06 Mar 2012

Norman St. John-Stevas, Baron St. John of Fawsley (May 18, 1929 – March 2, 2012)

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The Telegraph obituary of Lord St. John (pronounced “SinJin”) of Fawsley represents another classic of the genre, affectionately remembering the career of a delightfully flamboyant, yet reactionary, politician, wit, and scholar.

The Royal Fine Art Commission, of which he served three terms as chairman from 1985 to 1999, described itself as “the ultimate authority for consultation on matters of taste and aesthetics” — a remit which fitted Lord St John to perfection. Like Oscar Wilde, he put his genius into his life, affecting the flamboyant mannerisms of an Edwardian aesthete (proffering his hand in papal fashion, lapsing into Latin, deliberately mispronouncing modern words). At his Northamptonshire rectory he amassed an impressive collection of Victorian bric à brac and royal memorabilia, including photographs and mementos of the Royal family and a pair of Queen Victoria’s undergarments.

Irrepressible, witty and disarmingly immodest, Lord St John was an expert on much else besides aesthetics. In the 1990s, during the break-up of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, he became known for his frequent television appearances in which he would give the nation the benefit of his expertise on the attendant constitutional implications, a role in which he claimed extensive knowledge of the inner workings and private thoughts of the Royal family.

It was never entirely clear how much direct access he had, though he was certainly a great friend of Princess Margaret, whose framed likeness, prominently displayed behind him, graced many an official photograph. But that did not stop him assuring the nation that, for example, the young princes bore no grudge against Camilla Parker Bowles, or that the Prince of Wales was a loyal member of the Church of England with no intention of converting to Islam. When criticised for his willingness to pontificate on any royal issue, however trivial, he explained that his motivation was a “desire to do what one can to help the monarchy and help the Queen”.

In his role as Arts Minister in Mrs Thatcher’s first administration, Norman St John-Stevas was said to be one of the only cabinet members allowed to tease the Prime Minister, whom he referred to as “the Blessed One”, “the Leaderene” or (unaccountably) “Heather”. He liked to tell the story of how he asked to be excused from a meeting because he had a reception to go to. “But I’m going to the same function,” protested Mrs Thatcher. “Yes, but it takes me so much longer to change,” replied St John-Stevas. …

His time at the Royal Fine Art Commission was not entirely uncontroversial. The Commission had been a dozy quango which, for many years, could hardly even be bothered to produce an annual report, and it was hoped that his appointment would inject a bit of panache and excitement. It did, and he changed the public image of the Commission considerably. But critics accused him of turning it into a personal publicity vehicle (one annual report featured no fewer than six full-colour photographs showing the chairman striking one pose after another in the company of the great and good), and of allowing his own wayward preferences to take precedence over the views of the experts.

There was, for example, the affair of the Millennium wheel on the South Bank (now known as the London Eye), which was the subject of a blistering public attack by the Commission, even though at least three commissioners strongly supported the design. After a bad-tempered meeting at which Lord St John was reportedly rude to the architects concerned, the Commission’s secretary, Sherban Cantacuzino, wrote to the architects saying: “I am sure that he enjoys putting people down, all of us have suffered from his bullying.”

Problems magnified after Lord St John was elected Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1991. Academic politics proved highly diverting, and his frequent absences from the Commission’s offices in London raised eyebrows. In 1994 the government called in the retired civil servant Sir Geoffrey Chipperfield to examine the Commission. His conclusions were devastating: the Commission acted arbitrarily and was not respected, and the chairman’s office and car were over-lavish for a publicly funded body. Any other chairman would probably have had to resign, but Lord St John defied all predictions and was reappointed for a third term in 1995.

His time at Emmanuel College, from 1991 to 1996, was equally tumultuous. It was said that the dons of the historically Puritan institution first had doubts about whether they had chosen the right man when several of his friends were caught naked one night in the Fellows Garden swimming pool. While he certainly raised the college’s profile (albeit particularly in such outlets as House and Garden and Hello!), there was controversy on the high table over the lavish refurbishment of the Master’s Lodge and an expensive new extension to the college which some saw as a monument to the Master rather than a useful addition. …

Lord St John was also accused of spending an excessive amount of time with a small clique of mainly public school-educated young men who, it was alleged, were favoured with introductions to royalty and captains of industry, to dinners at White’s, private theatrical performances at the Master’s Lodge and long, affectionate letters. Such special privileges were extended to very few. Other undergraduates would recall the Master cutting them off in mid-sentence with some disparaging remark in Latin. To bitchy colleagues in other colleges, Emmanuel became known as “Mein Camp”.

Second only to royalty in Lord St John’s affections was the papacy. One of the rooms in his house was virtually a shrine to Pius IX, and in 1982 he published Pope John Paul II: his travels and mission. He himself was known to appear at official functions wearing the insignia of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Lazarus of Jerusalem (he was Grand Bailiff and head of the order in England and Wales).

In Who’s Who Lord St John described himself, somewhat superfluously, as “unmarried.”

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Rafal Heydel-Mankoo.

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