August 3, 2012 7:57 pm

At home: Lady Davies

The head of the KT Wong Foundation aims to bridge Chinese and western arts, from horticulture to classical music
Lady Linda Wong Davies©FT

Lady Linda Wong Davies at the window of her first-floor drawing room in Kensington, London

In the shadow of a cherry tree on Kensington Square, a blue plaque confirms that the five-storey Georgian brick house in front of me is where Edward Burne-Jones once lived and where he would have painted some of his Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces.

The property lies between the former homes of Peter Mark Roget, author of the thesaurus, and the celebrated physician John Simon. On the opposite side of the square stand the heritage homes of Hubert Parry, composer of “Jerusalem”, and the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill.

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Today, however, only the super-rich can afford properties on this idyllic west London street – including Linda Wong Davies, a philanthropist who has lived here for 22 years.

Forty minutes late for our interview, she casually enters the first-floor sitting room, followed by her make-up artist and two assistants. “My housekeeper’s sick. It’s chaos,” she says, before handing me a business card – as is customary in China.

Davies, now in her early fifties, was born in Singapore, raised in Malaysia and educated at Mills College, a liberal arts school in California. “My father thought he was sending me to a nice girls’ school, but it turned out to be quite radical. I didn’t tell him that, of course, because I didn’t want to go home.” After her studies she returned to Malaysia, where she met her future husband, the businessman Sir David Davies. The couple have three children (the youngest, aged 15, lives here with Davies) but divorced five years ago.

When she launched a charitable trust in 2007, dedicated to the memory of her father, a Chinese-Malaysian tycoon, the aim was to “bring contemporary China to the British public” and vice versa. This is no idle hobby. In 2008, the KT Wong Foundation commissioned the artist Shao Fan to create a garden for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, notwithstanding his total lack of horticultural experience.

The dining room©Rosie Hallam

The dining room

The following year, after Davies had watched an acclaimed performance of Handel’s Messiah in Beijing, she asked the provocative artist Zhang Huan to direct Handel’s Semele, despite having no experience of working in theatre, in what would become the first performance of a baroque opera in China. Now she has co-produced Benjamin Britten’s 1957 children’s opera Noye’s Fludde for the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival. Directed by Oliver Mears and starring young Chinese performers, it will be staged this month – not at a theatre but at Belfast Zoo, which will become a modern Noah’s ark. (In October, the production travels to Beijing.)

Befitting her role as a patron of the arts, Davies has an impressive collection of paintings and sculptures on display in her sitting room. As well as a huge landscape by Sir Sidney Nolan of mountains in southern China there are two bronze tai chi sculptures by the contemporary Taiwanese artist Ju Ming. A Burmese 19th-century statue of Buddha stands in front of one of the room’s three floor-to-ceiling windows, which still have their original elegant iron guards, now decorated with Union Jack bunting. “I haven’t had time to take it down since the diamond jubilee. And now I may as well leave it there for the Olympics.”

The hall and staircase at Lady Davies' house©Rosie Hallam

The hall and staircase

Davies has many more artworks but she prefers her homes to be “clutter free” (including her Shanghai apartment). When she gets round to buying a property on the outskirts of Beijing, “in the countryside, where I can exorcise my gardening demons”, she will display more of her collection.

As for all the negative publicity surrounding the Chinese authorities’ stringent attitude to the arts, how does Davies feel about having to work with them so closely?

“It’s never easy because there are so many rules,” she says. “In time there will be a relaxation. Until then there is no point in butting heads with anybody. Things are much more open than they were when we started the foundation five years ago. I think people in China are so keen to learn about something from the outside. They’ve been sort of starved, right?”

I press on, and ask what she thinks about the treatment of dissident Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei. This prompts the longest hesitation of the interview.

“I don’t want to be drawn into what Mr Ai Weiwei wants to do – that’s his business. In life some people like to be very upfront and confrontational. I really don’t think that serves any purpose. Our business is to be collaborative and reach out. The wider the audience, the better.”

Favourite thing

Water buffalo sculpture by Elisabeth Frink

“Them,” says Davies, pointing at two bronze buffaloes grazing on the carpet.

The late English sculptor Elisabeth Frink made them for Davies and her ex-husband while they were living in Hong Kong. “She was a good friend. Next to the radiator probably isn’t the best place for them.

“I have a lot of artwork, but I’m not collecting just for the sake of collecting. It really has to be something that one wants to see and live with.”

The “reaching out” is the most challenging aspect of the foundation’s work. “For a long time many people in China couldn’t get their heads around the fact that we aren’t a business – that we aren’t trying to make money. So there is still a lot to be done in explaining to people what philanthropy is today and how China can adapt this model for itself.”

Next door is the “prayer room”, where Davies practises her faith in Buddhism. In the corner there is an offering to Buddha of candles, incense and fruit, above which hangs a portrait of her late father. “It is the most peaceful room in the house,” she says.

At the back of the room is a window with views of the long paved rear garden, where she has hosted “many wonderful parties”. In earlier times, it is reported, Burne-Jones enjoyed playing bowls there with his neighbours.

The history of western classical music in China has been sometimes tortuous. There was a professional orchestra in Shanghai as far back as 1879, albeit one filled with European players performing to an expat audience. Western classical music was banned during the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution from 1966-1969. Many performers faced persecution or prison sentences. Some committed suicide. Its gradual re-emergence started after Mao Zedong’s wife allowed some of her favourites – Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Dvorak’s New World Symphony – to be played.

A photograph of Lady Davies’ father©Rosie Hallam

A photograph of Davies’ father

Now millions of children in China are learning the violin and piano, and classical music is heavily backed by government programmes.

“My friend Lang Lang [the superstar pianist] told me there are as many as 100m kids learning classical music in China,” says Davies. “China has a very young population, all bright and very keen to absorb information, but a real understanding of art and music needs cultivating.”

I ask where she discovered her own passion for music. “I remember at the age of four or five being completely brainwashed by my father with 19th-century Italian opera, French opera, Mozart and of course the great German canon. I didn’t listen to my first pop record until I was 15 – my mother had to smuggle it into the house.”

Downstairs, the entrance hall leads into a formal dining room and a kitchen that appears to double up as an office. “I take my work with me all over the house,” Davies says. The house, dating back to 1804, was made uninhabitable by bomb damage in 1940. In 1967 it was divided into two maisonettes with a caretaker’s flat in the basement, now converted into an office, which, she says, “is too messy for you to see right now”.

When the Davies family moved in “partition walls covered so many of the property’s original features”. They were knocked down almost immediately and the property restored to something like its original state. “I always look for potential,” she says. “And then I make it happen.”

‘Noye’s Fludde’, Belfast Zoo, August 10-19, www.ktwong.org

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