Friday, December 12, 2008

Uncle John

I was lucky that both my parents had three siblings, and that growing up we were surrounded by aunts and uncles, all of them thrilling.

Aunt Anne, my mother’s sister, was a veteran of the W.R.A.N., a tall physiotherapist, and eventually a slightly grudging farmer’s wife, with sharp wit, and a gift for origami. When the Victorian State Opera put on a production of Saint-Saens’s Samson et Delilah, notorious for its full-frontal nudity, she took me, aged twelve, and brought along a pair of powerful agricultural binoculars.
During World War II Uncle David had been shot down in the North African desert, survived for some days by eating locusts and drinking dew before being rescued by Bedouin. He was inclined to do on his knees at Metung a surprisingly good impersonation of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He, my father, and their friend Kenneth Aitken twice sailed across Bass Strait aboard Uncle David’s alarmingly small yacht the Chindrina.

Uncle Alec, meanwhile, had glamorous girlfriends, and was rumored to have invented an ingenious, highly profitable component for German machinery.
Uncle Colin drove fast cars, and represented through Mallesons the legal affairs of Rémy Martin, as well as those of the City of Melbourne. And for years my father’s other brother Uncle Tony lived on a windswept island off the southern coast of Tasmania.

However, I was especially fortunate to have been able to spend a lot of time towards the end of his life with John Borthwick, my mother’s brother, Uncle John.
Like me, John was the youngest of four. He was born on the family property called Raeshaw at Fulham near Sale in East Gippsland, on February 5, 1929, well ahead of the Wall Street Crash.

For reasons that are not easy to fathom in 1936 the family moved to a lovely old rambling Edwardian house in Newtown, where John began school at Geelong College.

John was evidently a happy child, and spent all his holidays at Balmadies, the family’s idyllic house on the shore of Bancroft Bay at Metung on the Gippsland Lakes, where my brothers and I also did a lot of growing up each summer.
Before the war, the trek from Geelong to Metung involved a whole day’s travel, first by train from Geelong to Melbourne, then from Spencer Street to Flinders Street, another train to Bairnsdale, and a trap from Bairnsdale to Johnsonville where a punt took Granny, Grandad, their four children, luggage and provisions to last three months across the Tambo River, and on to Metung. Later, when the holidays lasted longer, and the family had acquired a car, they brought the cow on a trailer (for milk), as well as chickens and, at times, maybe even a pony – everything you needed for an Australian summer holiday.

To some extent by the time my own parents were repeating this process forty years later, the only material difference was that there were now bridges over the Nicholson and Tambo Rivers, and the road was paved.

At school John was as talented a musician as he was a brilliant athlete – specifically a champion sprinter and high jumper. He played the euphonium, and, as a boy soprano, starred in successive productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, most notably in the role of Pitti-sing in
The Mikado, and in the title role of Princess Ida. When he left school, John had risen to the rank of lance corporal in the cadets, as my brother Hamish did thirty years later.

After leaving school at the end of 1947, John’s first job was working in Melbourne for the firm of Barraclough, Fitts and Co., Chartered Accountants, inserting innumerable upside-down ticks in ledgers, a job he recalled his mother helped him to get through an ancient, ascetic clerk who looked after her affairs on behalf of the Trustees Executors Company.

This grey and dessicated presence insured that throughout the Great Depression, and in fact long afterwards, my grandmother’s modest inheritance earned at times a quarter of one percent in rock solid government bonds, and with that exciting income she managed to finance my grandfather’s increasingly eccentric farming projects, and to educate all four of her children at private schools in Geelong.

Later, John toiled in the
Melbourne offices of John Sanderson (Shipping) Pty., Ltd., agents for the Blue Funnel Line, and trained as a potentially deployable administrator of remote provinces in Papua New Guinea. One of the perks of working for Sandersons was free passage on a Blue Funnel liner. So John sailed to Perth and came back again. He stayed with his cousins Lex and Ruth Pearson – who years earlier prompted the Borthwick children to concoct the mantra: “’Struth, Ruth. Have a Bex, Lex.”

Afterwards John travelled to the
Northern Territory by way of Alice Springs (aboard the Ghan), where he got a job with a geologist searching for copper in the outback. Every four yards they dug a hole, and took a sample. They slept under the wheeling stars, while later he recalled pools of oil oozing out of the earth and burning sootily on the horizon. The fact that there is no oil in that particular stretch of country did not prevent him from retaining that especially vivid memory, of which he spoke with an inexplicable degree of wistfulness.

He stuck it out for a while, then hitched a ride to Darwin and, through Vestey’s, became a jackaroo at Nutwood Downs, near Katherine, and later at Ord River in the remote northeast of Western Australia.

While finding his feet in Darwin, John was arrested in a Casablanca-like raid on the local betting shop, but was cheerfully bailed out by Vestey’s, for whom this exercise – evidently quite profitable to the territory government – was no more than a tiresome but manageable and frequently recurring business expense.
At Ord River, John masqueraded as an accountant and store-keeper, dishing out backie, taties, onions, cakes of soap, and decks of cards to the local Aborigines. Somehow, through Connellan Airways (based in Alice Springs), John spent a few months as an orderly at the hospital at Wyndham in the Kimberley, where he claimed the doctor was unfrocked, and the matron addled. He reset the broken leg of an Aboriginal child.

Back in
Melbourne, where he lodged in Bully Taylor’s boarding house in South Yarra, John’s perfect diction was honed during a brief stint training at the Vincent School of Broadcasting, where he learned among other things how to write, read, and produce live radio commercials.

John worked briefly for the Myer Emporium, ingeniously selling many Texfoam® pillows, the new polyurethane wonder product, by encouraging customers to remove a glove and feel their feather-light softness. He also participated in various productions of the Hawthorn Dramatic Society, performing at one point alongside the operatic soprano and future star of Covent Garden Marie Collier, and as the ship’s carpenter in H.M.S. Pinafore.

Afterwards, John took the lease on a milk bar in North Balwyn for a while, but England beckoned, as it did for so many resourceful young Australians in the 1950s (the stifling era, still, of six o’clock closing, and niceness). With £400 in savings he sailed aboard the old Arcadia, her return maiden voyage, and arrived in London on New Year’s Eve 1957.

John loved
London. At first, he knocked about doing odd jobs. He worked for 10s a night (no tips) as a waiter at the unlicensed Le Pavillon in Chelsea, and when his money ran low a friend, John Barnes, offered him a stall in the market on the Portobello Road. His working week involved traveling on the tube to West Ham with an empty suitcase and walking back home, stopping at junk shops along the way, purchasing things for a penny that he sold on his stall for a pound. He went to auction sales at Coe’s, where he recalled old dealers sitting in the front row knitting, in the manner of Mme. Lafarge. He was soon buying stock by the tea chest.

It was this process of inexpensive trial and virtually cost-free error which honed John’s remarkable gift, his eye, which was to form the basis of his successful career as a dealer in antique furniture and objets d’art.

Soon John began to make his mark among colleagues in the
London trade. By the mid-1950s post-war taxation had flushed hundreds of great estates into liquidation, and John’s market was awash with great pieces of furniture. It was a dealer’s market, and on one occasion the third Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England – the successor and cousin of the more famous Bendor, sometime lover of Coco Chanel – tried on three successive weekends to beat John down on the price of (of all things) a humdrum piece of Wedgwood china. Eventually His Grace forked out.

In 1958, back in
Melbourne, John met Wing Commander James Franklin Lawson, O.B.E., and struck up a firm friendship which lasted until Jim’s death. At first John had his own shop in Little Collins Street, on the site of the ghastly Naval and Military Club. He then worked for Archie Meare, in Toorak Road, South Yarra. Archie sent John on a number of highly successful buying trips to Europe and America. In about 1963, edging towards retirement, Archie entrusted to John the task of opening a branch of his business back in London, while Barbara Gilder managed the Toorak headquarters.

John and Jim settled in
England for most of the following seventeen years. From 1971 to 1980 John was a director of Barling of Mount Street, the prestigious Mayfair dealer, just off Berkeley Square. Roy Barling, who had been photographed in the 1930s by Angus McBean, specialized in medieval furniture and works of art (upstairs), and Chinese antiquities (downstairs in the basement) mostly on consignment from Robert Ellsworth in New York.

John exhibited regularly at Grosvenor House, and was the first Australian ever appointed to the vetting committee of the Chelsea Antique Fair.

John’s clientele in Melbourne had at one time included Vivien Leigh, Nelson Eddy, and Grahame Kennedy, however it was not long before, safely ensconced in Mayfair, he added Princess Margaret, Alec Guinness, Claudette Colbert, Paul Scofield, Lauren Bacall (“call me Betty”), James Stewart, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and H.H. The Aga Khan to his discreet list. Each year the then Begum Aga Khan asked John to select her husband’s birthday present, usually a discreet but rare object of supreme quality destined for their house on the
Île de la cité, where presumably it remains.

The London sculpture dealer Danny Katz still has in his gallery in Bond Street a rare Lombard cassone he bought from John, and in the mid-1980s on a visit to the Palazzo Davanzati (the museum of the Florentine house) John was almost as astonished as he was proud to see a large sixteenth-century bed that he had once bought and sold twice for Roy Barling, to two different furniture collectors.

During this period, John and Jim lived variously in a sixteenth-century thatched cottage at Welford-on-Avon, at a partly restored fortified castle in Hunsdon, a flat in Porchester Place, Mayfair, a cottage near Cirencester in the Cotswolds, and, later on, above another antique business (unfortunately called
Grace and Favour) which John ran for a former client, Lady Joseph, in Bute Street, South Kensington. At times, Jim assisted Roy Barling with his considerable accounting skills.

John and Jim traveled widely, touring the English countryside in a van, and making regular visits to
Ireland, France, and Greece. In about 1980, when semi-retired, they went to Cannes, in the south of France, to advise Lady Joseph on the redecoration of her villa. They fell in love with the town, and returned there regularly to spend the winter months. After several years, Jim’s appalling French showed no sign of improving.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s John and Jim never failed to provide often hilarious hospitality to their siblings, and much-needed support to nephews and nieces who from time to time lived nearby. John went
in loco parentis to Hamish’s graduation from Jesus College, Cambridge, in the summer of 1977, and I stayed with them twice in Cannes.

Jim had the unnerving habit of enthusiastically waving a white handkerchief from a prominent spot on the Croisette to those few members of the jet set who in December and January chose to recline semi-naked on the beach concessions of the Carlton, the Méditerranée, and on occasion the Negresco in Nice. John was careful to explain to me that the cupola of the Negresco had been modeled on the breast of some long-forgotten professional beauty, but that recent striations were too emphatic, the paint job too ruddy, or else that the relevant Edwardian horizontale was plainly not as young as she used to be.

Shortly before returning to
Australia in 1969, John took a thirteen-week cordon bleu cookery course, intending to purchase a motel and restaurant in Coffs Harbor. Their aim was to bring Provençal cooking to the northern coast of New South Wales.

As Jim’s work for Hawker Siddeley, the British firm of aeronautical engineers and defense contractors, involved highly classified contracts for the Royal Navy, he sought and was granted special clearance to sail aboard an aging Soviet cruise ship, the Shota Rustaveli. While alert to the possibility that he might be of some interest to the K.G.B., Jim naturally accepted an invitation to the captain’s cocktail party, at which John remembered a lot of good caviar was served. In his cheerful way, John chose to recall that the party continued below decks.

Once settled in
Coffs Harbor, they changed the name of their motel from “Kookaburra” to “Normandie” Lodge. John’s sister, my resourceful Aunt Anne, ran up gingham curtains and tablecloths. John handled the kitchen, which offered a constantly updated menu based on a close reading of Elizabeth David, while Jim looked after the front of house, a role that allowed him to draw extensively on his experiences in logistical command. No doubt Jim’s niece, Ann Pietsch (who went up to work for them as a waitress during the summer holidays), will tell you what it was actually like.

Jim and John returned to Australia again in the early 1980s, initially to stage a successful exhibition at the old Georges in Melbourne of textiles and ceramics designed by Sonia Delaunay for Artcurial (Paris), from which my mother purchased a splendid carpet which despite my best efforts to dissuade her Mum still uses for under the kitchen table.

John and Jim lived for some years in a comfortable flat in Macleay Regis, an old, yet-to-be-glamorized Art Deco building in what was then still a relatively quiet part of Potts Point. And in 1988 John began consulting for Sotheby’s Australia, a happy association that continued until he died, and in the course of which he made many firm friends.

In 1996, within two weeks of my arrival in
Adelaide, Jim entered the War Veterans’ Home at Myrtle Bank as a patient and, though frail, remained mentally alert. John and I decided to share a flat while we each of us found our feet in Adelaide.

It was an ideal arrangement. John continued to represent Sotheby’s, and while every morning he took the bus out to Myrtle Bank, he was careful to fit in his calls for Sotheby’s around his daily ritual of caring for Jim.

At the same time John extended his own prolific artistic œuvre in the direction of surréalisme, Neo-Dada, and minimalist art pauvre. Out of modesty and discretion John usually preferred not to exhibit his own work in public, and while he was a trenchant, not to say hostile critic of Modernism, curiously his wardrobe, and his eye, leaned heavily toward natural fabrics, textures, and colors that were forthrightly modern in their restraint and spareness. He described his taste as “monkish.”

He loathed any and everything to do with the full extent of the nineteenth century.

While in
Adelaide, John derived considerable enjoyment from sniffing out many objects that might have been of interest to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Scrupulously avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and with total impartiality, John insured that those objects were instead destined for Sotheby’s sales, and the neutral sphere of the international art market. They included an enormous hand-stitched Hammersmith carpet by Morris & Co. with impeccable Barr-Smith family provenance, and an early Harley Davidson motorcycle together with a box of pristine spare parts that, in due course, earned for its astonished Hahndorf octogenarian owner–rider an exceedingly large sum of money in Los Angeles, Calif.

No doubt there were many other discoveries that John made in his quietly persisent, patient, and philosophical way. 

John taught me how to extract every ounce of enjoyment from the simplest of pleasures, a ripe orange, a sunny day, The Times crossword puzzle, and a close reading of the current Broadway box-office figures as reported in the weekly edition of Variety, which he read in various public libraries for upwards of fifty years. He lived on the smell of an oily rag. His sense of the ridiculous was finely honed, his capacity for friendship humbling, and his ability through charm alone to extract free drinks and, at times, a potentially infinite succession of free meals from the friendly proprietors of ordinary restaurants and cafes was simply uncanny.

John derived exquisite pleasure from the adventures and achievements of his and Jim’s many nieces and nephews, and their progeny.

John Borthwick died as a consequence of a long diabetic illness on August 16, 2006, his normally high spirits and good humor somewhat dampened towards the end, but by no means extinguished. At the time of his death he was working on a novel, and planning to launch a fragrance.

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