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Jul 18

Hamish Bowles Remembers Christopher Gibbs, the Quintessential British Dandy and Tastemaker to Generations

Christopher Gibbs, 1966

Christopher Gibbs, 1966

Photo: Getty Images

“Taste is difficult to define,” opined Min Hogg, the exigent founding editor of World of Interiors, “but his is absolute perfection.” She was talking of her great friend Christopher Gibbs, tastemaker extraordinaire, who has died on the cusp on his 80th birthday.

The fifth son of the Hon. Sir Geoffrey Cockayne Gibbs, KCMG and his wife Helen Margaret Leslie CBE, Christopher Gibbs was a well-born Renaissance man with an unmatched eye for aesthetics and a talent for friendship and the mot juste. His weighty words were dispensed with the effortless elegance that he applied to all aspects of his life, from faith to clothing, to collecting and to romance, as he reached for a turn of phrase that could be by turns Firbankian, Mitfordian, or Hogarthian. He was expelled from Eton for Rabelaisian antics—“illicit drinking, panty raids of other boys’ rooms—that sort of thing,” as he wryly recalled, and later attended the University of Poitiers, followed by a brief stint in the army.

But it was a trip to Morocco that was to prove an epiphany. There he discovered the “chimeric city” of Tangier. “I was a young fellow,” he told The New York Times, “and I came in the spring with an old-fashioned friend who had letters of introduction.” It was, as he discovered “a mystic hangover,” a place where “the ancient world [was] still kicking along.”

After that first Tangier foray, Gibbs returned to London laden with Moroccan textiles and rugs and beautifully hand-crafted objects with which he stocked his first antiques emporium on Sloane Avenue. He was 20.

At a time when penurious aristocrats were still demolishing unwieldy stately homes or at least divesting them of some of their contents, the well-connected Gibbs was uniquely placed to sleuth and gather the spoils and market them with seductive style to a generation of deep-pocketed fellow trendsetters, from a gaggle of Gettys and Lord Rothschild to Bryan Ferry and Mick Jagger (who hung out with him, as he once playfully confessed, “to learn how to be a gentleman”).

Gibbs’s avowed aim, as he modestly noted, was to “help people make nice cosy homes where they are going to live happy, beautiful lives.” In fact, he shaped the taste of a generation, appreciating the potency of provenance and patina, and handling scale like no one else. He venerated the splendid and the curious and the humble in equal measure—aesthetic beauty and craftsmanship and the love that had been expended on objects were what attracted him, and he set the bar for generations of insatiable collectors and aesthetes. A visit to his emporium was invariably a lesson in history. His erudition was astonishing, “in the tradition of English cognoscenti,” as his friend Sir John Richardson noted, “like an eighteenth century English parson who knew more about Etruscan vases than anyone at the British Museum.” Above all, he disdained the ‘floridity” of opulent taste; Tangier, he averred, had taught him the beauty of “simplicity.”

In a Gibbs scheme a console of writhing old golden volutes hauled back from a Grand Tour by some eighteenth century English aristocrat for his Palladian palace (and still bearing its original age-dulled and flaking flinish) would be juxtaposed with pots made by villagers in the Rif mountains where he built a bewitching adobe retreat. Damasks were faded, silk velvet was balding, a grand Victorian club chair (once doubtless home to some distinguished writer or politician’s sturdy bottom) would be so threadbare it was practically spilling its horsehair innards, garden flowers were arranged more or less as they fell. “I like things in their natural state,” he once explained, “people especially…objects and people that are unmonkeyed with, that are themselves, not trying to be something else.”

“Part Montesquieu, part Beau Brummel, and part Baudelaire,” Gibbs was at the throbbing heart of Swinging London, attracted, as he recalled to “the grand and the raffish and the fast and the chic,” although he always understood that hard work was the only thing that would sustain and support his passion for beautiful people and things. He knew and was in turn beloved by a who’s who of the great style-makers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

His Cheyne Walk flat was the setting for the marijuana party scene in Antonioni’s Blow Up, (“I thought you were supposed to be in Paris,” an irate David Hemmings— as a character based on David Bailey—says to the period’s uber model Veruschka. “I am in Paris” she replies, apparently stoned out of her mind). Kenneth Anger also shot some scenes for his 1971 cult classic Lucifer Risingthere. Gibbs defined the look of Swinging London in the haute boheme setting that he designed for Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 Performance starring Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, and James Fox—sets that exemplify his signature hippie de luxe mix of vastly scaled antiques, quirky objects, and Moroccan textiles. “I wanted something mysterious and beautiful and unexpected,” he explained, “exotic and voluptuous and far away from pedestrian: some hint of earthly paradise.” It could describe any of the magical environments that he created for himself.

If it was happening in the ’60s, Gibbs was there: he was at the party where the Stones were busted and Marianne Faithful was cavorting with a Mars Bar, and he took the band to Tangier where they hung out at the louche Café Hafa and discovered the unique cadences of indigenous Moroccan music. When he hosted a fashion show for Janet Lyle and Maggie Keswick’s fashion house of Annacat in his Regency flat in 1967 beauteous British aristocrats modeled the clothes in his tapestried drawing room before the gratin of with-it society: David Bailey brought Catherine Deneuve, Marianne Faithful simpered, and Private Eye’s editor John Wells read the order of show to the accompaniment of Dudley Moore at the piano.

Gibbs was the quintessential dandy. He is credited as the wearer of the first flared pants for men (in 1961), of flowering patterned shirts and Regency revival jackets and Moroccan caftans, and was the poster boy for his friends’ menswear fashion brands (including Michael Rainey’s Hung on You, Rupert Lycett Green’s Blades, and Nigel Waymouth, Sheila Cohen, and John Pearse’s Granny Takes a Trip). Gibbs confessed to being “monumentally narcissistic” at the time, and recalled that he might spend 40 minutes on the phone with friends discussing which particular tie (kipper-wide, from Mr. Fish), to wear that day. In the latter half of the ’60s Gibbs parlayed his sartorial know-how as the editor of the shopping guide in the quarterly Men in Vogue supplement of British Vogue. In later life his grand bespoke finery was as loved, well-worn, and battered as the objects he revered, and in Morocco his caftans and lemon leather babouche slippers gave him the appearance of a biblical seer.

Gibbs later exercized his interior taste in a set at Albany, the storied apartment building built around the 1774 mansion designed by Sir William Chambers for Lord Melbourne. A stone’s throw from London’s Piccadilly Circus, and “the enticements of Soho, the grandeur of St. James’s, [and] the comforts of Mayfair, to say nothing of the canny tailoring of Savile Row,” it was, as Gibbs noted, a place famed for its archaic house rules (“no pets, no children, no whistling, no noise, and absolutely no publicity”). It was the perfect London perch, and here Gibbs joined a roster of past and present incumbents that has included Lord Byron, Baroness Pauline de Rothschild, Isaiah Berlin, Terence Rattigan, Bruce Chatwin, Sybille Bedford, Terence Stamp, Aldous Huxley, Fleur Cowles, David Hicks, Garbo, and a fistful of prime ministers from Gladstone to Thatcher.

By 1972 his success as a dealer of beautiful treasures was such that he acquired rambling Davington Priory, a former Benedictine nunnery built in 1153 in the English county of Kent. In 2000, with great reluctance, he sold his family house in Clifton Hampden in Oxfordshire and its contents in an epic sale at Christie’s (“it’s quite a caper to keep a place like this going”), and retreated to his Tangier homes.

He acquired El Foolk, the house of the beauteous artist Marguerite McBey, a Philadelphian heiress who had created a farmhouse on Tangier’s Old Mountain that would not have been out of place in the Sussex Downs and commanded breathtaking views across the Straits of Gibraltar to the coast of southern Spain. Gibbs opened a double doorway from the living room into her former studio, but otherwise kept the atmosphere intact and amplified it with a layering of even more precious and idiosyncratic objects. With his godson, the architect Cosimo Sesti, he later built a ravishing Neoclassical villa in the neighboring gardens, and worked with fellow aesthete Umberto Pasti to create new gardens of imposing if always insouciant charm that soon grew to fecund splendor.

This new house, with its soaring volumes, was a showcase for Gibbs’s bravura if nonchalant taste. The drawing room’s walls were dappled in lime-wash the color of pulped tomatoes by a feisty Frenchwoman who came up from Marrakesh expressly for the purpose; underfoot lay a Tuareg straw and leather carpet. The room’s great height was emphasized by a vast and handsome painting, convincingly attributed to Luca Giordano, of “Hercules hoisting the giant Antaeus,” in its original frame of chunky scrolls of ebonized and gilded wood (the Caves of Hercules are to be found just outside the city of Tangier). It hung above an Indian Regency sofa with a faded pink linen cover hidden beneath an embarrassment of cushions worked with Fez embroidery. Gibbs’s study was essentially a conservatory that brought the sublime gardens inside. “If you have a garden and you experience it through the seasons,” he confided, “it holds you for life.” Gibbs’s partner in life was the sumptuously beautiful Peter Hinwood who lived in his own modest house in the gardens of the El Foolk property. Possessed of very distinguished taste himself, through the decades Hinwood has enjoyed careers as a model, (notably cast as a motorbiking Lothario for an iconic ’60s Olivetti commercial), an antique dealer of consummate refinement, and as an actor, memorably portraying the original Rocky in The Rocky Horror Show, clad in the briefest gold lamé shorts and muscle magazine abdomens.

Gibbs was a pillar of the quaint church of Saint Andrews, built at the turn of the century on the fringes of Tangier’s Grand Socco—“a cool oasis in the city,” as he noted, “with texts from the Koran woven into the reredos and the Lord’s prayer in Arabic round the chancel arch. Its very existence—built by the Scots, painted by Matisse— encourages a belief in miracles.” Gibbs’s faith was deep and sustaining and was made manifest in his profound kindness and generosity of spirit.

Christopher Gibbs died like a king of yore, in his beloved house in his beloved Tangier, surrounded by friends, family, and devoted retainers, in a room filled with auction catalogues and commanding views across the orchard of datura and pomegranate trees that he had planted and seen grow to fruition, the roiling Straits of Gibraltar beyond, and the skies above the bright plumbago blue of his eyes, those all-seeing eyes that had defined taste for half a century and more.


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