Magazine article The Spectator

Behind Closed Doors

Magazine article The Spectator

Behind Closed Doors

Article excerpt

Lord Charles FitzRoy, founding director of Fine Art Travel, has been a friend since university, but I am ashamed to say that I had never sampled one of his tours until I finally flew to Madrid in November.

The trip was a revelation, not just because of what I saw of Madrid but also because I discovered that Charles, whom I had always perceived as charmingly vague, is in fact a stickler for detail and a born organiser, a fact that is obvious as soon as I meet the other 23 people in our group. For a start, we are all thrilled that, as part of the package, we are wallowing in graceful luxury at the beautiful Ritz Hotel.

Later, as we sip wine in the Ritz's elegant lobby, I ask Charles how he pulled off such a deal. He grins boyishly, 'I sort of bullied them.

I'm quite good at persuading people to help me.' It's as close as he comes to boasting.

I realise later what an understatement this is as we begin exploring the city. Fine Art Travel claims in its brochure to 'open doors' and, with Charles at the helm, it does exactly what it says on the packet. Exclusive, private visits are the cornerstone of the company's appeal and success. Almost unheard of, we visit Spain's most celebrated museum, the Prado, privately and with Carmen Ruiloba, an eminent lecturer, as our guide. 'I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here at 8 o'clock on a Saturday, ' she laughs, standing in front of an exquisite painting by Velázquez, 'but the way Charles asked me, I couldn't refuse.' We also have a private tour of the Thyssen Museum, this time guided by Charles. We manage to see the vast, eclectic collection in under two hours and not feel cheated. 'Oh, it's just like editing, ' says Charles when I commend his knowledge of what to leave in and, more important, what to leave out. Charles has an instinctive grasp of what the group wants to see as he steers us deftly from one room to another. 'I think we're a bit Goya-ed out, aren't we?' he laughs, breezing through one gallery to land us in front of the perfect Duccio that has us all cooing appreciatively.

He also arranges for an extraordinary visit to the Palacio de Liria, one of the homes of the ageing Duchess of Alba, now sadly better known for her dalliances with men under half her age than for her magnificent heritage. The palace contains a renowned art collection, including Titian's portrait of the Duke of Alba and Goya's portrait of his close friend the Duchess, rumoured to be his lover.

Just down the street, we visit the more discreet but also impressive mansion of the eminent Santa Cruz family, where we are received for preprandial drinks and canapés by the daughter of the Marques de Santa Cruz, Casilda Fernández-Villaverde, la Condesa de Carvajal. …

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