You may wonder what Dame Fanny Waterman’s guests make of meeting Edward Heath in the downstairs “cloakroom”, as she calls it. Prominent on one wall is a framed front page from the Yorkshire Post, Leeds’ daily newspaper, featuring a picture of the then-British prime minister sitting obediently at her piano. Across this and two other walls of photographs, honorary degrees and public investitures, I spot Waterman photographed with John Major and a young Prince Charles. In the far corner is an ageing print of Waterman beside Benjamin Britten.
One returns curious for anecdotes behind the photos. This, I realise, is no accident. Like Yorkshire’s answer to Gertrude Stein, whose Paris salon featured many of the foremost artists and writers of the early 20th century, Waterman’s home has for 50 years hosted Britain’s foremost cultural, political and commercial figures at her celebrated musical evenings. The choice of which pictures to hang in the downstairs toilet is an integral part of the entertainment planning.
Waterman may be the nation’s most famous piano teacher: her 30-odd volumes of study books have sold millions and, if you’ve ever learned the piano, the chance is you encountered one of her Me and My Piano books somewhere along the way. But she is most lauded as the engine behind the Leeds International Piano Competition, which she co-founded in 1961 and oversaw as artistic director and chairman until last year when, aged 95, she retired. Her efforts have garnered her an OBE (1971), a CBE (2000), a DBE (2005) and, earlier this month, a Women of the Year award.
Winners of the triennial international contest — arguably the world’s most coveted for young pianists — have included Romanian Radu Lupu (now 70), and Russian Ilya Itin. They regularly go on to the very top of the profession, helping the competition stake a good claim to be Leeds’ most famous export. Even my taxi driver — who initially shows an exclusive interest in Yorkshire’s sporting scene — lights up at its mention, enthusiastically pointing out the Town Hall, which hosts the finals.
Whether a gritty Yorkshire city more famous for Victorian wool and flax mills than classical concert venues had much need for an international piano competition — or for a homegrown Gertrude Stein, for that matter — is an obvious question. Waterman has heard it before, and dismisses it with a well-rehearsed quote (typically attributed to the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson): “If a man can make a better mouse trap than his neighbours, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” She had little doubt she could create a better mousetrap — the UK was poorly served at the time, apparently; it didn’t much matter where she did it and Leeds was her home.
Besides, I doubt Stein ever had Waterman’s commercial nous. She raises the vast majority of the £1m per year the competition requires — a good deal of this is off the back of her soirées, she says. “The Leeds”, as it has become known, receives a smattering of funding from the city, none from the state, and the board, she says, leaves the job almost entirely to her.
“I never ask them at the time,” she says of her more affluent guests, some of whom have given six-figure sums. “I just let it be known afterwards that we rely on donations.”
Her manners are impeccable. Perfectly turned out in flower-print dress, salmon jacket, pearls and patent leather shoes, she receives me sitting at her dining table (she lives, unaided, on her own, but an assistant ushers me in from the front door). She has prepared a series of prompts on the principles of her piano teaching method, a sepia portrait of her parents and a series of photos from her autobiography. On the side table, a tea set — one of four she owns — is laid out ready, beside a spread of biscuits on a silver platter.
In conversation she blends enthusiastic attentiveness — at one point her assistant seems ready to restrain her from getting up to find another set of photographs — with pithy aphorism, delivered assertively through a thick Yorkshire accent. Measured charm is balanced with canny reserve, it turns out — years of witnessing the indiscretions uttered by famous guests after a few glasses of wine means she doesn’t drink, for example.
“Nobody in Yorkshire has got a house like this,” she proclaims, early in our meeting. As host to her musical evenings, the house, an imposing 1898 building named Woodgarth, situated in Leeds’ smart Oakwood suburb, has played a key role in her fundraising efforts. Waterman bought it with her late husband, fellow music obsessive Dr Geoffrey de Keyser, in 1966. Sixteen years earlier, aged 30, she had given up her performance career with the birth of their first son, Robert de Keyser — who runs a fashion business — and concentrated on teaching.
By 1961, frustrated at the lack of breaks available to her most promising pupils, she founded the competition with her friend, concert pianist and local, Marion Thorpe — then Lady Harewood (Roslyn Lyons was the third founder). The idea was to focus the energies of Britain’s best young musicians with a competition whose winner would get a leg up on to the international performance circuit. Securing this required a tireless cultivation of contacts; Waterman’s musical evenings became an important arena for this, too.
An impressive hall — four pillars supporting the front arch of the house give way to a grand square central staircase — is ringed with a collection of comic portraits depicting various musical archetypes (all men). Off to the right, the drawing room runs from the front to the back of the house and features windows on three walls. The green colour scheme — “full of hope and spring”, says Waterman — and 18th-century furniture owe partly to Thorpe’s influence, from whose nearby Harewood House she would return inspired.
At the end facing the garden sit two Steinway grand pianos, covered with more portraits of Waterman hobnobbing with the great and the good. Above the fireplace is a fan from Eva Turner, the famous interwar British soprano, with a signed devotion below. In the corner beside the front window is a framed letter from Sir Henry Wood thanking her for her participation at the Proms, of which the English conductor was the driving force for nearly half a century. At the back of the room a coffee table full of other photos exhibits the couple’s considerable family: another son besides Robert; seven grandchildren (all girls) and four great-grandchildren.
In the enclave, there is a picture of the Queen awarding Waterman her CBE. The two have met four times, across more than 70 years. She declares herself — one nonagenarian of another, as it were — impressed with Her Majesty’s memory. On the last occasion — a lunch with fewer than a dozen guests a year ago — the two recalled their first meeting. Waterman was a 23-year-old graduate of the Royal College of Music receiving graduation prizes; Her Majesty a 17-year-old princess, dispensing them. “I recalled her lady-in-waiting was very old,” she says, “but she corrected me — she could remember exactly the occasion and which lady was with her.”
Photographs: Christopher Nunn