Magazine article The Spectator

The Duke Who Killed My Father

Magazine article The Spectator

The Duke Who Killed My Father

Article excerpt

MY FATHER was a self-destructive alcoholic. I envied the stable fathers of my friends at school: they seemed to have life in order. I was saddened that my father was not like them. His drinking led frequently to violence, I had no comfortable platform from which to watch an unknown world opening before me. Every morning my father left the house I knew only the dread of his homecoming later. At a time when I should have been fed on tales for children, the earliest emotion I recognised was fear.

There was a reason for my father's selfdestruction. He had an artist's talent, but he had no confidence. He was haunted by what had happened to his father, the architect Detmar Blow. My grandfather's once meteoric reputation had ended in ruins. He had been accused of enriching himself whilst under the patronage of his friend, Bendor Westminster. The accusations were false and cruel, but because Bendor was a duke, and because our class system encourages ducal pandering, 'society' joined Bendor in destroying my grandfather. Detmar lost his sanity, and my father was sent to sleep in his father's bed to stop him from throwing himself out of the window. Their house was in Mayfair - opposite the Connaught Hotel -- where all the beau monde passed.

Why did my grandfather, Ruskin's last disciple, allow himself to be befriended by such an unreliable figure as Bendor Westminster? Detmar had been taken up in his youth by the aristocratic and liberal-minded Wyndham family at Clouds. This newlybuilt country house opened its doors to artists, men of letters and that aristocratic coterie of wits and thinkers, the Souls. George Wyndham, at one time Chief Secretary for Ireland, embraced Detmar's romantic socialism. 'Detmar must go lecturing like Ruskin,' he used to say.

George Wyndham was to marry Bendor's mother. It was with the Wyndhams that Detmar first met Bendor. But already my grandfather was becoming the soughtafter architect, running neck and neck with Lutyens. Bendor's social life apart from Clouds was empty of intellectual stimulus, so he looked to Detmar to provide this for him. In no time, he was asking Detmar to build for him on his London estate. At the end of the first world war, the Grosvenor estate was in trouble. Houses were lying empty, and the estate was bringing in insufficient income. Bendor begged Detmar to manage it for him. He had great admiration for what he referred to as `his artist's vision'. It was not a position that Detmar wanted, but because of memories of Clouds and the Wyndhams and because of his friendship with Bendor - he finally agreed. However, on account of my grandfather's dreamy and unworldly disposition, which was typical of an arts and crafts man, he failed to take account of the vipers' nest into which he was stepping.

The Grosvenor estate was jealously guarded by the Westminster family lawyers. Here was Detmar, an outsider, suddenly arriving to take up the supreme post. The lawyers resented the occasional gifts made by Bendor to Detmar. But Bendor needed Detmar badly - he was the only person he could talk to about not just the estate but his private life; and so Detmar came to fulfil many more duties than simply that of estate manager.

The earnings might be feeding Detmar's family (he had four children) but architecture suffered as a consequence -- there was to be no time for that. This was the sacrifice he had unwittingly made. And yet, whatever the economic conditions after the first world war, Detmar would still have got commissions: as one of the two names - `Detmar Lutyens' - that Maurice Baring had combined as the signature on his imaginary letter from a British architect to Catherine the Great of Russia, Detmar would have survived.

But Detmar had committed himself to Bendor. However, his relationship with the duke was undermined by Bendor's third wife, Loelia Ponsonby. Her hatred and jealousy of Detmar knew no bounds. Every day she poisoned Bendor against his closest friend. …

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