importantly The Prince of Wales, this book provides a wonderful opportunity to see his work.

Beautiful cantilevered staircase created by Mary Lou Arscott, at La Gonette Provence. Photographer Tessa Traeger

From surprisingly humble cottages, to the gorgeous romantic fantasy of South Wraxall Manor, home of John Taylor and Gela Nash Taylor,  we pass through Royal, Ducal, and palatial residences, via the Caribbean and South of France. To the discerning eye, it is possible to begin to distil a few of the elements of Kime’s genius and the magic that he weaves. The book covers a period of over twenty years and it is also notable to see how timeless the work is and how many of the ideas have been adopted by the mainstream over the years.

Bathroom, Royal Terrace Edinburgh. Photograph James Mortimer.

Famous for working on the “eye”, Kime began his career as a dealer, and when his CV is read backwards it seems it was almost inevitable that he would end up as decorator to the Prince of Wales.

The Sitting Room at Upper Farm. The Kime family home for several years. Photograph Tessa Traeger.

Following studying history at Oxford and an early break working for Mirriam Rothschild, Kime moved to Sotheby’s then back to Oundle to set off on his own - A career path that would eventually lead to becoming one of the greatest interior decorators of his age.

Robert Kime has worked with both of the great dealer decorators, Geoffrey Bennison and Christopher Gibbs, and throughout the book it is easy to see their influence on his work, especially in the magical arrangement of objects and his trademark antique and later own label textiles.  This sensational visual vibration, between beautiful and sometimes disparate shapes and patterns, chosen and arranged on the eye, is the essence of his work.

Dining room at the Duke of Beauforts Maison du Plaisance, Swangrove. The owners presence embodied in the order of the garter flasks on the chimney piece.  Photographer Fritz von der Schulenburg

The rooms created by Robet Kime and featured throughout the book by Langlands are not formally ostentatious, although they are very smart.   Even when very strong pieces are used, as in The Garden Room at Clarence House, they are offset against other pieces of equal value, giving a sense of overall richness and wonder. The patterns and colours resonate against each other delightfully, with the subtext of visual harmony feeding the critical eye and distinguishing his work from his many impersonators.

 Drawing Room, Royal Terrace Edinburgh. Photographer James Mortimer.

Overall, this book is not only a shining example of the literary eye of Alistair Langlands, but also a visual feast of exquisite works by Robert Kime, - definitely one for the festive wish list.

Robert Kime: Text by Alistair Langlands

Photographs by Tessa Traeger

Frances Lincoln Limited October 2015

ISBN: 978-0-7112-3663-9

Friday, 9 November 2018

Love, Cecil / VIDEO: Trailer #1 (2018)

Love, Cecil
Director:  Lisa Immordino Vreeland
Stars: Cecil Beaton, Hamish Bowles, Leslie Caron, Rupert Everett, David Hockney

Love, Cecil review – intelligent tribute to fashion's Bright Young Thing
3 / 5 stars 3 out of 5 stars.    
Rupert Everett narrates designer Cecil Beaton’s diaries in Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s sympathetic study of his life and influence on British style

Peter Bradshaw
Fri 1 Dec 2017 13.00 GMT Last modified on Mon 2 Jul 2018 14.51 BST

Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s previous documentary was a portrait of art patron Peggy Guggenheim, and this study of Cecil Beaton is in the same celebratory mode. This was the British designer, photographer, social alpinist and Bright Young Thing who suffered a scandal after making an antisemitic slur in the 1930s, but after his craven, miserable (and sincere) apology for this silly shock tactic, he enjoyed royal patronage from the then Queen Elizabeth and was rehabilitated with the approach of war, during which he took valuable reportage pictures for Life magazine. He went on to create the look for the movie version of My Fair Lady, and maintained his own slightly quaint neo-Edwardian aesthetic for fashion magazines well into the swinging 60s. The film is intelligent, thorough and sympathetic, with Rupert Everett narrating Beaton’s diaries. But it never quite persuades you that Beaton really deserves to be considered a substantial artist. I found myself thinking of FR Leavis’s wisecrack about the Sitwells belonging to the history of publicity rather than of poetry. There is a touch of satirist Craig Brown in Beaton’s icily haughty pronouncements such as: “The call saying that the Queen wants me to take her coronation photographs comes as an enormous relief.” A moderately interesting study.

A Film Digs Beneath the Dandy Persona of Cecil Beaton

A new film explores the visual legacy of Cecil Beaton, who was inspired by a range of art movements and carefully curated scenes that throbbed with sensuality, drama, and romance.

Bedatri D. ChoudhuryJuly 4, 2018

“The Queen wonders if you’ll photograph her tomorrow afternoon?”

Cecil Beaton, after being fired from American Vogue in 1938, on charges of anti-Semitism, was living in England when his phone rang. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who would go on to be his favorite royal subject, wanted to be photographed by him. For Beaton, the artist, photographer, costume and set designer, and diarist, this was the resurrection. Years later, he would sit in Westminster Abbey, high up near the organ pipes, taking photos of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation with his top hat stuffed with sandwiches.

Beaton, the eponymous protagonist of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Love, Cecil was guided by the strength of his visual acuity. He sought to find a certain kind of beauty in the things that he saw and chose to express this beauty in as many ways as possible — in his drawings for Vogue, photographs, collages, diaries, Broadway sets and costumes. His obsession with beauty, as the documentary reveals, stemmed from theatre: the suspension of disbelief and the evocative power of beautiful sets, costumes and make-up overpowered him during his days at Cambridge University. In what is retrospectively one of the earliest instances of queering the campus, Beaton would attend classes in drag — his face adorned with feathers and done up with heavy make-up, wearing clothes that no one had ever seen before — least of all, on a man.

His relentless search for beauty essentially emerges from a constant feeling of not belonging and dissatisfaction that can perhaps be traced back to his family. His father was a timber merchant and the Beaton children, Cecil and his three siblings, grew up in comfortable abundance: attending the esteemed Harrow School, and later Cambridge. But he was never satisfied. This was not the life he wanted — this life of studying, rote learning, growing up to run a business. Beaton wanted to be free, open, living a life of careless luxury. When he finally left Cambridge without finishing his degree, he became a part of Bright Young Things, group of young, carefree, rich youngsters who dressed up, posed for pictures, threw parties, drank copiously and were everything Cecil Beaton wanted to be. The pictures that he took of Stephen Tennant and his other bohemian friends not only mark the beginnings of his formal photography career, but also exist as invaluable documents of this sub-culture of young men and women who in 1920s London lived a life of grandeur and decadence typical of the 1890s — the decade that shocked the rigid Victorian morality with its hubristic aestheticism, sensuality, and transgressive openness to sexual and political experimentation. For Beaton, who never completely belonged to his own time and society, this turning back of time was euphoric.

There’s no denying that Beaton brought to fashion photography a certain intellectual gravitas that was hitherto unseen. Inspired by a range of art movements — from German Expressionism to French Romanticism, he incorporated shadows and sets to carefully curate mise-en-scènes that throbbed with sensuality, drama, and romance. The flair and meticulousness with which he captured people is the same flair with which he wrote out his diaries, and the same meticulousness with which he did up his house in Ashcombe, and with which he hosted intellectual and cultural giants. Salvador Dali holds a fencing mask and stares to his right; Mona von Bismarck peeps through a torn screen of paper; Charles Henry Ford places his chin on Pavel Tchelitchew’s neck; Lady Diana Cooper wears an ornate headdress and wraps a velvet shawl around herself. In Beaton’s photographs, it’s never just the person who is the subject of the photograph but always the persona and the idea of the thousand different characters they might be. Beauty, for Beaton, is a dynamic ever-changing entity, a force so intent on expressing itself that it defies the established norms of expression and anonymity.

Vreeland makes a concerted effort to probe beyond the Cecil Beaton the world knows — the Oscar-winning unabashedly dapper, flamboyant, self-confessed “dandy” Cecil Beaton who through his costumes for Gigi, My Fair Lady, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, lent to Hollywood some of that charismatic flamboyance and chicness. She uncovers the deeply hurt Beaton who could never really forgive himself for the anti-Semitic Vogue illustration, the tiny but legible word “Kike” peeking out of a drawing. Almost as a way of redeeming himself, he joined the British Ministry of Information during the Second World War and travelled across Burma, China, and Egypt — photographing the deadly aftermath but at the same time, celebrating the beauty that survives war and the culture of aesthetics that outlives destruction. During the Blitz he photographed three-year-old Eileen Dunne, her head bandaged, arms clutching a teddy and her eyes set in a piercing gaze — the photograph that would finally appear on the cover of Life and convince the Americans to aid Britain in the war. This is a Beaton who gets seldom talked about: the Beaton who documented a devastating war with as much dedication and skill as he documented the crème de la crème of Hollywood and the British royalty.

The documentary also highlights the frankness with which Beaton lived his life. It is peppered with anecdotes about people he hated. He famously said that Elizabeth Taylor combined the worst of American and English tastes, and that Katharine Hepburn was as graceless as a “dried out boot.” It also underscores the inherent duality of his life — the unabashed, frank side and the contradictory, private, secretive side. As Truman Capote notes in the film, “He was both very vain and very modest at the same time.” For him almost everything was about style and self-fashioning — so much so that he was often labelled a vain narcissist. “I am not vain,” he said, “I’m at worst, pretty.”

“I’m a terrible homosexualist,” Beaton wrote in his diary. Underlining all of his creative pursuits, is the deep discomfort of never being able to live freely as a homosexual, of living a life of endless discretion. The documentary uncovers the deep love he felt for British art collector Peter Watson and then later, the American fencer Kinmont Hoitsma (whom he calls him “ceaselessly beautiful”)— both affairs left him heartbroken and sad. The film also explores his deep relationship with Greta Garbo, who was the most beautiful woman in his eyes. In this segment, the camera fleets from one portrait to another — in one she gazes obliquely sitting among flowers; in another she lays down wearing a white turtle neck as her hair frames her face; and in another, she gazes out a window.

When Beaton passed away in 1980, in the Reddish House in the village of Broad Chalke in Wiltshire, England — an 18th-century manor he bought and renovated — his room only had three portraits that he had taken: of Watson, Hoitsma, and Garbo. The self-created man who saw the life he wanted to live and built it for himself, who bought much beauty into the world, passed away in solitude, forever in pursuit of unattainable beauty, never in surrender.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Eltham Palace / VIDEO:Eltham Palace: Join the Party

Once a favoured medieval palace and then a Tudor royal residence, Eltham Palace was transformed into a striking Art Deco mansion by eccentric millionaires Stephen and Viriginia Courtauld.  Discover their stylish home which incorporates original medieval features into an otherwise ultra-modern 1930s design. Step into the shoes of the lavish Courtaulds and explore their extravagant lifestyle as you discover the state of the art technology and unusual features of their residence. Head out into 19 acres of award-winning gardens and climb, jump and explore in our play area inspired by Stephen and Virginia's travels across the globe.

In 1933, Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia "Ginie" Courtauld (née Peirano) acquired the lease of the palace site and restored the Great Hall (adding a minstrels' gallery to it) while building an elaborate home, internally in the Art Deco style. The dramatic Entrance Hall was created by the Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer. Light floods in from a spectacular glazed dome, highlighting blackbean veneer and figurative marquetry. Keen gardeners, the Courtaulds also substantially modified and improved the grounds and gardens.

Stephen was a younger brother of Samuel Courtauld, an industrialist, art collector and founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art. His study in the new house features a statuette version of The Sentry, copied from a Manchester war memorial, by Charles Sargeant Jagger, who was - like Stephen - a member of the Artists' Rifles during the First World War.

The Courtaulds' pet lemur, Mah-Jongg, had a special room on the upper floor of the house which had a hatch to the downstairs flower room; he had the run of the house. The Courtaulds remained at Eltham until 1944. During the earlier part of the war, Stephen Courtauld was a member of the local Civil Defence Service. In September 1940 he was on duty on the Great Hall roof as a fire watcher when it was badly damaged by German incendiary bombs. In 1944, the Courtauld family moved to Scotland then to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), giving the palace to the Royal Army Educational Corps in March 1945; the Corps remained there until 1992.

In 1995, English Heritage assumed management of the palace, and in 1999, completed major repairs and restorations of the interiors and gardens.

The palace and its garden are open to the public and can be hired for weddings and other functions. Most of the rooms have been restored to resemble their appearance during the Courtaulds' occupation (though it is uncertain how some of them were furnished) but some have been left as they were when the palace was used by the Educational Corps.

Public transport is available at the nearby Mottingham railway station or Eltham railway station, both a short walk from the palace.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

SIBYL COLEFAX / VIDEO: The Drawing Room: English Country House Decoration


Lady Colefax began decorating in 1930. She was well-connected and also ahead of her time: her circle of friends and acquaintances provided her with clients and she became a very successful businesswoman. British diplomat Harold Nicholson wrote in his diary: ‘Lunch with Sibyl Colefax at Boulestin. She tells me that she has made £2,000 last year by her own efforts. She gets up by candle-light and fusses till midnight. A brave woman’.

Sibyl’s talent for creating comfortable interiors that were stylish but never pretentious was the secret of her appeal to her influential clients. She was friendly with royalty, including the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson, with entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin and Cole Porter, and with much of the British aristocracy. When, in 1938, her services were so in demand that she needed to expand, she asked a rising young star of interior decorating, John Fowler, to join her in her business at Bruton Street in Mayfair. In 1939, the company name was changed to Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler.

Sibyl, Lady Colefax (née Halsey; 1874 – 22 September 1950) was a notable English interior decorator and socialite in the first half of the twentieth century.

She was born in Wimbledon into a noted family in society and lived in Cawnpore, India, until the age of 20 when she went on the Grand Tour. In 1901, she married patent lawyer Sir Arthur Colefax, who was briefly the MP for Manchester South West in 1910. They set up home at Argyll House, King's Road, Chelsea and at Old Buckhurst in Kent. Widely admired for her taste after she had lost most of her fortune in the Wall Street Crash she began to decorate professionally, using her formidable address book for contacts. She was able to purchase the decorating division of the antique dealers Stair and Andrew of Bruton Street, Mayfair and established Sibyl Colefax Ltd in partnership with Peggy Ward, the Countess Munster. On her 'retirement' (following a family tragedy) Peggy Ward advised her to take on John Fowler (1906-1977) as her partner, which she did in April 1938. The advent of war cut short this partnership. During the Second World War, she organised a soup kitchen and continued to entertain. She often held small lunch parties at The Dorchester known as 'Ordinaries' after which the guest would receive a small bill.

In 1944 the business, managed by John Fowler, took a lease on 39 Brook Street, Mayfair where it remains to this day. Also in 1944 Sibyl Colefax sold the business to Nancy Tree (Nancy Lancaster as she became in 1948) for a sum in the order of £10000. She renamed the business Sibyl Colefax and John Fowler Ltd, the name continuing today as the decorating division of the Colefax Group Plc.

Sibyl Colefax died at her home in Lord North Street, Westminster on 22 September 1950. Harold Nicolson penned an affectionate tribute that appeared shortly after in The Listener.

Lord North Street is a short street of Georgian terraced housing running between Smith Square and Great Peter Street in Westminster, the political heartland of British government. As such they have always commanded high fees and featured in many dramatic storylines.Past residents include the socialite Sibyl Colefax, founder of the Colefax and Fowler fabrics and wallpaper company,and Harold Wilson, twice Prime minister who in November 1974 alleged that renegade MI5 operatives had broken into his home.More recent residents include Jonathan Aitken and Theresa Gorman. The street is named after the 2nd Earl of Guilford, who was known for most of his life under his courtesy title Lord North, and was Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782.

A Passion for Friendship by Kirsty McLeod. Michael Joseph, London, 1991.

Sibyl Colefax (1874-1950) was a society hostess of 1930s London; remembered, too, as the founder of the interior design company, Colefax and Fowler. This is a portrait of her life and her association with the personalities she brought together. This book explores Sibyl's friendships - with Harold Nicolson, Diana Cooper, the Windsors, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Max Beerbohm, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, Bernard Berenson, Thornton Wilder and many others - providing a view of the celebrities of the period. She also analyzes Sibyl's unique nature that drew her to them: though some criticized her for "collecting" famous names, others found behind the relentlessly social personality a genuine and loyal friend, full of kindness and love of life. The author also wrote "The Wives of Downing Street", "Drums and Trumpets" and "The Last Summer".

Great Hostesses by Brian Masters. Constable, London, 1982.

Siân Evans’s enjoyable account of the lives of leading British female socialites overstates their influence
Lara Feigel

Sun 11 Sep 2016 09.00 BST Last modified on Wed 21 Mar 2018 23.59 GMT

In 1931, Nancy Astor, owner of one of the most expensive houses in England, accompanied George Bernard Shaw to the Soviet Union. Armed with enough tinned food for two weeks, she embarked on the trip with the entitled confidence of the English aristocracy, though she was an American by birth. “When will you stop killing people?” she asked Stalin, who’d granted her a two-hour interview. “We are living in a state of war,” he replied. “When peace comes we shall stop it.”

With sufficient wealth and privilege, English women could be anywhere and talk to anyone. Siân Evans’s new book is an account of six English hostesses (three originally American and one Scottish) who flourished in the interwar years. Nancy Astor, Mrs Laura Corrigan, Sibyl, Lady Colefax, Lady Emerald Cunard, Lady Londonderry and Mrs Margaret Greville all lived in houses that are difficult to conceive of as domestic residences now, when most of them are owned by the National Trust. The grandest was Cliveden, the Astors’ Buckinghamshire home, where at the end of Nancy’s life the Profumo affair began.

 Evans is too anxious to defend her subjects to scrutinise their place in history
For Evans, this is more than an escapist tale of privilege. She claims both that “to be a great hostess was a career choice for those resourceful and energetic women” and that her six “queen bees” had “profound effects on British history”. Neither claim is convincing. Being a great hostess is not a career choice and it demeans the pioneering women who did manage to have jobs in this period to call it one. Indeed, some of these hostesses also had careers, which took up more time than their hostessing.

When her husband inherited a title and was debarred from his political seat in 1919, Nancy Astor stood for election. As the first female MP to take her seat, she managed to weather male disapprobation and to influence the law, pushing through an act in 1923 banning the sale of alcohol to those under 18. “When you took your seat, I felt as if a woman had come into my bathroom and I had only a sponge with which to defend myself,” Churchill complained. “You are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind,” Astor retorted. Meanwhile, Sibyl Colefax set up a successful interior-decorating business, starting her 12-hour days at 7am so that she could finish in time for the daily round of drinks and dinner, changing her clothes in the back of her chauffeur-driven Rolls on the way.

Did these women have much influence as hostesses? Certainly between them they managed to entice most of the social, political and artistic elite to their competing salons. But ultimately, this was a series of parties. Reminiscing about Emerald Cunard, Oswald Mosley looked back on her house as a place where “the cleverest met with the most beautiful and that is what social life should be”. No doubt it was all “enormous fun”, as he recalled, but surely Astor had more influence as an MP than she did at home. The suggestion that they influenced art also seems overstated. Though their houses were popular, they were not especially respected by serious writers and artists. Mocking Colefax, Virginia Woolf coined the term “Colefaxismus” for casual remarks intended to imply privileged knowledge of a subject. Emerald Cunard’s influence in the opera scene was acquired chiefly as a result of the financial support she gave her lover, the conductor Thomas Beecham. But this was an increasingly humiliating affair with a serially unfaithful man.

Most of them lost face in the lead up to the second world war, when all but one were sympathetic to Hitler. The Londonderrys made their final visit to Germany in June 1938 and insisted afterwards that Britain should “extend the hand of true friendship to the Third Reich” for the sake of world peace. The hostesses did their best to regain prestige by aiding the war effort and some were impressive in their sacrifices and achievements. Laura Corrigan remained in Paris once it was overrun by Nazis, managing to sell her jewellery to Goering in order to support wounded soldiers in France.

There are important historical questions to be asked here, but Evans is too anxious to defend her subjects to scrutinise their place in history. She also doesn’t seem especially interested in analysing her cast as individuals. The portraits are done with a broad brush and I found that I didn’t know these women intimately enough to care what happened to them and was frequently inclined to agree with Harold Nicolson, complaining that “the harm which these silly, selfish hostesses do is immense”. Nicolson didn’t turn down their invitations, though, and I didn’t stop reading about them. Insofar as it’s always pleasurable to read about the quirks and feats of eccentric and redoubtable women, the book, like their parties, is often “enormous fun”.

 Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich. Queen Bees is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20). Click here to buy it for £16.40

Monday, 5 November 2018

Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West . Portrait of more than a Marriage.

 Born Violet Keppel, she was the daughter of Alice Keppel, later a mistress of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, and her husband, the Hon. George Keppel, a son of the 7th Earl of Albemarle. But members of the Keppel family thought her biological father was William Beckett, subsequently 2nd Baron Grimthorpe, a banker and MP for Whitby.

Violet lived her early youth in London, where the Keppel family had a house in Portman Square. When she was four years old, her mother became the favourite mistress of Albert Edward ("Bertie"), the Prince of Wales, who succeeded to the throne as King Edward VII on 22 January 1901. He paid visits to the Keppel household in the afternoon around tea-time on a regular basis until the end of his life in 1910. (George Keppel, who was aware of the affair, was conveniently absent at these times.

In 1900 Violet's only sibling, Sonia, was born (Sonia is the grandmother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Violet was her great-aunt).

 Trefusis is best remembered today for her love affair with the wealthy Vita Sackville-West. Virginia Woolf described this by analogy in her novel Orlando. In this romanticized biography of Vita, Trefusis is represented by the Russian princess Sasha.

The two women both wrote fictional accounts that referred to this love affair (Challenge by Sackville-West and Broderie Anglaise a roman à clef in French by Trefusis). Sackville-West's son Nigel Nicolson wrote the non-fiction Portrait of a Marriage, based on material from his mother's letters, and adding extensive "clarifications," including some of his father's point of view. Such works explored other aspects of the affair. Trefusis was also featured as a pivotal fictional character in other novels, including as "Lady Montdore" in Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate and "Muriel" in Harold Acton's The Soul's Gymnasium.

Each of the participants left extensive written accounts in surviving letters and diaries. Alice Keppel, Victoria Sackville-West, Harold Nicolson, Denys Trefusis and Pat Dansey also left documents that referred to the affair.

Diana Souhami's Mrs Keppel and her Daughter (1997) provides an overview of the affair and of the main actors in the drama. When Violet was 10, she met Vita (who was two years older) for the first time. After that, they attended the same school for several years and soon recognised a bond between them. When Violet was 14, she confessed her love to Vita and gave her a ring. In 1910, after the death of Edward VII, Mrs Keppel made her family observe a "discretion" leave of about two years before re-establishing themselves in British society. When they returned to London, the Keppels moved to a house in Grosvenor Street. At that time, Violet learned that Vita was soon to be engaged to Harold Nicolson and was involved in an affair with Rosamund Grosvenor. Violet made it clear that she still loved Vita, but became engaged to make Vita jealous. This did not stop Vita from marrying Harold (in October 1913), nor did he curtail his own homosexual adventures after marriage.

In April 1918, Violet and Vita refreshed and intensified their bond. Vita had two sons by then, but she left them in the care of others while she and Violet took a holiday in Cornwall. Meanwhile, Mrs Keppel was busy arranging a marriage for Violet with Denys Robert Trefusis (1890–1929), son of Colonel Hon. John Schomberg Trefusis (son of the 19th Baron Clinton) and Eva Louisa Bontein. A few days after the armistice, Violet and Vita went to France for several months. Because of Vita's exclusive claim, and her own loathing of marriage, Violet made Denys promise never to have sex with her as a condition for marriage. He apparently agreed as, on 16 June 1919, they married. At the end of that year, Violet and Vita made a new two-month excursion to France: ordered to do so by his mother-in-law, Denys retrieved Violet from the south of France when new gossip about her and Sackville-West's loose behaviour began to reach London. The next time they left, in February 1920, was to be the final elopement. Sackville-West might still have had some doubts and probably hoped that Harold would interfere. Harold and Denys pursued the women, flying to France in a two-seater airplane. The couples had heated scenes in Amiens.

The climax came when Harold told Vita that Violet had been unfaithful to her (with Denys). Violet tried to explain and assured Vita of her innocence (which was in all likelihood true). Vita was much too angry and upset to listen, and fled saying she couldn't bear to see Violet for at least two months. Six weeks later Vita returned to France to meet Violet. Mrs Keppel desperately tried to keep the scandal away from London, where Violet's sister, Sonia, was about to be married (to Roland Cubitt). Violet spent much of 1920 abroad, clinging desperately to Vita via continuous letters. In January 1921, Vita and Violet made a final journey to France, where they spent six weeks together. At this time, Harold threatened to break off the marriage if Vita continued her escapades. When Vita returned to England in March, it was practically the end of the affair. Violet was sent to Italy; and, from there she wrote her last desperate letters to their mutual friend Pat Dansey, having been forbidden from writing directly to Vita. At the end of the year, Violet had to face the facts and start to build her life from scratch.

The two former lovers met again in 1940, after the progress of World War II forced Trefusis to return to England. The women continued to keep in touch and send each other affectionate letters.

Vita Sackville-West's erotic verse to her lover emerges from 'intoxicating night'
Scholar finds writer's poem to mistress Violet Trefusis as it falls out of book during conservation work at her Sissinghurst home
Maev Kennedy

Mon 29 Apr 2013 21.24 BST First published on Mon 29 Apr 2013 21.24 BST

When Vita Sackville-West married the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson in the chapel of the palatial family home at Knole in Kent in 1913, the society column-writers enthused over the 21-year-old bride's beauty and her magnificent wedding gown. But as a poem going on display this week for the first time makes clear, there was more to the marriage than a conventional fairytale romance.

Sackville-West's erotic verse, written in French to her lover Violet Trefusis and translated by Harvey James, the scholar who found it, contrasts daytime strolls through floral meadows with "intoxicating night" when "I search on your lip for a madder caress/ I tear secrets from your yielding flesh."

Nicolson and Sackville-West went on to create one of the most famous gardens in England at their home at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, now, like Knole, in the care of the National Trust, but both had many same-sex affairs during their long marriage, which only ended with her death in 1962.

Their tangled love life overlapped with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists. Sackville-West's most famous affair was with Virginia Woolf, who immortalised their relationship and her family background in the 1928 novel Orlando.

Knole, said to have a room for every day of the year, including one with silver furniture, was lost to an uncle because Sackville-West's parents had not produced a son – a loss Nigel Nicolson, who wrote a classic account of his parents in his book Portrait of a Marriage, described as the tragedy of her life.

Sackville-West also wrote extensively and the poem, which fell out of a bookin her writing room at Sissinghurst as her library was being catalogued, was written just five years after her marriage, when her on-off affair with Trefusis resumed. Trefusis, daughter of Alice Keppel, the lover of King Edward VII, also had literary pretensions, and described how her lover's "profound, hereditary Sackville eyes were as pools from which the morning mists had lifted".

The poem was only found in February by James, a bookmark in a gift from Trefusis. "It literally just fell out from between the pages of an old book that was being catalogued as part of our conservation work. It's a really poignant reminder of the challenges and crises that Vita and Harold's relationship endured," he said.

The garden has been open to visitors since 1 May 1938, and on Wednesday, the anniversary, visitors will again pay just 5p – worth far less than when Sackville-West called her visitors the "shillingses".

The family heirlooms displayed for the first time have been lent by her grandchildren, novelist and historian Juliet and Adam Nicolson. Only the skirt survives of the sumptuous wedding gown, which was described by the Lady's Pictorial as "'the colour like the tassel of Indian corn, the silk shimmering bright like the silk on the cocoon".

The wedding outfit was made by Reville & Rossiter, whose clientele included Queen Mary. Her trousseau also included a dress by one of the most important and influential designers of the day, Mariano Fortuny, whose pleated silk gowns transformed Edwardian women into Grecian goddesses.

Juliet Nicolson has transcribed some of her great-grandmother's journals for the exhibition, recording the fabulous expense of the wedding: they went with Nicolson to choose the ring and inspected "over 100 emerald and d[iamond] rings" before he settled on "a lovely one" for £185. On 14 October she settled the bill at Reville & Rossiter, "nearly £400, the wedding dress cost 50 guineas".

The exhibition, along with one on the creation of the garden, whose quintessentially English style remains influential, runs until the end of October.

Lost poem
When sometimes I stroll in silence, with you
Through great floral meadows of open country
I listen to your chatter, and give thanks to the gods
For the honest friendship, which made you my companion
But in the heavy fragrance of intoxicating night
I search on your lip for a madder caress
I tear secrets from your yielding flesh
Giving thanks to the fate which made you my mistress

• Courtesy of the beneficiaries of the Literary Estate of Vita Sackville-West, 2013

Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West review – a catalogue of sexual conquests
No salacious detail of her love affairs is spared in an infuriating new life of Vita Sackville-West, the first new biography in 30 years

Rachel Cooke
Sun 12 Oct 2014 08.00 BST Last modified on Thu 22 Mar 2018 00.21 GMT

Vita Sackville-West, the writer and gardener extraordinaire, grew up at Knole in Kent, a house that resembled “a medieval village with its square turrets and its grey walls, its hundred chimneys sending blue threads up into the air”. It is a self-contained but irredeemably grand building: now in the care of the National Trust, it is reputed to have a room for every day of the year. Sackville-West was deeply, cripplingly attached to it, perhaps for the simple, stubborn reason that it would never be hers (it would pass to a male heir). Down the years, Knole was first a shield – a perimeter wall over which those she disdained would never be able to climb – and then, once it was lost to her, a perpetual ache. Thanks to this, she grew up to be that most rare of creatures: a restive, questing woman who seemed always to be in search of a means of assuaging her loss, yet was also wholly herself, as easy in her skin as in her breeches and gardening boots.

The whiff of scandal, though, was there from the beginning, and sometimes it was in danger of turning into a stench. In 1910, when she was 18, her mother’s siblings launched a legal claim to the estate, one that would climax in a salacious court case (Vita’s mother, Victoria Sackville-West, was only the mistress of Knole because she had married her cousin, the third Lord Sackville; Victoria and her brothers and sisters were the illegitimate children of the second Lord Sackville). Three years later, another battle followed when the family of Victoria’s late lover, Sir John Murray Scott, challenged his will, accusing Lady Sackville-West of having used undue influence over him in order to secure a substantial legacy. Victoria triumphed on both occasions, but such public notoriety, you feel, also had its effect on her only child. Beneath Vita’s expansive, passionate nature ran a certain coolness. She was blithe, flexible, thick-skinned: as oblivious to the pain she caused others as to the gossip that inevitably trailed her.

In his new biography of Sackville-West, Matthew Dennison whizzes through her childhood and these court cases. His interest, in spite of the vague protestations he makes in the preface, seems to lie mostly in his subject’s sex life, a frisky business that was never going to be compromised by her marriage in 1913 to the writer and diplomat Harold Nicolson, who was gay. As a result, his narrative consists for the most part of a somewhat well-rehearsed catalogue of conquest, Vita’s béguins – this is his preferred term for the many women with whom she falls into bed – lined up one after the other in what quickly comes to resemble a kind of sapphic beauty pageant. The roll call begins in 1917 with Violet Keppel, the daughter of Edward VII’s mistress (“I know that when you fall into V’s hands your will becomes like a jellyfish addicted to cocaine,” wrote Harold, who couldn’t help wishing the manipulative Violet would simply drop dead); it ends with Alvilde Lees-Milne, the wife of the diarist James Lees-Milne. Along the way it takes in, among many others, Virginia Woolf; Hilda Matheson, a director of talks at the BBC; and Gwen St Aubyn, Vita’s sister-in-law. Faced with this seamless parade, the reader has little choice but to agree with another lover, the cruelly abandoned and unfortunately-named Olive Grinder, who wrote to Vita in 1932: “You do like to have your cake and eat it – and so many cakes, so many, a surfeit of sweet things.” There are times when the reader simply cannot tell these female confections apart. Poor Matheson stands out in the memory only because Vita charmingly likened her blue-stocking darling to “a strong purge… a hair shirt”.

You can see where this is going. Predictably, Dennison’s attention wanes dramatically after Vita, Harold and their two sons move to Sissinghurst Castle in 1930, the purchase of which did not go down terribly well with some of their friends (Harold’s lover, Raymond Mortimer, thought it “a gloomy place in hideous flat country, with commonplace cottages and no view”). Once they’re settled in and busy planting their hornbeams and climbing roses, his book starts to feel very much like a race to the end. The menopausal Vita, with her refusal to attend grand parties – “I hate the idea of being examined under electric lights,” she told Harold – and her “dark shadow of moustache” cannot match, for him, the young Vita, whose hooded eyes were feted, whose wedding dress was the same gold as “the tassel of Indian corn”. He touches on her drinking, the “muzzy moods” that came to worry Harold, only lightly. Ditto the staggering success and influence of the garden she created. He puts some effort into summarising her literary output, which was prodigious, reminding us along the way that she was briefly talked of as a future poet laureate (her reputation used to rest, somewhat uneasily, on her long poem, The Land; these days, if she is loved at all it is for her novel All Passion Spent, in which an elderly aristocratic widow finds new freedom in Hampstead). But his accounts are so uninspiring, so unwitty. In the end, what lingers in the memory is not this character or that plot, but the fact that Virginia and Leonard Woolf bought their Frigidaire on the back of the profits from Vita’s bestseller, The Edwardians, a novel they published at the Hogarth Press.

Dennison is an old-school biographer who begins at the beginning and ends at the end, and whose style is occasionally grandiloquent (his last subject was Queen Victoria, the life of whose youngest daughter, Beatrice, he has also written). But it wasn’t this that infuriated me as I read Behind the Mask. Nor was it his failures of psychology, weird though many of them are (Vita’s affair with Trefusis, he says, resembled “short-term schizophrenia”). Rather, it was simply that the information contained in his book is so obviously inadequate, so frequently incomplete. I need give only one example to make the point. What kind of biography of Vita Sackville-West, I wonder, refers to the suicide of Virginia Woolf in a single sentence? The only possible answer is a wholly deficient one. This friendship was one of the most significant of her life. Apart from anything else, it is clear (look at the letters) that Vita felt she might have been able to save her friend if only she’d known her state of mind (Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts, can be seen as a farewell to her – a letter with a subtext that Vita singularly failed to grasp when she read it). Again and again, I found myself turning to my battered paperback of Victoria Glendinning’s Whitbread prize-winning biography of Sackville-West, the better to fill in the holes in Dennison’s doily. If you are going to write, as he has done, the first new life of Vita to appear in more than 30 years, it is, I feel, beholden on you to bring more to the biographical table, not vastly less.

 Portrait of a Marriage is a British television miniseries detailing the real-life love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Keppel, as well as the strength of Vita's enduring marriage to the diplomat Harold Nicolson. Based on the biographical novel of the same name by Nigel Nicolson, it features Janet McTeer as Vita, and Cathryn Harrison as Violet.
The series was adapted by Penelope Mortimer, directed by Stephen Whittaker and produced by Colin Tucker. It was first aired on BBC Two in four parts in 1990; a three-part edited version aired in the United States on PBS in 1992 as part of the Masterpiece Theatre strand.

Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson is the 1973 biography of writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West compiled by her son Nigel Nicolson from her journals and letters.
The book relates to Sackville-West's complicated marriage to writer and politician Harold Nicolson. Two chapters are written by Sackville-West. They are centred on herself and her passion for Violet Trefusis for whom she abandoned Harold Nicolson, Vita’s bisexual husband and her two children, Nigel and Ben.

Three chapters were written by her son Nigel Nicolson. They present the sexual and emotional life secrets of his mother: ”I did not know Violet. I met her only twice, and by then she had become a galleon, no longer the pinnace of her youth, and I did not recognize in her sails the high wind which had swept my mother away […]. I did not know that Vita could love like this, had loved like this, because she would not speak of it to her son. Now that I know everything I love her more, as my father did, because she was tempted, because she was weak. She was a rebel, she was Julian [Vita’s alter ego], and though she did not know it, she fought for more than Violet. She fought for the right to love, men and women, rejecting the conventions that marriage demands exclusive love, and that women should love only men, and men only women. For this she was prepared to give up everything. Yes, she may have been mad, as she later said, but it was a magnificent folly. She may have been cruel, but it was a cruelty on a heroic scale. How can I despise the violence of such passion?”

Sackville-West writes mostly about herself and her emotions. Nicolson writes about his father and the love between him and Vita, that grew more and more important for them as their life progressed, and was the base to which each of them returned after Vita’s strong passions for other people, including the famous Virginia Woolf and Harold’s adventures with men. Nicolson stresses the liberal nature of Vita’s and Harold’s views and actions about marriage and sexuality in the early years of the 20th century, but also brings forward Vita’s intense snobbism and coldness about the lower social classes.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Sir Philip Sassoon

Sassoon was a member of the prominent Jewish Sassoon family and Rothschild family. He was born in his mother's mansion on Avenue de Marigny, Paris. His father was Sir Edward Albert Sassoon, 2nd Baronet, MP, son of Albert Abdullah David Sassoon; his mother was Aline Caroline, daughter of Gustave Samuel de Rothschild. His sister was Sybil Sassoon, who married the Marquess of Cholmondeley. He was a cousin of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. He was descended from the banking family of Frankfurt. When aged only nineteen years old his great-grandfather, James Rothschild was sent to Paris to set up the family business in France. James became wealthy. When he died in 1868 he was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. His branch of the Sassoon-Rothschild family kept the Jewish faith, donated to Jewish charities and founded synagogues.

His great-grandfather David Sassoon had been imprisoned in Baghdad in 1828, and in 1832 he established his business David Sassoon & Co. at Bombay. He took advantage of British rule to return to Baghdad to trade. The family eventually established a Head Office at Leadenhall Street, London and another in Manchester. The Sassoons became assimilated Jews, dressing, acting and thinking like Englishmen. The Sassoon Brothers, David and Albert were friends of the Prince of Wales, built the 'Black Horse' brand. The business came with a baronetcy of Kensington Gore. His father bought Shorncliffe Lodge, where his cousin Mayer Rothschild was the MP. His father was not a successful backbencher, but the political influences had a profound effect on young Philip.

He was educated at Farnborough Prep school and Eton before going up to Oxford. Old Etonian Arthur Balfour recommended the Debating Society to him. His father was also friendly with Frances Horner, wife of Sir John Horner, a longtime friend of Gladstone who lived at Mells Manor in Somerset. His house master was a member of the secret society of liberals, the Young Apostles. Also a near contemporary was Osbert Sitwell, the Yorkshireman and author. A French scholar, he learned the language doing classes at Windsor Castle. Sassoon was taught aesthetics by Henry Luxmoore giving an insight into philosophy and social realism. However he chose to read Modern History at Christ Church, Oxford. He was one of only 25 Jewish undergraduates, but was invited to join the Bullingdon Club. He joined the East Kent Yeomanry while still at Oxford and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

Philip Sassoon entered Parliament in 1912.

Sassoon served as private secretary to Field Marshal Haig during the First World War from 1915-1918. Sassoon was present at the meeting on the First of December 1914 at the Chateau Demont at Merville in France, when King George V and Edward Prince of Wales met with Poincare, President of France, and the Generals Joffre, Foch and Rawlinson. The allies showed their determination to fight Germany and the Central Powers. Because of his "numerous social and political connections" Sassoon, at that time a Second Lieutenant in the Royal East Kent Yeomanry, was in attendance. A square bronze plaque commemorating the occasion was auctioned in 2012.

Political caree

He was Member of Parliament (MP) for Hythe from 1912, succeeding his father, initially as the "Baby of the House". He was Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Lloyd George in 1920. Between 1924 and 1929 and again from 1931 until 1937 he served as Under-Secretary of State for Air, and gained much prominence in political circles. He was appointed a Privy Councillor in the 1929 Dissolution Honours. In 1937 he became First Commissioner of Works, a post which he held until his death, aged fifty, two years later.

Trent Park
He had a reputation for being one of the greatest hosts in Britain. Herbert Baker designed one house for him in 1912, Port Lympne, later the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park, in Kent, and Philip Tilden largely re-built another at Trent Park, Cockfosters, from 1923. Stylistic differences between the two houses illustrate changes in taste among members of British high society of the period. Trent Park possessed a landscape designed by Humphrey Repton but the existing house was Victorian and undistinguished. Sassoon and his designers turned it into one of the houses of the age, "a dream of another world - the white-coated footmen serving endless courses of rich but delicious food, the Duke of York coming in from golf... Winston Churchill arguing over the teacups with George Bernard Shaw, Lord Balfour dozing in an armchair, Rex Whistler absorbed in his painting... while Philip himself flitted from group to group, an alert, watchful, influential but unobtrusive stage director - all set against a background of mingled luxury, simplicity and informality, brilliantly contrived...’ This atmosphere, as Clive Aslet has suggested, represented a complete about-face from Sassoon's earlier extravagance at Port Lympne to what Aslet called "an appreciation of English reserve." In the words of Christopher Hussey, at Trent Sassoon caught "that indefinable and elusive quality, the spirit of a country house... an essence of cool, flowery, chintzy, elegant, unobtrusive rooms that rises in the mind when we are thinking of country houses."

Port Lympne Mansion
Neither the eye-popping interiors nor the extravagant gardens at Port Lympne Mansion could be described as in any way "reserved", or even "English". Mark Girouard has written of the "quiet good taste expected of a country gentleman" against which Philip may have chafed in his younger years, apparently torn between the standards of Country Life and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His Ballets Russes-inspired dining room at Port Lympne with its lapis walls, opalescent ceiling, gilt-winged chairs with jade-green cushions, all surmounted by a frieze of scantily-clad Africans, suggests the outsider confidence of a Rothschild and of an openly gay man. Philip Tilden added a bachelor's wing with Moorish courtyard, which Lady Honor Channon, (wife of Chips), unkindly likened to a Spanish brothel, to accommodate young airmen from nearby Romney Marsh flying field - among his other enthusiasms, Sir Philip was himself an aviator - and Tilden's twin swimming pools and monumentally classical garden staircase were in much the same theatrical spirit.

One frequent guest was Lawrence of Arabia.

Charmed Life by Damian Collins review – the phenomenal world of Philip Sassoon
The politician, arts patron, aviator and lavish host who called himself a ‘worthless loon’ is brought fluently to life

Richard Davenport-Hines
Sat 31 Dec 2016 07.30 GMT Last modified on Thu 22 Feb 2018 14.58 GMT

Sir Philip Sassoon said that he might have been interesting had he slept with Michelangelo’s male muse Cavalieri or invented the wireless instead of Marconi. He would not have felt such “a worthless loon”, he added, if he had painted Velázquez’s court painting Las Meninas or written Wuthering Heights. These hankerings show the essence of the man: a classy aesthete, with a love of big names and modern gadgets.

Despite his self-deprecation, though, Sassoon had a fulfilling life. In 1912, in his early 20s, he inherited a fortune with a baronetcy, and was elected as Conservative MP for Hythe – a constituency that, in the 1920s, his political opponents did not even bother to contest. In 1915 Field Marshal Haig, commander-in-chief of British armies on the western front, selected him as his private secretary. A few years later the prime minister, David Lloyd George, appointed him as his political secretary. He held interesting government posts during most of the interwar years.

Haig quipped that in recruiting Sassoon to his staff, he had attached a first-class dining car to his train. It is as a host with superb French chefs that Sassoon is remembered most. He liked to buy people’s friendships, to receive them in surroundings that he had beautified, and to embellish himself. Even as an Eton boy he gave ruby shirt studs and diamond cufflinks to other pupils. Thereafter he spent his wealth in ceaseless coddling of the English governing classes.

Sassoon’s mother was a Rothschild; he was born in her family’s Paris mansion in 1888. His paternal ancestors had amassed their booty as merchants in boomtown Bombay, trading in silver, gold, silks, opium, spices and cotton. After settling in the UK, the Sassoons ingratiated themselves with the Prince of Wales, afterwards Edward VII. They fed his appetite for advance and confidential news, entertained him in their palatial houses and abetted his gambling sprees.

Max Beerbohm drew a cartoon of Sassoon as a newly elected MP, looking demure and outlandish on the Commons benches among beefy, booming, rubicund Tories. Yet as a politician he soon proved to be a fluke success. He had a faultless memory for facts and figures, and was a businesslike speaker who never needed notes. Although he tried to suppress flamboyance, he nevertheless had, as one Labour MP said, the air of having wafted into parliament on a magic carpet. He was politically ambitious, “as clever as a cartload of monkeys”, and an inveterate flatterer of men in power.

In parliament he was the advocate of aviation. He bought his own aircraft in 1919, and used it in the way that poorer people ran their motor cars. As undersecretary in the air ministry, he promoted civilian air travel, and particularly the routes and airfields that ran from Britain through the Middle East to India. His book The Third Route – a mixture of technical flying manifesto and sprightly, observant travelogue – is as eloquent as anything written by his cousin Siegfried Sassoon (with whom his relations were mutually mistrustful).

The trajectory of Philip’s career was set by his homes. He inherited a sumptuously plutocratic London house, 25 Park Lane. His weekly political luncheons there were called “cabinet lunches”, because ministers came direct from the morning cabinet meetings in Downing Street. The oriental luxuries of the house made Neville Chamberlain compare Sassoon to the Count of Monte Cristo – before appointing him as a minister just below cabinet rank in his government.

In addition, Sassoon built a sybaritic mansion called Port Lympne on a high site in Kent overlooking Romney Marsh and the Channel. It was a unique building, Italianate and Moorish in its influence, built for a voluptuary of the senses who wanted his rooms to be a rapturous medley of strong, exotic colours and filled with the luscious fragrance of flowers. The formal grounds at Port Lympne were like a Hollywood version of Tuscany.

Sassoon transformed his third house, Trent Park, near Cockfosters in north London, from a mauve and black bricked Victorian mansion into a masterpiece of rose-red brick expressing the Palladian calm of the Enlightenment. It resembled the seat of a philosophically minded 18th-century statesman, except for its golf course and airstrip. At Trent, platoons of footmen in red cummerbunds attended the weekend parties for politicians, royalty, sportsmen, authors and artists.

 Brilliant personalities, such as Winston Churchill, attracted Sassoon … Churchill in the cabinet room at No 10 during the war.
 Brilliant personalities, such as Winston Churchill, attracted Sassoon … Churchill in the cabinet room at No 10 during the war. Photograph: IWM via Getty Images
Brilliant personalities, such as Churchill, attracted Sassoon. He idolised the Prince of Wales, but as they were both spoilt and snappish men, they often bickered. He supported the “King’s party” during the abdication crisis of 1936, and was implicated in Churchill’s botched attempts to keep the rackety monarch on his throne. Unlike Churchill, he wanted international peace at any cost, and convinced himself that Hitler’s promises were dependable.

Sassoon shone as a patron of the arts and bought rare objects with discrimination, displaying them with flair. He used his connoisseurship as chairman of the National Gallery, as a trustee of the Tate and as first commissioner of works.

 Sassoon spoke with a clipped sibilant lisp, and liked to relax in a blue silk smoking jacket with slippers of zebra hide
Sassoon enjoyed witty gossip, but was never spiteful. He spoke with a clipped sibilant lisp, and liked to relax in a blue silk smoking jacket with slippers of zebra hide. He had fickle, moody fascinations with young men with whom he soon grew bored, but was loyally appreciative of female friends and kept an inner court of elderly, cultivated, ironical bachelors. His sexuality was central to his character and activities, but there is never any hint of sexual activity in the many memories of him. One hates to think that he was as sublimated as he sounds. His restlessness and fatalism, which were notorious among his friends, killed him at the age of 50 in 1939: although his physicians ordered bed rest after a viral infection, he hurtled about in unnecessary gaieties until his body was beyond recovery.

Damian Collins is the Conservative MP for Hythe. He has written an elegant, playful and fluent book about his predecessor. It is widely researched, canny in its political insights, sympathetic but not syrupy about Sassoon’s glamour. Puritans will resent his privileges and cavalier grace, but many readers will enjoy his resilient and dashing brand of razzle-dazzle.