Nicholas Coleridge’s recent best-selling memoir reminded me of many things, and here’s just one. In the autumn of 1993, the painter and portraitist Emma Sergeant was interviewed by Celia Lyttleton, the art critic, for an article Jane Procter, the editor of Tatler, had commissioned. The subject was society’s promising young painters. The feature had to be accompanied by a good example of the work of each artist by means of a coloured transparency of their choice. Emma’s preference – a large portrait of me which she had painted in 1991 – was sent to Celia, who in turn presented it to Jane Procter. The latter saw red and refused point blank to entertain its inclusion. Emma telephoned me to enquire whether I knew what lay behind her opposition. Naturally I was taken aback and at the same time perplexed. Although the reason for this bizarre turn of events was never given, informed sources attributed Jane’s intemperate behaviour to my having made her husband, Tom Goldstaub, redundant following Asprey’s acquisition of Mappin & Webb, where he had been the head of marketing.
As it happened, my relationship with Jane’s husband could not have been better. Now, as managing director of Fintex, the fine-cloth merchants in Golden Square, he was always perfectly accommodating and I subsequently became one of his most regular customers. I therefore felt at a loss to understand his wife’s action, given the importance of the Asprey group in the luxury-goods market and its close association with Condé Nast, principally as advertisers. Jane’s throwing down the gauntlet, I could only conclude, was a deliberate attempt to humiliate me and one to which I had to respond. My reaction was swift. I suspended all advertising contracts for the Asprey group with Condé Nast until such time as the incident had been properly investigated by Jane’s employers and a satisfactory explanation produced.
A few weeks later, when tempers had cooled, a conciliatory top-level meeting took place at Condé Nast, chaired by their managing director, Nicholas Coleridge. Present at the meeting was myself accompanied by Tania Foster-Brown, who had once worked at Vogue House but was there this time acting as a peace broker. A weepy Jane Procter was summoned to the meeting and tried to bluff her way through with some cock-and-bull story that made little sense. A suggestion that Emma Sergeant was stirring the pot went down badly with me and almost brought the meeting to an abrupt halt. At this point Procter changed her tactics, becoming apologetic and managing to placate her employer as well as myself with the claim that she was possibly the victim of circumstance. A few months later the whole truth had come out and Procter and Tatler had parted company.
After meeting for the first time in 1982, Emma Sergeant and I got on so well that our encounter led to a friendship that remained close over the years that followed. Her first portrait of me was done in charcoal the year of our meeting and hangs today in our house in the Dordogne. It is a moody picture, strongly expressive of character and conveying a lean and hungry look. Emma must have captured me at a phase in my life when those characteristics were dominant. It was also the time when Rupert Birley and I, having met at Emma’s, took to meeting up regularly at her place for coffee in the early mornings. These were gatherings that I sorely missed after Rupert’s tragic disappearance on a beach off West Africa. He was undoubtedly the embodiment of that cliché ‘the heart-throb of his generation’, whose good looks, poise, charm and outstanding intellect combined to set him apart from his peers. All those who knew him well and grew to love him – among whom I count myself – were shattered by his loss, which happened when he was at the zenith of his youth with a life full of promise ahead of him.
In January 1994, I wrote a foreword to mark an exhibition of Emma’s work at Agnew’s. It took the form of a tribute which best encapsulates our friendship and gives an insight into her background and her work as an artist. For that reason, I reproduce it in full.
‘Orpheus and the Underworld
‘Emma Sergeant, 1994
‘I first met Emma Sergeant twelve years ago at a Quartet Books party. Emma was then in her early twenties and exuded an energy and zest for life which sent out shock waves to those around her. Her youthful beauty was untarnished by the levy of life and when she moved about the room, eyes followed her.
‘In those days it was often alleged that I employed only beautiful and desirable young women who graced the London social scene and attended my publishing parties: if Emma had possessed mere beauty alone, she might easily have merged into the general glamour of the occasion. But she had other qualities: a sublime smile, a musical resonance in her laughter, an impish elegance and a light in her eyes which one sensed was linked to her vision of the world. All this, and much more, made her stand head and shoulders above the rest.
‘As I came to know Emma Sergeant I discovered that her artistic talent was outstanding. From the outset she had been determined to succeed and had worked very hard to ensure a steady progression in her oeuvre, at an early age demonstrating the boldness required to push back the boundaries of modern art. As a result the evolution of her work is truly remarkable. There is nothing preordained about it; it does not follow a set pattern; it possesses enormous power and the ability to surprise, even to shock.
‘She studied for two years at Camberwell and then at the Slade, graduating in 1983. In 1981 she won the Imperial Tobacco Portrait Award for her painting of Lord David Cecil. This resulted in commissions to paint Lord Olivier among others.
‘In 1986, an exhibition of her paintings and drawings of Afghanistan was held at Agnew’s to raise money for UNICEF to help Afghan refugees. In 1988 she exhibited “Faces from Four Continents”, again at Agnew’s. She has had many commissions to paint portraits, which include Imran Khan, Lord Carrington, the Earl of Verulam and Roani, Chief of the Kayapo Indians.’