January 11, 2013 8:06 pm

History’s best-laid tables

Why should I be obsessed by tablecloths? Like train stations, they are the stuff of memories

Sir David Tang, entrepreneur and founder of ICorrect, offers advice on questions about property, interiors – and modern manners for globetrotters

Why should you be obsessed by tablecloths? Aren’t they just a piece of material, whether or not ironed or starched or creased? Or are you a sentimentalist or even, God forbid, part of the bourgeoisie that worries about conventions and standard practices?

Are you mad? Tablecloths, like train stations, are the stuff of memories. So nothing to do with being sentimental nor bourgeois. Just consider all the momentous lunches and dinners that people have had leaning over their tablecloths, with their consequences for history. I have always been fascinated by the tablecloth at the Savoy Grill on which Nijinsky drew at a lunch with Diaghilev and Debussy. The composer had regretted collaborating with the Ballets Russes for the premiere of his L’après-midi d’un faune, at the end of which Nijinsky, in his tightest of leotards, famously gyrated slowly and licentiously and sensually on the branch of a tree. This apparently was too much in 1912 for the sensibilities of the Parisian audience, who hissed and booed. Debussy did not enjoy the scandal, and was annoyed that Nijinsky had somehow degraded his masterpiece. But now Debussy was totally broke from his divorce and forced himself to consider a monetary commission. When Nijinsky was asked what he had in mind, he sketched on the tablecloth a tennis net with a couple of tennis players and a fighter plane on top. The storyline was that the plane would eventually drop an exploding bomb on the match. Debussy considered the story absurd but eventually agreed when Diaghilev, Nijinsky’s lover, offered twice the amount for a commission – although Debussy insisted that the plane and the bomb had to be scrapped. The ballet Jeux was the result.

A few years ago, the Arab Prince Waleed bin Talal bought the Savoy and simply wanted to sell the contents and renovate the hotel. I was desperate to see if the tablecloth on which Nijinsky had sketched was being offered as a lot. No such luck, however. When I asked around the Savoy, nobody had the faintest idea who any of the names were, still less the significance of the historic lunch. One rather smooth-looking manager had the temerity to suggest that I might have been confused with the “Oyster Debussy” that he thought had been on the menu. He had confused it with the Connaught Grill’s “Oyster Christian Dior”.

. . .

Please settle a debate as the fate of my walls hangs in the balance. I believe that family photographs should never be displayed on walls, but rather on tables. I think photographs look horrid when hung. My husband feels differently. Please apprise as to who is correct.

Old Etonians love hanging pictures of their Houses or sporting teams in their guest loos. Sometimes they also hang family photographs in silly poses or pictures taken at grand occasions. But they are all confined to the lavatories, presumably to exhibit a sort of inverted snobbery. Otherwise, you wouldn’t see, at least with anyone U, any family photographs other than in frames designed to rest on surfaces. By far the most offensive types of hanging family photos are those done by so-called “portrait” photographers who develop their prints on canvases in order to create the impression of an oil painting.

. . .

At a famous shoot, one of my fellow guests, known for his sartorial eccentricity, insisted that the only acceptable footwear for such an occasion was black brogues, citing as his authority one of our leading dukes. Thus clad, and despite clear advice to the contrary, he was forced to wade up to his calves through a freezing torrent of water. Should we admire his steadfast refusal to abandon his high standards; or should we ridicule his gesture as vainglorious foppery?

There are two types of pretentiousness: one that calculates to attract attention even if it involves discomfiture; and the second, through genuine eccentricity without regard to comfort. The question is, therefore, one of intention. I have a couple of friends who traipse over the grouse moors in their brogues: the first a City banker showing off his ostensible macho attitude, and the second a mad Scotsman who is used to walking all over his estate in ordinary shoes. What gives the game away is that the former has brown brogues (incorrect), while the latter has black ones (correct).

Email questions to david.tang@ft.com

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