Desmond Guinness and friends at a 18th-century fancy dress party at Chandos House, London in 1977
Catapulted into the IGS’s London Chapter in 1974 by becoming a member of its Committee without yet being a member of the society, I met Desmond Guinness and soon recognised his kindness and warmth. The IGS London was in its infancy, but had started organising events, of which little information survives, for its 190 UK members. We benefitted from Desmond using his enthusiasm and charm on contacts, and taking part when possible. He certainly attended the first ‘dressing-up’ event that the Chapter, under Nick Thompson, organised — the 1977 Georgian party at the Royal Society of Medicine’s Chandos House, Queen Anne Street, designed by Robert Adam around 1770.
In 1980, Desmond and Penny moved to the Cotswolds in England, and in 1982 organised a weekend tour including a visit to Daylesford House, then owned by Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. This was the start of a very significant time for us, although records of events and other activities are rather sketchy. Never a committee member himself, Desmond inspired our members and opened doors that were otherwise closed. He also encouraged his wide circle of glamorous friends to support events and join in the fun by working his magic to charm potential and already charmed hosts and members. Desmond and Penny moved to London near the Kings Road, a key location being near to both the Chelsea Arts Club, of which he was a member, and the Irish Club in Eaton Square where the London lectures were held. Parties in the Arts Club welcomed new members, and Nick Thompson recalls him as ‘an ornament to the Chapter, as well as an inspiration… in its Golden Age’. Friends were inveigled into opening their doors to the Chapter — one Persian-Irish couple owned a house in Mallord Street, its previous owners had been Augustus John and then Gracie Fields. Thanks to Desmond, a wonderfully exotic evening was spent lolling on ottomans and eating Persian delicacies, accompanied by the music of The Chieftains. David Mlinaric, a very close friend, was another who caved-in to visitations.
Desmond persuaded his father, Lord Moyne, to allow the Chapter to visit Biddesden in Hampshire, [an unforgettable tour by torch-light] and to be received by his aunt ‘Debo’, the Duchess of Devonshire, at Chatsworth. His friendship with John Paul Getty Jr resulted in playing the Georgian Group twice at cricket according to the 1744 rules on his private cricket ground at Wormsley [near High Wycombe], Desmond provided replica 18th century bats and organised the IGS team — sadly beaten soundly — while members enjoyed a stunning picnic lunch! We also visited Getty’s private house in Cheyne Walk where Rossetti had once lived. The extraordinarily wealthy Edward James was another great friend and he often lived at Leixlip in the years before his death in 1984. We visited both of James’s houses — West Dean itself [where Desmond gave a brilliant talk about his friend], and Monkton, a house on the estate designed for his mother in 1902 by Lutyens and that James had surreal-ised in the 1930s.
Chapter lectures during those years attracted large numbers of London members and other devotees. Desmond said modestly that he had only one lecture, with several titles. He spoke brilliantly on Castletown and the work of the Society, and once about the White House, having managed to commandeer the US Embassy as the venue, complete with drinks!
The London Chapter gave a number of fund-raising parties, often in costume. Desmond always loved such events. Fascinated by Carlos de Bestegui’s famous Bal Oriental of 1951 at the Palazzo Labia in Venice, he gave a lecture about it to the Chapter, with members of his family [including grand-daughter Jasmine] dressed in the harlequin costumes worn by the acrobats who’d entertained Bestequi’s guests. He supported the Ruby Ball of 1998 for the IGS’s 40th anniversary, and the Emerald and Gold Ball for its 50th in 2008. Many of Desmond’s wealthy and famous friends attended in 2008 through their loyalty to him and, by association, the work of the Society.
The Chapter has always adhered to Desmond’s serious agenda: to educate, and to support conservation projects in Ireland. Castletown, Ledwithstown, and Headfort are three of many beneficiaries. His work and example will continue to inspire London as it supports the Society’s work by providing its Conservation Grants Scheme with €330,000 since 2014 to help fund about 70 projects.
John R Redmill, Patron, IGS London. This was originally featured in the Irish Georgian Society Review (2020).