Peer who mixes purple slippers and refined taste

Times change, but Lord St John keeps an eye on the past
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Once a minister, always a minister. Lord St John of Fawsley long ago exchanged the role of a Cabinet minister for the less exacting and considerably less powerful role of chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission. Psychologically, however, the change of lifestyle may not have registered.

As the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster relaxes at home in his purple slippers, embroidered for him with his coat of arms by Lady Palumbo, Lord St John might take "papers" from a ministerial style red leather box, even though now the box is more likely to contain a letter from the Georgian Society about a balcony extension than a private memorandum from Margaret Thatcher.

He may, of course, peruse the less than confidential documents as he motors in to the pounds 280,000-a-year Royal Fine Art Commission offices in St James's Square, near Piccadilly in central London. With the pounds 29,000 of public money allotted for a "suitable" car for him each year, there will be ample room for both the 67-year-old peer and his box.

The commission used to share offices with the Museums and Galleries Commission in St James's Square; but the MGC moved out not long ago, muttering about high-handed attitudes from their co-tenants. The story is told of the executive lavatory, for use by the chairmen and senior officials of both commissions. One day, however, humble commissioners arrived to find the lock to the toilet had been changed, and Lord St John had the new key.

Lord St John, who manages the rare feat of being a good friend of both the Prince and Princess of Wales, is also one of Britain's leading Roman Catholics, yet can become as exercised over the thought of a Ferris wheel on the banks of the Thames as a pronouncement from the Vatican.

He has used his royal connections well to boost the profile of the commission, which was desperately low before he arrived; and he has been rewarded with an extension of his chairmanship for another three years.

His words do not always carry weight. From his chairman's office he denounced the Millennium Ferris wheel project as "wholly unsuitable"; but his views were rejected.

But while Lord St John gives the appearance of ruling the commission in a feudal manner, the real substance of the commission's work is achieved with some effect behind the scenes and behind this outward show of pomp.

Sandy Nairne was a key official at the Arts Council before moving to the Tate Gallery as an assistant director. He has had many dealings with the RFA commission in both roles.

He says: "Only in England could you have such a body. It has statutory powers to exist. But it has no powers to get anything done. It's very odd.

"However, the positive side is that you do get a bunch of intelligent people putting their minds to whether a new building is good or desirable, and looking at it from the point of view of aesthetics.

"And it's not just buildings. They have pronounced on the new telephone boxes and the new passport. Lord St John is a public figure in his own right, but he is also surrounded by good officials.

"When they do voice concern - on say a new shopping centre - it can cause local authorities to think again. It's an oddity but it has had a demonstrable effect on the improvement of architectural standards in this country."