Last month I joined a group of cultured ladies and gents for a bus tour of the baroque houses and gardens in Moravia. Most cultiv’ of all was the tour leader, Lucy Abel Smith, a dynamo of enthusiasm and arcane knowledge, who in four days showed us buildings of such staggering grandeur and, in the case of the Bishop’s Palace at Kromeriz, of breathtaking rococo camp, implicit with apostolic antics and orgy-Borgias
LAST MONTH I joined a group of cultured ladies and gents for a bus tour of the baroque houses and gardens in Moravia. Most cultivé of all was the tour leader, Lucy Abel Smith, a dynamo of enthusiasm and arcane knowledge, who in four days showed us buildings of such staggering grandeur and, in the case of the Bishop’s Palace at Kromeriz, of breathtaking rococo camp, implicit with apostolic antics and orgy-Borgias. Lucy takes these tours, aptly named ‘Reality and Beyond’, to many other little-known destinations. I only wish I had discovered the pleasure long ago.
Two of the ladies on the bus had houses in Romania and sang the unspoiled charm of that country to the skies. Once home, Paddy Leigh Fermor’s obituaries sent me back to his books on Transylvania. Immediately entranced, I idly googled ‘Houses for sale in Romania’ — and bought the second one that came up. A fortnight later I flew out to see it. A low, 100-year-old village farmhouse, it nestles in its orchard, set in mile after mile of valleys and mountain slopes. And thank God, not an olive tree — which are now planted, along with dying dracaenas and paltry palms, on roundabouts around Harlow — in sight.
MY HOUSE IS near Cluj, the ‘capital’ of Transylvania. Despite its present, rather gormless name, Cluj, then called Klausenburg, was a glamorous place in the 1890s. There’s an opera house (where the sublime soprano Angela Gheorghiu first sang), hotels in the same florid style as the Negresco in Nice, palaces belonging to the great Banffy family, and a couple of world-class universities, from which tall, dark, long-legged, white-faced beauties issue to mingle with a burgeoning set of Romanian artists at cafés and theatre bars that dot the eccentrically architectured boulevards.
Even the Ceausescu-era ‘people’s housing’ blocks that surround the town have a certain, Mallet-Stevens-ish Parisian charm, far better than the rubbishy stuff we were building at about the same time. Some years ago the city (immediately known by me as ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Cluj’) added ‘Napoca’ to its name, in memory of what the Romans called this far-flung eastern outpost of their Empire. So when in Cluj, do what the Romans did!
AT NATALIA VODIANOVA'S charity ball in Valentino’s 17th-century château outside Paris, I was delighted to run into this mag’s very own editor-in-chief, agog at the plethora of couture-clad international beauties. Talk about hard cash, and what with tables at $100,000 a dash, one might. The weather lived up to the themed décor of the event, ‘A Winter Fairy Story’, complete with mock snowfalls and ersatz icicles, so pretty soon these near-naked nymphs were begging for a fun fur. Surely everyone must know by now that anywhere north of Lyon, say, by midnight the temperature drops dramatically, even in midsummer, despite Nancy Mitford’s theory that ‘the South begins in Paris’. But we all warmed up with a steamy set by Bryan Ferry, as elegant as any couture creation.
AN INVITATION ARRIVES from Jay Jopling and Daphne Guinness ‘to celebrate a glove’ — made of precious metal, on dit. Irresistible: we all know about Daphne’s shoes, but how, why, will she contort her velvet fingers into an iron fist?
In Jay’s hall, prone on a plinth surrounded by flickering candles, lay Daffers, draped, from piebald topknot to tiny tooties in ivory lace, and as lifeless as some medieval tomb. Only one hand pierced the lacy carapace of this effigy, preciously encased, as touted, in titanium smothered with diamonds, and for sale — though it seemed churlish not to want to bid for the whole installation. No hint of life crossing her waxen features, the Hon. Miss G remained breathless on her bier for a good three hours. It gave a whole new meaning to Guinness titles being the bierage.
I WAS SAD to have to miss Daphne’s half-brother Jasper’s funeral a few weeks before. He was, as anyone who knew him was aware, the most life-enhancing of people. But luckily I have been sent a copy of what must be the most perfect address ever given. During most addresses, the mind wanders to one’s own memories or images of the deceased.
Not so James Buchan’s for Jasper; even reading it, a month later, one’s perception of his dashing persona is enlightened by Buchan’s words: ‘Jasper was my best friend. By that, I don’t mean I knew him well. Jasper was always a riddle to me, and will remain a riddle to me until such time as all mysteries are unravelled. I mean that of all men I have known, I valued Jasper the highest.’ The subtle redefining of ‘best friend’ exemplifies the quiet, learned and unsentimental lines that follow.
I RECENTLY DID the set design for a play by my friend Amanda Eliasch, a dynamo of talent — photographer, writer, musician, poet, inveterate blogger and now playwright. This was the first time I had worked for the stage since attempting to turn School Hall at Eton into the Battle of Agincourt.
I must say, interior design is an absolute breeze compared to working in the theatre — the script changes hourly, necessitating different lighting, placement of furniture, props. Actors trip over the perfectly placed rug, the piano can’t be seen from the front seats, the chandeliers are too low for the back row.
In the end the production was a triumph for Amanda, and a useful learning curve for my team, as we are designing the entrance hall, equally ephemeral, a fantasy of coral and silver and a huge shell bed, dramatised with strange video projections, for Decorex, the Oscars of our trade, at the end of September. And the winner is…