THE AMUSING TALE OF HOW I ACQUIRED MY MOST ILLUSTRIUS PATRON, CONCLUDED (part I here)…
I arrived at the imposing front door of the Duke of Devonshire’s red brick Mayfair house in Chesterfield Street a few minutes early. Because I was carrying two 3×2 foot canvases my mother had kindly offered to drive me into town from our home in Edgware (north London), rather than have me negotiate the tube or a bus with my awkward burden. With just a polythene sheet to protect them, I was terrified of presenting two dented paintings.
Mum offered to try and find a parking space and wait for me, but I told her not to bother. For one thing, I had no clue how long I would be with the Duke, and for another, I’d either be returning with one or two “rejected” pictures, or hopefully, emptyhanded. In any case, I would be happy to risk some form of London transport.
Within moments of me ringing the door bell, for the first and (thus far) last time in my life, I was greeted by a butler, who with a mixture of firmness and politeness guided me up a flight of stairs to the “drawing room”. After I carefully set down the paintings against an armchair, the butler, who could have been the role model for Jeeves himself, informed me that “His Grace” would be down “presently”, then, gesturing toward a well stocked eponymously-named tray, asked me if I would like a drink while I waited. Thinking a stiff scotch might be just the thing to calm my slightly frazzled nerves I answered in the affirmative. Then, after having served me a large, heavy, cut glass highball, filled to the brim with Dimple Haig and ice, the butler left me alone to contemplate my extraordinary surroundings.
The fine regency and early Victorian furnishings were typical of such an environment, but what was less expected was the array of modern artwork hanging on all the walls. It comprised a comprehensive collection of pictures by nearly all the major painters of the 20th Century – from Picasso to Rothko, and from Matisse to Miro. While I knew the Duke was a keen collector of contemporary art, nothing could have prepared me for such a superlative display.
As I shifted my gaze from an unexpectedly vivid and jolly early portrait by Munch to my own two modest canvases, I found myself taking an extra large slug of the Dimple. Then, fortunately, before I had time to terrorise myself further, the door opened and the Duke entered, walked toward me, a welcoming smile on his face, and arm outstretched. He was taller and leaner than I expected, and similarly to his butler, drawn straight from the pages of a Wodehouse novel, almost as if I was being approached by Lord Emsworth. “What a great pleasure to meet you Mr Green!” he said, with disarming warmth and charm, gently but firmly shaking my hand. “How kind of you to come!” Then, noticing the state of my glass, and no-doubt sensing my agitated state he suggested I go and top myself up, which I gratefully did.
“If you would be so kind, I think we had better take a look at what you’ve brought, don’t you?” he said, then added, “Why don’t you unwrap them and put them up on the couch.” I did as he requested, and then stood back, by the Duke’s side while, chin in hand, he contemplated my two humble landscapes. “From the north of the country, if I’m not mistaken?”
Impressed with his knowledge of Israeli geography, I confirmed he was correct and then explained a little about the paintings. “I think they are both terrific Mr Green! Sadly, one doesn’t see many competent landscapes like this of Israel – at least not done by Israeli artists. They capture the essence of the place so precisely! I would love to add them to my collection!”
With that, he went over to a sideboard, opened a drawer, withdrew a large chequebook and a pen, handed me both and asked me to write a cheque for the value of the two pictures. Having done as requested, the Duke then signed the cheque, tore it out of the book and handed it to me. “Now” he said, “let’s go and see where we can hang the one staying here…”
He then led me on a remarkable tour of the Chesterfield Street house, from the cellar to the upper bedrooms, stopping from time to time, to give me some fascinating anecdote about this or that amazing picture, the artist who made it and how he came to purchase it. About ten minutes into the tour, we were half way down a staircase, when he pointed out a space between two small oil paintings. “I think we could put your Tel Hai painting here? What do you think Mr Green?” he asked. The painting on the right of the space was a very early Lowry painting of a street scene, dating from before he developed his stick-figure style – and all the better for it – while the painting on the right was a colourful still-life by Mathew Smith. I was speechless for a moment or two, then mumbled my approval. “In case you were wondering, I thought we’d take the other one of the Hula Valley back to Chatsworth. I think it would be lovely to have a picture of Israel in our bedroom. I hope that’s okay?”
A few minutes later, with me still in a kind of euphoric daze, we walked into a bathroom, and there, leaning over the sink, putting on her lipstick, dressed only in a black silk and lace negligee, was the most beautiful sexagenarian lady I had ever seen. “Excuse us Debs darling” said the Duke, “this is that brilliant young artist I told you about, Adam Green, and I just wanted to show him that little Henry Moore by the bath”. “Don’t mind me you two” replied the Duchess (and the youngest and last surviving of the famous and infamous Mitford sisters). “A pleasure to meet you” she added, glancing at me in the mirror, still applying the finishing touches of lipstick, “but do hurry Andrew dear, we can’t be late for the reception”.
The Moore was a miniature, or possibly a sketch piece for a far larger work I thought I recognised, but my main impression from that fleeting visit to the Ducal bathroom was the blemish-less, glowing skin, and youthful form of the Dowager Duchess of Chatsworth, not to mention her lack of inhibition.
If the Duke reminded me of a more together version of Lord Emsworth, the Duchess, even in her underwear, oozed that peculiar type of serene confidence that is the birthright of the British upper class.
The tour lasted about 45 minutes in all, and I was shown to the door by the Duke himself. As we shook hands for the second time, he said in parting, “Do be sure to keep me informed about your progress Mr Green, and do let me know if I can ever be of service…” As I sat on the top of the 113 bus back to Edgware, I felt as if I was waking slowly from a dream.
It wasn’t a dream however, and several years later, the Duke, true to his word, generously opened my one and only West End one-man-show with a typically kind and charming address.
Looking back at it all now, my abiding memory isn’t of walls laden with modern masterpieces, nor of my own pictures being among them, nor even of the sweet and kindly old Duke; but of the beautiful Debs, in her negligee, and her stick of crimson lippy…