In Paris in the years after the Liberation, British ambassador Alfred Duff Cooper and his wife Lady Diana Cooper, daughter of the 8th Duke of Rutland, were at the heart of a rarified and artistic social set. According to American Vogue fashion editor Bettina Ballard, the group that revolved around the ambassador and his wife represented the ‘inner exclusivity that Paris loved so dearly’.
Lady Diana was a lively, fashionable, and popular personality of the inter-war years, a friend and inspiration to artists. She established a lifelong friendship with Cecil Beaton and was photographed by him and by numerous others, including artist Curtis Moffat. ‘She was a collector of people, of experiences,’ explains her son, John Julius, Viscount Norwich. ‘She filled the embassy with her personality. It was open house every night between 6 and 8.’
Darling Monster, the collection of letters written by Lady Diana to John Julius between 1939 and 1952, offers intriguing and entertaining insights into the world she inhabited, peopled by royalty, aristocracy and members of the political elite — King George VI, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Winston Churchill, Nancy and Deborah Mitford. There are also encounters with the leading lights of literature, the screen and the stage, such as Evelyn Waugh, Truman Capote, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Isaiah Berlin and Errol Flynn.
Viscount Norwich recalls how Lady Diana found the Chantilly house his parents first used for weekends away before later making it their permanent home. ‘One day in 1946 or ’47 my mother, out for a drive, swung into an open drive gate — she could never resist open drive gates. There she found a ravishing small house, with a garden sweeping down to the lake. It belonged to the Institut de France and was available for rent. So my parents seized the opportunity.’
One of the downstairs rooms had bolection mouldings framing empty spaces, Viscount Norwich recalls, and it was to fill these that his mother commissioned Martin Battersby's magnificent suite of trompe l'oeil mural panels, which were installed around 1949-1950.
Martin Battersby was a multitalented francophile with a rare artistic sensibility that mixed meticulous historical accuracy with mischievous wit. He knew precisely how to create a certain romantic mood, referencing the delicate British whimsy of Rex Whistler, inflecting this with a touch of Surrealism, and with the spirit of New Romantic artists he admired – Christian ‘Bébé’ Bérard, Eugène Berman and Pavel Tchelitchew.
Elegant, charming, sometimes waspish, Battersby was an art-for-art's-sake aesthete with an an air of mystery. It is not surprising that a favoured motif was the Sphinx.
Battersby had worked for Cecil Beaton as assistant designer on theatre and other projects, but they fell out acrimoniously. Beaton can hardly have enjoyed the thought of his dear friend Lady Diana living in rooms decorated by his former assistant.
The panels are a ludic mix of historicism, theatricality and romanticism that reflect a taste prevalent in the years before the war and later revived as a salve to the challenges of the war years. It was a taste associated with a coterie of refined French collectors and decorators, most notably Carlos de Beistegui and Emilio Terry.
The suite, silent witness to the Coopers’ social life in France, comprises five panels of grand scale and an over-door panel. Battersby has painted baroque armorials in a warm grisaille, but has personalised the panels by incorporating — in colour — additional elements, as if collaged to the illusionistic armorials.
These playful clues to aspects of the family’s story include a theatrical production by the great Max Reinhardt in which Lady Diana had assumed the two lead roles; Duff Cooper’s times as First Lord of the Admiralty; the family’s sojourn in Algiers in 1944; the early life of the Coopers’ son; the years 1944-1947 at the Paris Embassy, when the Coopers added the beautiful library designed by Georges Geffroy; and a smaller panel devoted to the pleasures of life: food, drink, theatre, opera, cards, and the house in Chantilly.
When I heard of the potential sale of the panels, I was delighted at the prospect of working with them because they reawakened a number of personal memories. I knew Martin Battersby well, having first met him in the late 1960s, when I became interested in Art Nouveau and the fin-de-siècle, and wanted to meet this erudite figure who was a fellow resident of my home town of Brighton. His close association with the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery generated landmark exhibitions based on his collections, first of Art Nouveau, then of Art Deco. I telephoned him out of the blue. He invited me to tea and received me with great kindness in his wonderfully decorated apartment.
Martin was a great inspiration to me, encouraging me in the faith that I could find a career that would fulfill my own passions in the arts. My opportunity came when I entered the auction business in 1970. I was particularly pleased to be entrusted with the sale of his Art Deco collection in the 1970s, when he decided to move to London.
Our friendship lasted over a decade, until his death in 1982, and I was honoured to write an account of Martin’s life for the 1984 re-edition of one of his most influential books, The Decorative Twenties.
I also vividly recall an elderly but sprightly Lady Diana who, in the 1970s, would enjoy visiting the auction houses and taking the time and attention of young specialists such as myself. I also met her when visiting Cecil Beaton at his home, Reddish House, near Salisbury. I remember being advised by Beaton’s secretary that 'Cecil is expecting a rather special old friend for tea.' It was the charismatic Lady Diana, as colourful as ever.
I was delighted recently to meet her son, John Julius, Viscount Norwich, and to hear his memories of his mother. He evoked her sense of humour and her appreciation of the playful references in the panels, which moved with her to London in 1960, and continued to hang in her house in Little Venice until her death in 1986. Indicating a Napoleonic column in one panel, he told me ruefully, ‘She had promised it to me, but she in fact gave it away before she died.’