The Journal visits Home House in the company of Robin Dutt—writer, dandy and impassioned evangelist for one of Marylebone’s most remarkable buildings
Images: Orlando Gili
Robin Dutt is a man besotted. The love of his life is quite beyond compare. He leaps instantly to praise her, cherishing her every quirk, adoring her every inch. But, not being the jealous type, he is happy to share her with others—a great many others. Oh, and the lady in question just happens to be 245 years old. Clearly some things really do improve with age.
Robin’s love affair with Home House began 20 years ago when the rescued and restored Grade I listed townhouse on Portman Square reopened as a private members club. He explains: “When my friend Brian Clivaz set this up, he said to me: ‘Robin, you have to join. This is your place.’ Since then I’ve spent more time here than in any other establishment, including my home—especially my home.”
Home House is a stylish creature, and so too is Robin—a journalist, author, media consultant, occasional visiting professor and script advisor, and much sought-after expert on all matters sartorial. Today he wears a black satin lapelled velvet jacket, black silk waistcoat, silver-grey cravat and black leather trousers. His eyes twinkle brightly from beneath tussled jet-black locks as he begins to introduce me to his beloved.
A sophisticated pavillion
In 1773, the Countess of Home commissioned George III’s architect, James Wyatt, to build a sophisticated ‘pavilion’ designed purely for enjoyment and entertainment at 20 Portman Square. And that’s where our tour begins, inside the beating heart of the club, which in recent years has expanded into the two adjacent properties at 19 and 21. “The countess had it built when her step-niece married into the royal family,” reveals Robin. “She created this as a palace of pleasure to entertain the royals and aristocracy. She was enormously wealthy, so money was no object.”
After Wyatt received his cards just two years into the project, Robert Adam, one of the most celebrated architects of his day, was appointed to complete the interior of the house in his sumptuous neoclassical style. Passing through the entrance hall, we feast our eyes on the quite magnificent imperial staircase, which rises through the entire height of the house, illuminated by a glass dome.
“Robert Adam wanted this to be a centrepiece for the house, which I think it is,” explains my guide. “You’re looking at Roman and Greek influences. The whole thing about Robert Adam design is its symmetry. It is perfect in form—but he mixes this perfection with huge details of gilding, painting, murals, which provide the contrast to the strict structures. And everywhere you’ll find 18th century motifs.”
Ascending the sweeping staircase we enter the first in a series of ‘parade rooms’, each more lavish than the one before. “This is the ante-room, which in Latin translates as the ‘room before’,” says Robin. “You would have been greeted here and then taken into the music room next door for concertos and entertainment. And this is where many of our music and poetry events take place now.” The music room is adorned with mirrors, making it seem far bigger than it actually is. And I bet those well-heeled Georgians just loved to gaze at themselves. “It was essential,” whispers Robin, betraying only the hint of a smile.
A happy mix
We’re not alone in here. I had imagined that a private club located within a listed Georgian townhouse would be the preserve of prehistoric men with hairy ears, most of whom would be snoring. But Home House’s music room contains a happy mix of men and women as modern and contemporary as you’ll find anywhere. Some work on laptops while others chat with fellow members. The room’s most elderly occupant is a large portrait resting against a sofa, which is being scrutinised by a trio of art dealers. I’m no Andrew Graham-Dixon, but even I can tell that this painting might fetch more than a week’s wages—certainly more than mine.
Next, the great drawing room, which manages to surpass its billing, partly thanks to its gleaming chandeliers, which Robin informs me aren’t the originals but are from the same period. The same can be said for the paintings hanging on the walls. “They have chosen paintings which are of the time and give a feeling of what a pair of 18th century eyes would have seen,” he explains.
The Etruscan room, the last of the parade rooms and one whose theme reflects the era’s fascination with the ancient world, would have been the countess’s bedroom throughout each short stay, offering uninterrupted views from the window as far as Hampstead, before central London decided to muscle in.
The two adjacent properties that have been incorporated into the club are both Grade II listed, which has allowed greater flexibility in use and decor. Number 21 is the destination of choice for true night owls, with its nightclub, dining room and bar, the latter of which was designed by the late, great architect Zaha Hadid. When those cocktails start to bite, members have the option of simply stumbling upstairs, as above the three houses are a total of 24 rooms and suites. Two are named after Samuel Courtauld and Anthony Blunt, a clue to yet another of Home House’s previous incarnations.
An infamous spy
From 1932 until 1989, number 20 was leased to the Courtauld Institute of Art, whose director between 1947 and 1974 was the art historian, surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and infamous spy, Anthony Blunt. It was in these rooms that the notorious Philby, Burgess and Maclean mingled with academics, politicians and members of the Establishment while selling secrets to the Russians.
Robin describes the building’s modern occupants, few of whom are Russian spies, as “a jolly band and a real mix”, whose club caters to their every whim. The diary is crammed full of entertainment and events. There are the annual summer, Halloween and New Year’s Eve parties along with plenty of “inbetweeners” for those wishing to maintain a more constant state of partying. Clubs and societies cover just about every passion, from art, style, poetry and property to the pursuits of debating and shooting—hopefully the former doesn’t result in the latter.
Robin founded the arts society and used to teach fencing here, but these days hosts the poetry salon, creative writing and book club. He also plays the role of quiz master, receiving, he says, “a lot of berating from unhappy people who can’t answer the questions”. The quizzes take place in the Bison Bar, which is where we head to next. This is a true temple to the religion of cocktails, a place where ideas are formed, fumbled and frequently forgotten.
Robin spends a great deal of time in here, due to the Bison Bar doubling as his office. “I find this more convivial and conducive to write in than my own home in Highbury. I sit at the bar under the lamp and they probably hate me for all the paper, trash and detritus. But here I am, writing away.”
An eye for style
Born in Paddington, Robin has always possessed an eye for style and a deep appreciation for the traditions of tailoring. “I have always loved the way that elegant menswear is presented, whether on the body or hanging up on a rail,” he says. “There’s something about the structure. Good suiting is sculpture to wear. And the love of it is difficult to explain. You just know it. You feel it. I’m entranced by the way that tailors still work in the old fashioned style. It’s wonderful to go and see a tailor at his bench, still cutting the same way that’s been done for centuries. It’s what feels right, normal and natural, as opposed to something fashion based, which I don’t find at all interesting. I’m not interested in fashion per se.”
So how would he describe his own style? “Well as long as it is not garnered from fashion, I’m happy. The trouble is when people say: ‘Oh look, you’re wearing a gilet. They’re coming back, you know.’ Urgh! That makes me want to burn it.”
Robin adores vintage clothing and is drawn to the rails of Portobello Market and shops such as Chalk Farm’s A Dandy in Aspic. Friends working in secondhand and charity shops call him whenever they receive a garment that was simply made for him. He is both an expert on dandyism and a dandy himself, cut from the same cloth as Beau Brummell, the Count d’Orsay, Oscar Wilde and Stephen Tennant. “Dandyism is a lesson that cannot be learnt,” insists Robin. “You have to be born with it. True dandyism to me is the opposite of true excess. It’s paring down to the bare minimum. Dandyism is all about constraining yourself and not showing, not being too familiar. It’s all about reserve.”
For being remote, almost untouchable and for never giving up, Robin would add Quentin Crisp to his list of dandies. Robin interviewed him once at the Chelsea Arts Club, counting the meeting as a career highlight. “I think because he was so fragile and yet so strong,” reflects Robin. “I’ve never seen such sorrow in another face—a life of sorrow—but still that dandy resilience that nothing but death would take him down. And he was full of the most incredible wit.”
In the late eighties Robin started a career in the world of PR and marketing, demonstrating an instinct for dreaming up ways of stopping traffic on behalf of his clients—sometimes literally. One campaign for Dutch bed company Royal Auping saw model Naomi Campbell, sporting a bed-jacket designed by couturier Berge Khachwaji, being ferried across Baker Street by fabulously beautiful male models.
“We had 30 photographers from all over the world going nuts,” remembers Robin. “It’s a formula; everything is a formula. It was theatrical and artistic and design based, and it stopped traffic. It’s PR, it’s a performance, an event, it’s about publicity, but actually, ultimately it’s fun. And fun can take you a long way in a career.”
And not just one career. Although Robin continues to do some media consultancy for PR companies and brands, he’s been having rather a hoot as a journalist. “Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed. And if you’re a writer who enjoys what you’re doing, you can adapt. I couldn’t write about most things, but design, art, tailoring, jewellery, interviews with whoever, that I can do. I could never do anything technical—that’s not my bag.”
Robin, who always writes by hand before typing on a keyboard, has penned features for publications including The Times, The Lady, and The Clothes Show Magazine—Robin was also a male stylist for the BBC television series.
Robin has picked at the threads of such creative minds as Vivienne Westwood, Peter Blake, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jean Muir and Hardy Amies. But some minds are easier to penetrate than others. “Andy Warhol was very difficult, because it was always a pose,” he says. “Very few people actually managed to get into the heart and the head of Andy Warhol. He purposely made his life superficial and actually said something like: ‘If you want to know about my art, look at the surface. There’s nothing behind it.’ Warhol was an enigma. And in a way there is a certain dandyism about that.”
Robin has relished the opportunity to interview so many seriously talented people. “And to learn from these people,” he reflects. “I’m fascinated by people anyway, but talking with them for half an hour, however long you’ve got, is an incredible privilege. They live in the archives of your mind, and they inform.”
Being informed has allowed Robin to write across a number of fields. He has penned catalogue introductions for museums and galleries and is the author of two books on Martin Leman and another on Gilbert & George, who told their publisher they wanted Robin to be its author. “To me they are all aspects of interconnected tissue. Everything connects. Everything I do is related, whether I’m talking about a Savile Row suit, a painting or piece of jewellery. The creativity of it is something that unites the reason.”
Robin informs me that next week his club will be the location for a rehearsed reading of Park Bench, his latest creative collaboration with the playwright and director Antony Zaki. Robin has worked with Antony for many years as his script advisor and is stage director for the rehearsed readings. “We’ve had some amazing actors work with us, like Simon Callow and Frances Barber. This time we have Issy van Randwyck and Eve Ponsonby.”
A wonderful creature
Robin has been able to call upon a host of professional writers and performers to his various literary events at Home House, including the legendary actress Fenella Fielding. “And the one I miss so much was the mad, crazy dandy, Sebastian Horsley. He was a painter, poet, mad as you like, but a wonderful creature. Filth was his middle name and he revelled in it.”
While Horsley would open proceedings wearing “a ruby red velvet suit and a sneer”, former boxer Chris Eubank opted for country tweeds to recite Shakespeare. “Chris gave me a spin around Portman Square in his juggernaut, tooting all the way,” roars Robin. “I mean, really, you could hear it in Tooting.”
This, he says, is a building with a life of its own. “The thing about a place like this is it’s living,” says Robin. “I always say that she is breathing. It’s very fanciful to say this, but I just feel the presence of her.”
That twinkle in the eye returns. “If you get her, she gets you,” he sighs. “But I’m so partisan, because if you’re in love with something to this extent it’s very difficult to find fault. She never loses her fascination. But really, I owe everything to Home House, because she’s been a haven, a home and my writing place. She is to me mesmeric and magnetic. And I always call her ‘she’. I can’t call her anything else. She is Home House.”