I had an intriguing invitation a couple of weeks ago to speak at the White Palace in Belgrade for the annual 24 Hours of Elegance event dedicated to all things luxurious. The three-day event is co-hosted by the Crown Prince and Princess of Serbia and takes place in September. The organiser had seen the London Cut exhibition in Florence and asked me to give a talk about the trio of Thames & Hudson books and curate a photographic exhibition of royal portraits from Savile Row, Fashion at Royal Ascot and The Perfect Gent. The Balkans have always held a fascination for me; not least reading about the ‘Black Duchesses’ of Montenegro who introduced necromancy to the Romanov court and helped precipitate the Russian Revolution. What I will introduce to Serbia remains to be seen.
The Royal St James’s book project has opened doors that I’ve longed to peer behind such as Lancaster House: the London townhouse of the Dukes of Sutherland built in the early 19th century for the Duke of York that stands in the precincts of St James’s Palace next to Clarence House. Lancaster House is essentially the most magnificent three-bedroom property in London. The lion’s share of the property is taken-up by the grand hall and soaring staircases leading up to a suite of staterooms and long galleries. The modest interconnecting bedrooms are hidden behind unobtrusive doorways on the first floor leaving as much space as possible for entertaining on the most lavish scale.
The first floor staterooms in Lancaster House rival Buckingham Palace and the most famous comment on their splendour has a young Queen Victoria telling the Duchess of Sutherland ’I have come from my house to your palace’. How one would have loved to have seen the expression on The Queen’s face or heard the inflection in her voice to assess whether she was being complimentary or catty. While we were waiting to be shown around Lancaster House, Freya and I were invited to sit and wait in the cavernous grand hall. Without 500 ladies in Worth crinolines waiting to be handed up the stairs and announced it felt incredibly empty. Isn’t it curious how modern body conscious clothing seems somehow mean and inadequate in such surroundings? These rooms were built to accommodate extravagant costume.
As the sun shines at last on London I have the yen to travel again. So it was pleasing to be invited to Paris by Fiona and Owen (Dowal Walker) to visit a perfume house in the latter stages of being revived. It was founded in 1799 and the story is absolute magic. I’ll tell you all about it after the launch but not a moment before. Suffice to say there are links to Brummell, Nelson, Wellington, George IV and – later – to what Queen Victoria would christen ‘the Royal Mob’. This being a day trip we were back in Blighty in good time to hare across town for Hatchards’ annual Authors of the Year party. The first person I bumped into was Ben Pentreath the dashing architect who has the shop next to Maggie Owen’s off Lamb’s Conduit Street. Ben’s book English Decoration was a raging success and he was surrounded by a gaggle of admirers.
I got into a conversation with a young editor who restored my faith in the under-30s. Totally anti-PC, she was fed up of unsolicited manuscripts about obscure minority groups and was longing to find novels underpinned by a lack of sentimentality in the spirit of my heroes Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh. I came away from Hatchards feeling rather invigorated that the genteel, gentle world of the book is still alive, well and to be cherished. Not once was there a ‘whiter print?’ conversation or a doom-ladened prognosis that we’ll all be on tablets before too long.
The day after the Hatchards party, my Thames & Hudson editor Lucas got in touch to discuss the next project. I’ve had a very good run of one book per year since Savile Row. I’d very much like a new T&H title on the go for publication in 2014 and – thanks to Hatchards – feel invigorated to pick-up the Corfu novel again, get it finished then send it out to my readers. I’m 20,000 words in but it needs a lot of work. Still, until the sun shone three days ago I’d been walking round looking for large stones to do a Virginia Woolf off Waterloo Bridge. Now Spring appears to have sprung people are finally admitting JUST how ghastly the past months have been for us Brits.
To celebrate the Rites of Spring, the Sherwood Massive convened for the first time since last October at a long table outside Ciao Bella. Came La Farmer and Mr Bowering, Simon, Judith, Shaun and Vicki. We arrived at 7.30pm and left at midnight having set the world bang to rights, laughed like drains and consumed sufficient Valpoliparrot to float HMS Victory. There is nothing quite like old friends to lift the spirits and cheer the soul. The spirit of adventure gripped the table at one point and we discussed a road trip that began with Vienna and ended with a plan to descend en mass on Istambul. Can you imagine the not-so-secret seven getting preposterous on the Bosphorus?