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Souvenirs of London’s most elegant man

Sotheby’s to sell contents of Mark Birley’s house

Mark Birley in his drawing room, photographed by Terence Donovan

With the pictures and things from Thurloe Lodge, a Neo-Classical villa tucked away in front of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Sotheby’s is selling a piece of London history on 21 March. This is where Mark Birley lived, considered London’s most elegant man for nearly half a century. Like his French counterpart, Hubert de Givenchy, he was very tall and beautifully dressed, with the narrowest shoes imaginable, but his taste was vachement anglais, the opposite of the formal fauteuils and ormolu-mounted vases that Givenchy collected. Mark used to say, “Avoid pairs of things,” and he loved comfort above all else, an unpretentious sumptuousness, an eclectic mix of objects that he placed in perfect harmony with one another—which is why the catalogue can’t give any sense of why the house was such a delight, with the scent of the flowers that were changed twice a week combining with cigar smoke, and the way he had of making everything feel like a treat. “You’d better have some Cold Duck” (or whatever the latest cocktail discovery was), he’d say as soon as you arrived.

Deeply English

He was a shy man who hid his diffidence behind an aloof, slightly alarming manner that made those who got through to him feel privileged, and he trusted his dogs much more than humans, hence the dozens of dog pictures in the sale. He knew perfectly well that they weren’t great art, but they touched him.

Early on, before becoming famous for his luxuriously civilised nightclub, Annabel’s, he spent a few years in an advertising agency, where he got a liking for witty images, so there are plenty of these on offer: New Yorker cartoons, political cartoons and cartoons by “Pont” about the English character. For Mark was a traditionalist who loved England openly; did anyone else close their commercial establishments to show respect the day of the funeral of the Queen Mother? He had also worked as a junior researcher for Winston Churchill, for whom he had the deepest reverence, hence the complete works in the sale.

His father was the portrait painter Sir Oswald Birley, and Mark liked his kind of painterliness, which you see in all the descendants of Sargent. Many of his best acquisitions of this sort he found at The Fine Art Society, and they hang in Annabel’s and his other establishments, which he furnished as though they were extensions of his own home, and then sold, lock, stock and barrel to Richard Caring in 2007 for around £100m.

For all that he had a good eye, Mark was more a compulsive shopper than a collector, which explains some of the oddities (model boats and a sinister Vettriano). Neither was he a rich man until fairly late in life, so this is not a sale of great art; rather these are the relics of a man who was a terrific swell, who was admired and imitated, and loved much more than he ever thought. They will do well.

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