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June 3, 2011 10:01 pm
Michael Heseltine, the multi-millionaire Conservative party grandee, was once dismissed in the political diaries of the landed, castle-dwelling Alan Clark as the type “who had to buy his own furniture”.
Derided by such snooty colleagues for not coming from the sort of family that passed heirlooms down the generations, the former deputy prime minister has made sure that this slight will not apply to any more Heseltines: the drawing room of his Georgian townhouse, at one of London’s finest addresses, is stuffed full of antiques worthy of any castle.
Collecting has been a hobby that Lord Heseltine and his wife Anne have shared all their lives. “We started off when we first met in the 60s,” he says. “We lived in London and we used to spend a lot of weekends touring the Cotswolds together, because there were a lot of very good antique shops there – and we lived in Portobello Road for a significant period of our early married life and that was a paradise for people wandering up and down.”
Anne, he says, has “a very good eye” and a love of painting: when they first met at a “doubtful party” in Notting Hill Gate, she was working for the late art dealer and collector Andras Kalman.
The Georgian townhouse is one of two homes the Heseltines now own, the other being Thenford House, a Palladian mansion in Northamptonshire, where his Haymarket publishing empire employs 10 gardeners to tend a 50-acre arboretum.
The London home was Heseltine’s centre of gravity throughout his four-decade political career, during which he helped bring down Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He then went on to become deputy prime minister – having failed in his ambition to become Conservative party leader and prime minister – under John Major.
But since standing down from parliament in 2001, the focus has been shifting to Thenford House, where the Tory peer has been creating a collection of more than 3,000 trees and shrubs. Photos of the gardens and exterior of the Georgian estate show an exquisitely cared-for house with pristine gardens. The townhouse, by contrast, is lived-in and a little worn around the edges, as if Anne’s attention (Heseltine says she is in charge of interior design) has turned to Northamptonshire rather than the original family home.
The fading splendour of the drawing room is still evident in the grand fireplace and decorative Corinthian columns used to support the beam between the front and back sections of the room. But the pale ochre wallpaper is flaking away above Heseltine’s favourite armchair, and the cornicing could do with a lick of paint. The house feels more like a solitary crash-pad for Heseltine rather than the centre of his and Anne’s life together – there are even imitation flowers rather than fresh blooms.
But it is also charming and authentic, with family photos – his grandchildren Molly and Augusta as toddlers adorn one table – dotted among the fine furniture and oil paintings. Heseltine looks at ease in his surroundings as he drinks fresh coffee from a white-and-blue porcelain cup.
“This came first and this is where I have spent most of my time because I was in London five nights a week,” he says when I ask him whether he thinks of the country house as his main home now that his interests have shifted to more relaxing pursuits. “Back then I didn’t go to our house in the country at the weekend. I’d be away or whatever it may. So for most of my married life, our time has been here.”
Heseltine, dubbed the “Tarzan” of the House of Commons in his heyday for his swagger and dashing looks, still spends half his week in his London home tending to his political and business interests. He remains chairman of Haymarket, and has also been asked by the prime minister to advise on the regional growth policy, his particular area of expertise. He even has a desk in the business department and has just handed out grants totalling £450m.
“I reflected the other day that I joined the Department of the Environment in 1970 working on planning and urban development. I went back as secretary of state in 1979, back again as secretary of state in 1990 and then came back to work for David Cameron on the same subject in 2008. So I’ve actually been involved officially, so to speak, for 41 years in the same field of policy. That, I think, is maybe worthy of the Guinness Book of Records.”
A man who likes to conquer in everything he does, Heseltine has turned the arboretum in Thenford into one of the most important private collections in the UK. His other, older, collecting passion has been for Welsh porcelain. He says he has been collecting Swansea and Nantgarw porcelain since the very early 1960s. “I come from Swansea and I knew some of the great Welsh collectors.”
But as well as binding him to his roots, porcelain is attractive, Heseltine says, for its aesthetic. In his cabinet there are more than a dozen examples, all with their tags still on from the London sales rooms where they were bought.
“It was designed to compete with the great European factories like Sèvres [French porcelain], but they never made it,” says Heseltine as he takes a plate worth £2,000. “The factories lasted about 20 years and then they went out of business. They had a fine past, but it was never a commercial success.”
Having shown off his impressive plates, Heseltine takes us to the other treasure in his house: a secret room where the garden once was. He leads the way into the depths of his home to reveal an extraordinary mock Tudor den done up in the style of a Bedouin tent with coral walls and coloured wall hangings.
“It’s quite bizarre,” says Heseltine, as we stand – I speechless – under an enormous iron chandelier hanging from the vaulted roof. “There are things here that we bought as we travelled the world.” He said that he never thought of knocking it down to restore the outside space. “When I was in London I never had any time for gardens.”
Elizabeth Rigby is the FT’s chief political correspondent
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