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Duveen bowls a googly

As England retain the Ashes, we give you this cricketing nugget from the archives

Joseph Joel Duveen, Baron Duveen, by George Charles Beresford. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London

England retained the Ashes yesterday, with the third Test ending in a draw due to rain. In honour of the achievement, we’ve uncovered this account from our archive (Issue 30, July-Sept 1992) by Dick Kingzett of Agnew’s, who recalls a strange dinner party devoted entirely to cricket.

Two years ago I was asked to help with a television programme about Lord Duveen. I had only met him once and was a 16-year-old schoolboy at the time, but he had made such a strong impression, that I felt that I could contribute something and agreed to take part.

Sadly, the programme was never made, but I was allowed to see what the other participants had written about him. Although their scripts were carefully researched and undoubtedly correct in factual terms, they seemed to miss the ebullient nature of his personality and I had the impression that the writers had never met him. So I am grateful for the chance to try to recall someone who was arguably the greatest picture dealer of the 20th century.

Before the war, when I visited London, I was sent to stay with my uncle Colin Agnew who had a flat near Grosvenor Square where he was looked after by a devoted Swiss housekeeper called Mrs Stansel. My father always maintained that she had accompanied Colin to the trenches in the First World War. This seemed unlikely, but had she done so, I am quite sure that she would have continued to serve the same delicious food in his mess tin throughout the Battle of Mons as she had always done at his dinner parties in South Audley Street.

Visiting London in the summer of 1938 for the Rugby-Marlborough Match at Lords, I was told by Mrs Stansel that Colin hoped that I would join a dinner party that he was giving that evening. She added on a reverent note that the guest of honour was Lord Duveen. The name meant nothing, but knowing no-one else in London and having little money, I accepted with pleasure.

I cannot remember with absolute certainty the names of the other guests, but they definitely included Horace Buttery the picture restorer, because we often discussed the evening in later years. We finally concluded that they were Osbert Sitwell, Raymond Mortimer (the literary editor of the Sunday Times), and Edward Sackville-West (the musicologist and original of the valetudinarian Davey in Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love).

Apparently Duveen, like royalty, always arrived last, and we waited for him for some time. He greeted the other guests as old friends, and I was impressed by the way in which he asked each one how he was and moved onto the next, before the first man had had time to answer. To my amazement, he said that he had heard a lot about me and was delighted that we should at last meet, but I was still at an age when I believed that grown-ups meant what they said.

What followed was even more baffling. He asked what I was doing and hearing that cricket was the object of my London visit, declared that he was passionately interested in the game. Coming from a Dutch Jewish picture dealer who had spent most of his life in New York, this was a surprising statement, but again I believed him implicitly.

He then embarked on an elaborate tease. Knowing that his fellow guests would want to hear the latest news from the American art world—it was the period when the building of the National Gallery in Washington, DC had finally started, and when [Samuel] Kress had replaced the recently deceased Andrew Mellon as Duveen’s great new client—he firmly refused to talk about anything except cricket throughout dinner.

Trumper and Spooner, he told us, were his childhood heroes. Today it was Larwood and Verity who claimed his attention. Rarely, he confided in us, did he come to London without calling on his old friend Jack Jobbs. Did we not agree with him that the latter was the finest batsman of all time? Any attempt to divert his conversation to more cultural matters was stonewalled. In cricketing parlance, he played it straight back to the bowler. I remember one particularly effective stroke: Sackville-West, clearly no aficionado of our national game, tried to introduce music as a topic by describing a recent production of Don Giovanni at Covent Garden in which he praised the baritone (it was probably Tito Gobbi) who had sung the Don. “Ah”, said Duveen, “The Don. Now in my view, Don Bradman is the greatest batsman playing today. How sad that he should have appeared so much in Australia where I couldn’t watch him”.

It was a masterly performance, and I was reminded of it by the wartime production of a comedy called “The Man Who Came to Dinner”. In this play, Robert Morley dominated the proceedings from a wheel chair in which he sat centre-stage throughout. The other actors seemed only to exist to feed him by-lines and one had the impression that if any of them failed to turn up one evening, it wouldn’t greatly matter. As with Morley, so with Duveen, nobody else really got much of a word in.

One other person besides myself received his critical attention. This was Mrs Stansel. They were evidently old friends, because on arrival he enquired if dinner included his favourite mousse. She assured him that it did, although I noticed that when it came, he ate very little of it. Asked about her health, she admitted to suffering twinges of rheumatism. At once, the famous Duveen empathy came into play. He too, it appeared, was a martyr to the disease, and they became engrossed in discussion about the symptoms and remedies.

He left quite soon after dinner, explaining that he was returning to New York next day and had to make an early start. The other guests were charming, but I could see that they felt that I was responsible for diverting the conversation into such sporting channels. I apologised to Colin about this afterwards, but he told me not to worry. Duveen, he explained, liked playing the fool in England and my reference to cricket had given him just the pretext for the sort of practical joke he loved. I still could not understand why he had paid more attention to Mrs Stansel and myself than to the other highly-distinguished guests, but Colin said that the old dealer had always ingratiated himself with the families and staff of those with whom he did business. From them, he hoped to gain information which his clients themselves might not be prepared to reveal. It was hard to know which of Agnew’s vital secrets Mrs Stansel and I might have at our fingertips, but I grasped the principle. Colin added that Duveen was undergoing an exhausting form of cancer treatment. As he always wanted to dominate any party at which he appeared, when tiredness set in, he would simply excuse himself and go home.

Visiting the flat in the Christmas holidays, I was told by Mrs Stansel that she had received a present. It was an electric blanket which Duveen recommended as a palliative for rheumatism at night. Although commonplace today, such things were unknown in 1938 in London, where hot water bottles were still the order of the day. She admitted she hadn’t dared to switch it on for fear of setting the sheets on fire, but she had laid it out on a table where she displayed it with all the unction of the parroco of a small village showing his church’s one treasure to a visiting tourist.

I was able to assure her that I too had had a present from the great man. Mine was a book about cricket called Kissing the Rod in which P.G.H. Fender described a recent Test Series which we had lost to Australia. The flyleaf was inscribed “For Dick Kingsette from Joe Duveen. One cricket lover to another”. He had spelt my name wrong, but I doubt that any present has ever given me more pleasure.

A few months later, I heard that he had died, and felt very sad indeed.

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