The key to understanding the whole house is a pair of silver picture frames on a polished 17th-century Italian table, in the perfectly decorated salon. Each still contains the generic black and white images (and manufacturer’s logo) with which they had been delivered two or three years earlier, doubtless hand-selected by an interior designer: on display, extremely expensive and never used.
We are in a farmhouse in Tuscany, which used to belong to a famous English composer and his sculptor friend. When Tuscany got too crowded with German cars and flashy money, they left for quieter climes. The house was sold on and the new owner – fabulously wealthy, a mover and shaker, collector of rare first editions that sit on shelves forever unread – restored the famous house and garden with its iris borders and cypress groves and quiet interiors … and throttled it to death with far too much money.
It’s a story that we are all familiar with. In this newspaper, Simon Kuper has written tellingly of the global world of the “one-per-centers”, how New York, London, Singapore, Hong Kong and Paris are becoming the mega cities for the international elite. Tom Wolfe is your chronicler, Architectural Digest your bible, and this is your look: Banker Style.
Where Kuper had it wrong was to claim that it’s a lifestyle limited to cities. All over the world – in the furthest rural retreats and hideaways, in Asia, Africa, Nantucket, Ibiza, the Caribbean, Brazil – Banker Style extends its reach. Here is a world conditioned by the style of international hotels for those who ceaselessly travel the globe, and who, when at home, demand the identical language of the hotel to comfort and cosset them 24/7. It is the perfect retreat, where everything works just so, and there is nothing so messy, so unpredictable, as any other guests. It is a place in which Masters of the Universe can rest their weary feet and feel vaguely troubled that their colleague’s audiovisual system, remote-controlled lighting, heating, cooling, security system, art or furniture is just that little bit more sophisticated than their own. It’s a competitive world out there.
Last year, in Wiltshire, southwest England, I was invited for dinner with a banker who had bought a farmhouse that had belonged to a distinguished … let us say, author. I had read of the house, seen photos in an ageing copy of House & Garden magazine from the 1970s. The author had found the place, nestled in a hidden valley, in the late 1950s, and had made its gentle restoration his (uncompleted) life’s work. Over the years, old brick floors had been lovingly cleaned, flint walls repaired, the roof stitched together, enough to hold the chaos at bay. But the author didn’t want modern comfort. The house was heated by one wooden stove and the ground floor bathroom made a prep school seem luxurious.
When he died, and such a rare place came to the market for the first time in nearly 50 years, you can imagine the rush, the excitement – the bidding war. Untouched! Hidden! Private acres! Madonna nearby! One and a half hours’ drive from London!
It went to sealed bids. The daughter and son had argued over what to do with the place but were glad to accept the millions that plumped into their accounts (even after death duties).
And the house – that beautiful, languishing, quiet place – was “bankered”. Where brick floors had lain untouched for centuries, now was perfect underfloor heating and wall-to-wall cream carpet of knotted Tibetan silk. The walls were lime plastered, beautifully done, with the right materials, by exactly the right craftsman – but done too well, too perfectly. And with the arrival of the branded accessories, the giant Sub-Zero fridge, Wolf range, and B&B Italia sofas, the life and harmony of the old place was hustled away forever.
The tragedy was that the new young owners, sensitive souls (considering they work in the world of international finance), thought, hoped, believed they were doing exactly the right thing. But like a hothouse orchid that is cherished with too much attention, or a child lavished with too much care, the very thing they sought in the first place was spoiled forever.
Previous generations better understood the power of legacy building. Not far across the Wiltshire Downs is that extraordinary monument raised by an earlier banker, Sir Henry Hoare, at Stourhead, the great landscape garden nurtured over generations by the Hoares of Hoare’s Bank. It remains one of the peaks of English creativity and taste, now owned by the National Trust, visited by millions. The same family created another more private landmark of the English picturesque, John Nash’s Luscombe Castle in Devon, one of the architect’s happiest buildings.
Or consider the Drummond family, creators of The Grange, architect William Wilkins’s extraordinary Greek revival country house (now owned by Lord Ashburton, himself a Baring).
And the Barings, who employed Sir Edwin Lutyens, the greatest Edwardian architect, in what is arguably his finest hour: Lambay Castle, on a private island off the coast of Ireland, created for Cecil Baring (later Lord Revelstoke) and his young American wife, Maude Louise Lorillard.
There was a moment when the lives (and money) of bankers combined with the greatest architects of their age to create monuments of exceptional beauty. The relationship was mutual. The clients needed class and the architects needed patronage. Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, wrote how Lutyens’s “ideal client was the rich man, preferably self-made or at least not too distant yet in descent from the adventurous stage of self-madeness. And Lutyens was uniquely fortunate in working at the very last moment in British history when such clients were about.”
That was written in the spring of 1951. At a distance of 62 years, it is fascinating to see how wrong Pevsner was. It is equally telling, again looking at the wheels of history, to see how it was Lloyd George’s 1909 “People’s Budget” that sharply increased income tax and death duties and introduced “super tax” which, as Gavin Stamp writes in his fine book on Lutyens’s country houses, “hit precisely the sort of people who were Lutyens’s best clients … After this date, the architect’s career was more concerned with institutional, commercial and official buildings”.
According to Lutyens’s daughter, Mary: “His genius was to find perfect expression in this opulent age. It was the age of the great country house, with entertaining from Saturday to Monday.” There is not such a great gulf, in this description, between Lutyens’s world and today. And as Stamp writes: “There was nothing unusual about the new money in Edward VII’s reign; the strength of English society has always been in fluidity and mobility, in which an injection of cash is never unwelcome no matter whence it comes.”
Nothing is new. But in the world of the globalised, internationalised elite, can we have a pause for thought for that characteristic that Lutyens understood so keenly, and which I sometimes fear is being lost in our immodest age: the spirit of place?
Letter in response to this article: