A Parting Embrace for a Lifetime's Quirks

Christopher Gibbs New York Times Photo Jonathan Player for the New York Times, article  by Christopher Mason

September 21, 2000


I RATHER like the idea of a whole new phase of life, with fewer possessions,'' Christopher Gibbs said, somewhat unconvincingly. Mr. Gibbs, 62, was gazing wistfully at the handsome stone exterior of the Manor House at Clifton Hampden, a rambling three-story house in Oxfordshire, built for his family in the 1840's, which he reluctantly sold in July.

An inveterate collector, antiques dealer, bibliophile and provenance fetishist, Mr. Gibbs plainly has mixed emotions about bidding adieu to the house and most of its contents, which Christie's will auction off in 802 lots on Monday and Tuesday in a vast tent on the lawn. ''I wish I could stay here forever,'' he admitted. ''But it's quite a caper to keep a place like this going.''

Visitors from as far as Cairo and the Upper East Side of Manhattan are expected to show up at the manor, an hour from London, for the four-day viewing of one of the most intriguing and eccentrically diverse English country house sales in years.

A connoisseur of the weird and wonderful -- among the items for sale is a Victorian stuffed two-headed lamb (estimated at $300 to $600) -- Mr. Gibbs is something of a legend in British and international circles as a style guru and playmate to everyone from John Paul Getty Jr. and Lord Rothschild to Bob Geldof and Mick Jagger, whose various mansions he has stocked with treasures.

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He is also a leading proponent of that elusive brand of anti-decoration, high-bohemian taste favored by self-confident Englishmen, a look based on well-worn grandeur, disarming charm and unexpected contrasts. The magic is in the mix of masterpieces and oddities -- like an assemblage of refined and wild-card house guests who mysteriously combine to create the ideal convivial country-house weekend. The allergy here is to the banal, not to dust. ''It's an aesthetic that emanates from great culture and personal passions -- not from merely traipsing around the D&D Building,'' said Peter Dunham, a Los Angeles-based interior designer, who planned to trek from Beverly Hills for the sale. ''I'm going not just because there are wonderful things to buy, but because I expect it to be an incredible learning experience.''

Much of that learning comes from seeing the items in situ. Mr. Dunham had previously seen them only in the plump Christie's catalog, though as a schoolboy he often visited Mr. Gibbs's London store. ''It was an education in an alphabet of style quite particular to Christopher Gibbs. A for atmosphere. B for beauty. C for culture. And some would add D for decayed and E for expensive.''

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In the last category might be the dining table cut from a slice of wood, thought to be one of the first pieces of mahogany transported to England from the New World by Charles II's navy in the 17th century. It should fetch $30,000 to $60,000, by Christie's estimate. ''Pepys would probably have sat at this table,'' Mr. Gibbs said.

He is besotted with objects that possess illustrious or peculiar histories. One object of desire is an embroidered Elizabethan purse that belonged to the first Lord Yarmouth, treasurer to James II, containing a talismanlike fragment of the monarch's blue silk garter enclosed in a wisp of paper bearing the words, ''King James's Garter -- I touch and God cures'' ($15,000 to $30,000).

''Chrissie even knows the provenance of a pebble,'' said Min Hogg, the editor of The World of Interiors and a friend of more than 40 years. ''Taste is impossible to define, but his is absolute perfection. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of sales and catalogs, but I love that he can also be entranced by the beauty of a simple glass cabinet full of nothing in particular.''

Indeed, Mr. Gibbs plans to hold on to several objects that possess no discernible value but delight. ''Oh, I could never part with that,'' he said, pointing to a faded 1930's metal hamper in his bathroom, bearing the words ''Soiled Linen.'' His favorite treasure, also not for sale, is a fragment of a statue of a Greek youth, or kouros -- ''you know, those young men with slanty eyes and narrow hips.''

''It's the waist to top of the thigh,'' he added. ''It was found under a table at Villa Malcontenta by Bruce Chatwin, from whom I bought it. It's always called 'Chatwin's Bottom.' ''

Although ostensibly of sound mind, Mr. Gibbs appears to dote on artworks that depict madness. ''There are lots of freaky people here,'' he noted, alighting on a series of framed pictures adorning the cluttered upstairs hall. One favorite is a 19th-century portrait of John Nichols Thom, a onetime Cornish wine merchant pictured in a dashing scarlet Maltese costume.

''He was a famous con man, a deluded person who went under many names,'' Mr. Gibbs said. ''He called himself Sir William Courtenay, Knight of Malta, the Earl of Devon, and Count Moses Rothschild. It all got a little out of hand when he tried passing himself off as the King of Jerusalem and the Messiah.''

Nearby is a hand-colored lithograph of Dennis Collins, a 19th-century peg leg and rogue charged with trying to kill William IV in Abingdon, a few miles down the road from here. ''Every loony must go,'' Mr. Gibbs said, pointing to a red Christie's label attached to the frame. (It is expected to bring $300 to $450.)

While he will clearly miss the manor house and its contents -- as well as the statuary-filled garden he has created along the Thames since he inherited the property in 1980 -- Mr. Gibbs is hardly homeless. He has four residences, including two houses in Morocco, a splendid pied-a-terre in historic Albany (the traditional London residence for those with grand country estates) and a thatched cottage he has rented in Clifton Hampden. For now, he also has no intention of giving up his celebrated antiques shop in Dove Walk, just off Pimlico Road in London. Recently, it was full of carved Jacobean ebony chairs, Moroccan tribal rugs and gargantuan 18th-century bookcases.

Still, the sentimental attachment to his ancestral home, where he went to live at 8, will be hard to shake, Mr. Gibbs said, noting that the 12th-century church next door holds the remains of numerous forebears. (He traces his aristocratic pedigree to the 16th century, with various titled ancestors along the way who topped up the family fortunes by marrying heiresses.) But as a single man, he said, ''there comes a moment in life that you feel rather absurd living in a great big house on your own.''

Until this summer, the only other habitual occupant was Louisa Wagland, his housekeeper of 25 years. Shelves in the kitchen hold photographs from the 90th-birthday party Mr. Gibbs gave in her honor in June, in a spectacular Moroccan tent he purchased for the occasion, with all her great-grandchildren and friends from the village. ''She died two days later, which was very elegant,'' he said.

She had insisted on making his cups of tea to the very end. ''I thought I was going to be arrested for employing someone so antique,'' he said. The night before he was due to move to his new cottage, he scattered Mrs. Wagland's ashes in the manor garden, in accordance with her wishes.

Mr. Gibbs clearly has a taste for grand gestures. In a meadow at the edge of the garden, overlooking a gentle bend in the Thames, he recently erected a pinnacle from the roof of the College Chapel at Eton. ''I thought I'd leave something behind,'' he said of the architectural fragment, which sits on a pedestal engraved with a Latin inscription explaining that both the pinnacle and Mr. Gibbs himself were expelled from Eton. The pinnacle was timeworn, and had to be replaced. But why was Mr. Gibbs obliged to leave?

''Various offenses,'' he said cheerfully. ''Illicit drinking, panty raids of other boys' rooms -- that sort of thing.''

Fittingly, the new monument was installed just days after Mr. Gibbs completed paperwork to sell the estate, an event he referred to as ''signing the terrible deed.''

''It was just terribly surprising to me,'' he recalled. ''I thought lots of people would come and be instantly bewitched by the place. Instead, they asked, 'Is there only one radiator in this room?' ''

(A Danish couple showed the appropriate enthusiasm and will take possession of the property after the Christie's traveling circus of security guards, auctioneers and packing crates has departed.)

Like many aristocratic Englishmen reared mostly in shivering-cold private schools, Mr. Gibbs seems to find a desire for central heating faintly embarrassing. Objects that smack of newness or have a gaudy shine are similarly infra dig. An elegantly faded George II gilt wood girandole in the front hall has clearly not been regilded since the 18th century -- the way Mr. Gibbs likes it. Similarly, a tatty Victorian buttoned-leather chesterfield sofa beside a William IV red-painted mahogany library table has a faded patina that the catalog politely refers to as ''distressed.''

Still, the estimates are hefty: Christie's predicts that the table will bring $3,000 to $4,500. Hardly surprising, since beaten-up treasures from Mr. Gibbs have never come cheap -- a phenomenon he explained by insisting that he generally pays handsomely for things himself, and has to make a profit.

''I like things in their natural state -- people especially,'' he said with a chuckle. ''As life goes by, that's what I admire. Objects and people that are unmonkeyed with, that are themselves, not trying to be something else.''

Mr. Gibbs has recently been preoccupied with decorating his latest house in Morocco and his new cottage in Clifton Hampton, in anticipation of his retirement. ''Sixty-two is old enough to focus your mind on the span that's likely to be allotted to you,'' he said. ''The sense of mortality homes in.''

Milly de Cabrol, a New York interior designer who visited him in Tangier with mutual friends in August, was struck by how content Mr. Gibbs seemed in his new mountainside home -- a simple but exquisite house with an enormous garden overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. ''He was wearing wonderful caftans,'' she recalled. ''And he looked like Moses walking in the olive garden -- very peaceful, and looking forward to spending more time there.''

Whether he will achieve such sublime contentment on weekends at his new Oxfordshire digs remains to be seen. After living in tall-ceilinged splendor, he will have to adjust to the charming but minuscule two-up, two-down cottage, which is notably smaller than his former kitchen. Downstairs, the living room is barely taller than his 6-foot-2 frame, and getting from his bedroom upstairs to the bathroom requires bending almost double to clear the four-foot-high doorway. Mr. Gibbs acknowledged that it was absolutely tiny. ''But never mind,'' he said brightly.

Gesturing to the ornate but faded Moroccan textile fragment he has pinned up on two sides of his cozy bedroom, he added: ''I've started doing a bit of nest making. Hopefully, with a few new pretty bits and pieces, it'll be all right.''

Published in the New York Times on September 21, 2000

Published in the New York Times on September 21, 2000

Christopher Mason