Lunch with the FT: David Linley

It’s a truth all-too-seldom acknowledged that two men, even when engaged in perfectly polite conversation over the poshest of formal dinners, will eventually manage to wrest the subject of their discourse away from the scented air of high culture or the bracing breezes of business, and into the muddy foothills of sport. Usually football. Often in excruciating detail, and at mind-boggling length.

So it was just over a year ago with David Linley, furniture designer, member of the Royal Family, and chairman of Christie’s UK auction house. We were at a small lunch in the company’s boardroom when the subject reared its coarse and self-important head. He said he supported high-flying Chelsea, and I said I supported their west London neighbours Queens Park Rangers. My team had been suffering a bit, and was due to meet his team, which was in unforgiving form. The forthcoming match was causing me no end of anxiety. Linley seemed to take pity on me.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “If QPR beat Chelsea, I’ll buy you lunch.” Yes, thank you, I said instantly. Neither of us started pencilling in any dates. It wasn’t going to happen. But it did happen. We won 1-0. Not only that but Chelsea had two players sent off, and their captain John Terry appeared to unleash a volley of racist abuse against a QPR player in an incident that would dominate the headlines for the best part of a year.

It was the beginning of an arduous journey for Terry: he was stripped of the England captaincy, charged with – and cleared of – using racist language by the courts, but banned for four matches by the Football Association. So far, so coarse. But I could only savour the improbable victory, and looked forward to lunch with Linley. We eventually got our diaries together. He invited me to his office at Christie’s as his guest. It was a reversal of Lunch with the FT protocol but impossible to decline.

I arrive and there is a splendid spread – an array of cheeses, cold meats, olives, dips and salads on a table. So, I bet you didn’t see that coming, I say, not without a smirk, for any conversation between footballing rivals is rarely gracious. “It was funny,” he says. “And, thanks to that win, you managed to stay in the Premier League.” Touché. It was nasty stuff, I say, what with all that John Terry nonsense. “Ah, that.” Not entirely surprising, the Queen’s only nephew, 15th in line to the British throne, is not going to be drawn into one of the most incendiary news topics of the year.

“I am not really a football man but I have always supported Chelsea because we lived there. We have been through the lows,” he says, a mite defensively. “I did go to the Chelsea v Leeds [1970] cup final. And the replay. I went to the first final with my mother, and to the replay with my dad.” I am guessing that Princess Margaret and the Earl of Snowdon were not rabid football fans? “Not at all. I remember, at the replay, my father looking at the lights, and the rain coming down in front of them, working out how we would have photographed it. I don’t think he looked at the match once.”

We put football to one side and tuck in. “I was trying to make it look as much like a still life as I could,” he says of the handsome tableau before us. “But people in the office have nicked various things.” I don’t blame them: the charcuterie is delicious. Our setting is uncommonly civilised: a selection of paintings from a forthcoming sale is littered around the office. The most striking work is a more permanent feature: a large 1957 portrait, by Pietro Annigoni, of Princess Margaret, a touching personal detail.

This is where potential customers, or clients (“We call them collectors,” Linley corrects me, “it sounds nicer”) are treated to private previews to help them decide whether to part with thousands, in some cases millions, of pounds for a work of art they have fallen in love with. “It is the cosy side of the business, where we can discuss things at length,” says Linley. “And I have the great privilege of being surrounded by these extraordinary objects all the time. One day I remember opening the doors here and there was Marilyn Monroe looking straight at me. I always call it sitting by the river of art.”

Linley, who is 51, was appointed chairman of Christie’s UK in December 2006, in the middle of an extraordinary boom in the art market. Although it suffered some post-2008 blips, the market’s underlying strength has continued to surprise onlookers. Last week, the house sold more than $244m worth of impressionist and modern art in its New York sales. On Wednesday, its postwar and contemporary sale fared even better, fetching $412m to become the most valuable auction ever in the category.

So what are they like, the collectors with whom Linley enjoys these intimate conversations involving dizzying sums of money? Are they cool, measured, passionate? “We get various types. I know a lot of them who are quite dispassionate in business but when it comes to collecting, it’s, ‘I have to have that painting!’ Reason doesn’t come into it. A number of them have said to me that, out of all the investments they have made, the most pleasure they have received is from collecting art.”

He says he values the eclecticism and expertise that is all around him. “My parents had this extraordinary circle of friends. My father would be photographing somebody every day, someone from the world of the arts, a politician, a musician, a sportsman. That’s what I enjoy about being here, every day I am with a different department, from the cool guys in postwar and contemporary, to the Old Masters. It blows one’s socks off.”

So does the super-spicy chorizo, I say. “I know, isn’t it wonderful? All organic.” He refreshes my glass of wine, a highly quaffable Provençal white. I ask how he became involved in the arts. “I was very lucky, my parents were very encouraging, and both my grandmothers. They had exquisite taste. I remember my father’s mother coming into my room once and asking to see my collection, I had some sweet china things. She said, ‘That’s really good, keep it going.’

“And my grandmother on my mother’s side was always teaching my sister and I to be observant. And to do things we really enjoyed.” His father’s photography sessions would invariably end up with a drawing room full of celebrities. “It was a fortunate, extraordinary upbringing.

“And then my mother used to play this trick. She took me to the National Gallery to show me a Vermeer. I remember it vividly. I said, ‘Where are we going now?’ and she said, ‘We are going back home, if you want to see anything else, you’ll have to come back on your own.’ I do it with my two children [Charles, 13, and Margarita, 10, by his wife Serena, whom he married in 1993]. It grounds them. They don’t think that an art exhibition is something that takes an entire Saturday afternoon.”

Was he ever bored? “Not bored. But occasionally we would feel out of our comfort zones. My father would always drive down people’s drives without asking, because he had seen a beautiful house. To this day, my sister and I cannot listen to the sound of gravel without it putting us on edge. And then visits to see people like Zandra Rhodes, all yellow hair and everything, that was definitely outside our comfort zone. But I am glad we did it.” His sister, Sarah Armstrong-Jones, is a painter of still lifes.

Amid the embarrassment of riches on offer – every reference to Linley’s childhood is littered with his descriptions of how lucky he considers himself – the young boy found himself drawn to “mechanical objects – cars, motorbikes, watches – boys’ things”. He was encouraged by the unreliability of his father’s car. “It quite often broke down. It was an Aston Martin DB5.” The Goldfinger model, with the unorthodoxly-sprung passenger seat? “Yes. The quality of petrol was not quite as good in those days and the carburettor used to clog up. We were endlessly taking carburettors apart.”

Taking things apart led to a passion for putting them together. Linley left Bedales school to study craftsmanship in wood, and went straight into business at the age of 20. His eponymous business, now known simply as Linley, was established in 1985. “I never did anything else. But I loved it, and I am really pleased I went straight into it. It was complicated. I had to learn about drawing, making, selling, promoting, bookkeeping. But I was passionate about it.”

To say Linley is a high-end company is to understate the case: its specialisms include designing and manufacturing furniture for luxury residences worldwide, yachts, private jets. Corporate clients include Credit Suisse and PolyGram; private customers include Oprah Winfrey, Ralph Lauren and David Tang. Among this year’s accessories are a limited edition “Britannia” jewellery box and a humidor, each priced at £3,900, emblazoned with a Union flag and celebrating Linley’s aunt’s diamond jubilee, and the London Olympics.

“It is our first commemorative thing ever,” says Linley, almost sheepishly. “They have done very well, especially online. It is extraordinary, receiving these orders from people you have never heard of before. For a business like ours where you would get to know clients so well, you would know the names of their dogs, it is a bit of a change. But long may it continue.

“What do you think of this?”

He is pointing to the bottle of wine. Slipping down easily, I say. While on the subject, I ask him to explain to me, as chairman of an auction house, how it is that the Chinese appear to be buying every bottle of great Bordeaux wine that comes on offer. “I am not sure I could. We had a 100 per cent sale in Hong Kong last week. It is bought for lots of reasons. But there is this great vibrancy and vivacity for collecting good things out there now. It is that wonderful combination of status symbol and investment. Hopefully, it will appreciate but, if it doesn’t, you can drink it.”

He talks about the joys of drinking a treasured bottle from the year of your birth. I am not surprised, I say – he was born in 1961, one of the greatest of years for fine wine. He must have tried a few? “I have. We have these wine dinners here, the last one we had was a ’61 evening, 16 people round the table, 16 bottles. They were all delicious, but the Latour wasn’t ready! It still had this youth and vigour.” On another memorable evening, “We were lucky enough to do a tasting of 150 years of Château d’Yquem.”

Who comes to these gilded occasions? “All sorts of people. Not at all what you’d expect.” No names are forthcoming. “We did it as an early evening thing, it was quite intoxicating.” That’s a remarkable timespan, I say. Linley looks wistful for a moment. “One of my relations once said to me, “Listen here, young boy, when you are old you can say you met someone who danced with the man who danced with a lady at the ball before the Battle of Waterloo. That was quite good.” No name is forthcoming.

He says he is pleased to see a wave of new collectors interested in Old Masters. No wonder, I say, as they are seriously undervalued compared with the lunatic prices fetched in the contemporary sector. “I didn’t say that,” he responds hastily.

I egg him on – if part of the joy of collecting is all about rarity, why would anyone want a Damien Hirst spot painting? “But you are wearing a Damien Hirst shirt,” he counters. Polka dots, I correct him. Polka dots predate Damien Hirst.

“Ah, but that is his great talent. He has the ability to make sure he crops up in every conversation.” That’s as pithy a summation of Hirst’s qualities as I have heard.

It is time for a mango, says Linley. An alphonso, freshly arrived from India this morning, from a friend who sends them every year. “To get your hands on these is special,” he says, and he is not wrong. The fruit is sensationally sweet, and perfectly ripe. “I love these once-a-year seasonal things, that are only ready for that brief moment. Who wants asparagus in December?”

I ask if he collects art himself. “I am a low-budget collector. Of course, I can’t bid here, which can be quite frustrating.” He could go to the other place? “I don’t think so,” he says with a smile. “I am quite loyal like that.”

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer

Christie’s offices

8 King Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 8QT

Ploughman’s platter

Charcuterie platter

Crudités with dips

Château Léoube

Blanc de Léoube

Belu still water

Belu sparkling water

Bowl of mangoes

Total (incl service) £50.18

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