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The Democrattic System

Andrew Solomon ponders the success of a Savile Row attic containing three businesses, six entrepreneurs, one graphic designer and one receptionist.

15 Savile Row. Photography by Gryffindor. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There are six of them, doing three things, and this would, at first, confuse you. Robert Holden and Alan Cowie are Robert Holden Ltd. Lord Charles FitzRoy and Jane Rae are Fine Art Courses Ltd. Adam Nicolson and Robert Sackville-West are Toucan Books Ltd. They are all at one address; they have one receptionist, one kitchen, and one bathroom, with a large blue tub apparently used only to hold ice and chill wine for receptions. They have one roof over their heads. They have one large pink room, and they have wildly contrasting ways of running their businesses. But you would know all that just at first.

If, on a damp Tuesday afternoon, you were to wander down Savile Row, you might pause to look in the window at number fifteen, where Sullivan Wooley, Henry Poole, and Strickland & Sons all announce their presence in stencilled gold letters. You might observe the fine cut of the clothes in the window, and see the sign assuring prospective customers that regular visits to the United States and Australia are made. If you tore yourself from the window, you would see a rather impressive door leading into the building itself; and this door would probably be standing open. So, shaking out your umbrella, you would begin to climb the stairs at number fifteen, grand old stairs with thick innocuous carpeting.

Not without some relief, you would finally come to the last flight, narrower than the lower ones. At its top, you would have climbed 94 steps. (“Robert counted them, I think. Wasn’t it Robert?” Jane Rae laughs. “It’s an invigorating climb.”) There you would see three neat labels affixed to the wall to assure you that you had reached, at last, the shared premises of Robert Holden Ltd., Fine Art Courses Ltd., and Toucan Books Ltd. You would knock lightly on the door, and then go in, turning left abruptly to avoid treading on the receptionist. You would find yourself in the long pink room, looking out over the roof-tops of London.

Someone would bring you tea, and you would sit in a miraculously comfortable armchair. Around the room you would see works of art recently sold, recently bought, about to be sold, about to be bought. And there would be lots of atmospherically empty frames — great gilt things lying blank against the wall. You’d like the room; you’d like its cleanliness and its unassuming elegance.

What are these three firms doing together under one roof? The lease on the property belongs to Robert Holden of Robert Holden Ltd., and he sublets to the other two firms. But why? Robert Holden explains, “Charles FitzRoy is a director of Robert Holden Ltd. as I am of Fine Art Course. Robert Sackville-West and Adam Nicolson are a totally separate operation renting from us. So there’s no connection between Toucan Books and the other two companies, whereas there’s quite a close connection between Charles and myself.” Charles FitzRoy, with every appearance of agreeing, says, “Yes, that’s just it, we’re all totally separate businesses.” Adam Nicolson clarifies further: “We have a little office we essentially work out of, and we use this room when we need it and we all come out on top.” And Jane Rae smiles, and sums up as she says, “Like a Venn diagram, you know, overlapping but not overwhelming.”

You more or less give up on getting a wholly satisfactory answer to the question of what the three firms do together. So what do they each do on their own? The first firm of which you form a distinct impression is Robert Holden Ltd., because the first person of whom you form a distinct impression is Robert Holden. Robert Holden consults people who want to sell or buy art. He knows where to sell what for the most money, and where to buy what for the least. Robert Holden looks like people with their fingers on the pulse of a rat-race art world in movies. (“It’s those cold eyes,” says Adam Nicolson. “Like that wonderful line about Paul Newman — chips of the blue sky — don’t you think?”) His manner is chillingly definite, with a self-assurance that seems to be bred half of habit and half of success. For Robert Holden, admirably educated, has made Robert Holden Ltd. himself, and takes it very seriously. He would be startled and slightly offended if you were to suggest that his work is whimsical.

“It’s fashionable at the moment to think that art is something which is rather fashionable,” he concedes. “But we’re far from whimsy. If you looked around the art world you’d find that it’s a fairly,” and here Robert Holden pauses briefly, then goes on, “competitive place.” And this is just why you need Robert Holden; he is not horrified by competition, and he is quite willing to grapple in the art world’s open market-place on behalf of those who have neither the ability nor the inclination to do so. “So if you wre trying to raise a very considerable amount of money to do up your pile in the country, you might well come to us and we would discreetly make a sale of some of your possessions at an advantageous price.” Or, again, if you were a buyer, Robert Holden would tell you where to find what you want at bargain prices. He is hired by a buyer or a seller, and receives a commission from his client.

All this talk of country piles makes you wonder how various Robert Holden’s clients are, and whether they have to endure screening before they can employ him. “We’re a comparatively low-profile business,” he says. “We don’t have to be that selective about who we take on because the sort of people who would come to us as clients are people who have normally been recommended to us by word of mouth.”

Robert Holden acknowledges that he cannot, of course, know about every kind of art in detail, and so he often brings in outside consultants. “But we always have an opinion,” he says. This much you believe at once. “An opinion and a gut reaction, an intuition about the possible market.” And the intuition has served him well; several of his sales have broken records, including the sale of Joseph Wright of Derby’s Coltman Portrait to the National Gallery for £1,500,000 in 1984.

Jane Rae and Charles FitzRoy balance each other splendidly in conversation, and you would imagine that they balance one another equally well as directors of Fine Art Courses. She is effervescent and ebullient, but also self-possessed and elegant. Charles FitzRoy is serious and dignified, unlikely to rush in where one less mindful might hastily tread. You realise at once that his ability to speak lucidly and persuasively about art rises from his constant eagerness to share a deeply felt aesthetic; you would feel that each lovely thing he brought to your attention was like a gift gladly given.

It is in fact a gift gladly given three times a year for the rather modest sum of between £1,300 and £1,450. He and Jane Rae will conduct two tours to Rome this year and, for the first time, one to Venice. They take no more than twenty people each time and they stay for ten days in “a good hotel in the centre, in the historic part of the city, so that in the evenings the tour group can walk around,” says Charles FitzRoy. But the joy of these tours is not luxury; “the object really is that we manage to get access to quite a lot of places which are not normally open to the public,” Charles FitzRoy explains. The itinerary is in fact quite remarkable. In Rome, tourists under the aegis of Fine Art Courses visit the Palazzo Pamphili to see the frescos of Pietro da Cortona, La Badia di San Sebastiano, the VIlla of the Knights of Malta; they have private viewings of the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael stanze in the Vatican. In Venice they visit the Palazzo Rocca, the Palazzo Treves and the Palazzo Giustiniani Recanati, and outside Venice they visit the Villa Rotonda, the Villa Cordellina, and a host of other villas of the Veneto. They also hear lectures by authorities and curators at each of the places they visit; in some instances, they have lunch with the families that inhabit the spectacular buildings they are visiting.

You hear all this with some awe. How can such things be arranged? Charles FitzRoy winces slightly at the mention of connections. “Well, we do know the curator of the Vatican museums,” he concedes. But what of the villas, what of the families serving lunch? “Families have been quite receptive to our wishing to bring people through. They’re nervous about robbers, so they don’t want a lot of publicity. But, you know, if they think it’s a really worthwhile group, they’re extremely interested,” says Charles FitzRoy. With much more enthusiasm he continues to talk about the visits themselves. “Most of the palaces we’re going to see in Venice are not actually as grand as the ones in Rome, but in a way they’re much more interesting because the families are still living in them. So they’ve got more family history, and all the family memorabilia, furniture, and paintings.” Do the people who sign on appreciate these things? “We’ve actually been quite fortunate,” says Charles FitzRoy. “The people who come are immensely cultured.”

But Charles FitzRoy steers away from anything that sounds exclusive. “It’s really not a very formal situation, and we have people with various degrees of knowledge. That’s as it should be. I think if it became totally exclusive, people wouldn’t want to do it. Something like 70 per cent of the people coming to Venice are people who have come on our tours to Rome, which we think is the proof of the pudding really. We’re very much looking forward to having the same people again.” “We’ll all be able to go straight on to first names,” says Jane Rae. “And they all tend to like one another.”

And Jane Rae has a whole file of correspondence with people who have been on the tours; they all write enthusiastically. There are a thousand anecdotes. “We only go in the spring and autumn,” says Jane Rae, “because we go to so many gardens. If you go to gardens outside Rome in July, the fountains are often dried up, and the soil is parched. We go when everything is most alive.”

And so, with a lingering pleasure in the scenes of Italy conjured by Jane Rae and Charles FitzRoy, you turn at last to Robert Sackville-West and Adam Nicolson of Toucan Books. You would like Robert Sackville-West and Adam Nicolson. You would like them a lot. They have the self-ironic but endearing manner of people who find their continuing success in the world as puzzling as it is delightful; they are neither boastful nor self-effacing, neither patronising nor disingenuous. They are, both of them, easy to be with, utterly convincing, and given to the little extraneous kindnesses of conversation that seem to dissipate everyone else’s ineptitudes. Theirs is that most ineffable and rarely wrought attribute — charm — and the only sorrow is that charm like theirs, no matter how sincere, is always indiscriminate. It would delight you more than it would privilege you. Still, you would be charmed.

Toucan Books is a book-packaging company. This means, explains Robert Sackville-West, that they either “offer an editorial and design service to a publisher on a theme basis, or come up with our own titles and sell them in advance to publishers.” Toucan Books does only large, luxurious, illustrated books that depend on an international market. Their first major project, which has at last moved on to the presses, is an updated version of the Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas, which was the first grand-scale modern illustrated book when it appeared about 25 years ago. “Now it looks tired, out of date,” says Robert Sackville-West. “It’s sold ten million copies, but now it’s got to be redone, to go on selling.” Reader’s Digest commissioned Rand MacNally to do new maps for the book, “which are just lovely,” says Adam Nicolson. “I love maps, don’t you?” Toucan Books have done new texts, new designs, and new material — types of maps, charts of outer space, illustrations of the ocean floor — that simply did not appear in the old atlas. The idea of the atlas is not only to serve as a reference work for readers who wish to locate Sredne Kolymsk, but “to tell the story of the universe from the big bang to today in not all that many pages,” says Robert Sackville-West. “It’s a splendid story to work with,” says Adam Nicolson. “You’d think it was all quite obvious, but actually got wonderful materials.” This does not mean that Toucan Books is importing glorious fictions to the story of creation. Robert Sackville-West says, “I think that when you approach a subject, like the birth of the universe, without much expertise — because you are not an astrophysicist — and you’re fairly new and naïve to that subject, experienced though you are at communication itself, you bring a sense of wonder and excitement to it.”

Adam Nicolson agrees. “We bring in something that an expert couldn’t, you know, as we put rather a lot of ourselves into these things. We bring new terms to old arguments.” And in fact anyone who looks at the old atlas next to the new one sees exactly what they mean. The old one is flat; it shows a flat earth coming into being in a flat universe while gaseous clouds of flat text swing faintly past outer galaxies. The new atlas is three-dimensional; the illustrations seem to spring from the page, and the writing is lively. “Each page,” Robert Sackville-West says, “had to look like a poster, to make the subject interesting and accessible, and to tell as much of the story as possible.”

New projects — none of which are yet sufficiently advanced to talk about — will include art books, history books, reference books, travel books, do-it-yourself books; Toucan Books is going to go on producing. “There is no limit to growth,” says Robert Sackville-West. “I would hope.” But why the rather whimsical name for the firm, Toucan Books? Robert Sackville-West lets the smile that is always about to settle on his face come into its own. “Well,” he says, “there were two of us…” He watches you, and you suddenly get it. “Toucan? Two can!” And as you grin at your own wit, he apologises, “You know, the idiom of the bird is rather well-established in publishing.” On his letter-head there are two toucans, one looking dubiously over his read beak, the other staring off into the distance. As they are standing, there seems to be only one pair of legs between them. Everyone here is standing on the same two feet.

You would be sad to leave number fifteen. You would almost be startled by the damp Tuesday outside. What, you would ask yourself, are they all doing together up there? You would realise how good they all are at what they do, and you would wish that you had a painting to sell, a trip to take, a book to package. Perhaps, you would think to yourself, they are all upstairs because busy minds work best in proximity to one another, because for all their differences these people are in some ways very much alike, because they make you feel (and perhaps make one another feel) that success is almost inevitable. Perhaps, you would think, it is really just as Jane Rae said, a Venn diagram not only of overlapping office space, but of overlapping minds. “You’re only as good as your ideas,” says Robert Sackville-West; he voices, perhaps, the democracy to which the others all subscribe.