Monday, March 22, 2010
Lifestyles of the Rich and Richer
It was certainly very blue, but the thing that struck me first was how small it was.
Andrew Lloyd Webber had invited us down to his Berkshire pile to view his new acquisition. It was 1995 and he’d just spent £18million on it. I couldn’t imagine any one item costing that sort of money, let alone being invited to see it close-up.
It was a painting called The Absinthe Drinker, or, to give it its proper title, Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto. Picasso painted it in 1903, during his Blue Period. Hence the colour. But I did think that for £18million he might have got something a little bigger.
We arrived in my second-hand Merc – I’d put it through the car wash on the way, as I didn’t want it to be shown up outside the house. Sydmonton Court is not the prettiest of country houses, but the setting is idyllic: it lies at the bottom of Watership Down where the famous rabbits have a grandstand view of the property, with its own church in the garden. Some years later, after he ceased to be just Mister, Andrew bought the entire Down and controversially relocated the public footpath that ran along the edge. Presumably he didn’t want ordinary people watching him eat breakfast.
He welcomed us with champagne and ushered us towards the stairs. I’d enjoyed watching Andrew’s art collection grow over the years. He’d always been intoxicated by Pre-Raphaelites and had been collecting them since he was 15 years old; I remember him proudly showing off his first £1million acquisition – a massive Burne-Jones which took up an entire wall of his huge dining hall. Now the house was full of these large, brightly coloured, poetic indulgences – he’d built up the most important collection in the world and had pretty much cornered the market. But a Picasso? This was something else.
We walked behind the staircase and there it was, tucked away on a little wall in a corner. It was a man holding a pipe with a glass in front of him, staring at us with dark blue eyes and curled up lips, almost sneering. Or maybe he’d taken in too much absinthe. Either way, the drinker, and we, were mesmerized. It was most certainly a masterpiece.
I first knew Andrew when he had a fraction of his present fortune. Even then he was in a different league. He and Sarah Brightman invited the family, including our two very young children, to stay with them in the south of France. We were put up in a beautiful guest annex overlooking the pool; by contrast our spare room at home had packing cases in the corner.
One hot afternoon Andrew and I were lying in the pool with another guest, the Tory minister John Selwyn Gummer, who was stretched out on an inflatable alligator. After several glasses of rose wine, the subject turned to our libel laws, and how much money you’d need to sue a newspaper for to have cash in the bank for the rest of your life. Andrew carefully worked out the cost of running Sydmonton and his flat in Chelsea and the house whose pool we were lying in and announced that £10million would just about do it. We then worked out what we’d have to do to get ourselves libeled.
This week, Christies announced it was selling the Picasso to raise funds for Andrew’s charitable foundation. With a pre-sale estimate of £30-40 million, it could well fetch the highest price for any painting ever sold at auction in Europe. The profit alone will outstrip the £10 million he said he needed to enjoy the rest of his life. And it’s all going to charity. Now that’s true wealth for you.