Family Values: At home with Bunny, Sandy and Alan
Aesthetes, socialites and flamboyant bachelors, the Roger brothers collected art and fashion to assist their biggest production - themselves. Now their props are up for auction. By John Windsor
Saturday 24 January 1998
the course of a board meeting of the family telecommunications business, to which he had been summoned by his father, the granite-hard, self-made Scottish tycoon Sir Alexander Roger, in the forlorn hope that he would take an interest, Bunny's hair was seen to change colour from brown to blond. Board members were incensed. Sir Alexander was apoplectic. Bunny was cock-a-hoop.
Christened Neil Munroe Roger, Bunny was the most eccentric of three bachelor brothers whose furniture, antiques, artworks and clothes from two mansions - Dundonnell, on Loch Broom, Scotland, and in Addison Road, Holland Park, London - are being auctioned by Sotheby's in a bumper 1,600-lot, three- day sale, next Wednesday to Friday. It is expected to raise pounds 1.5m - a reminder of an era when money could buy the luxury of behaving as one pleased.
The exotic mauve catsuit with egret feather headdress that Bunny wore at his "Amethyst" 70th birthday ball in 1981, and the sequinned "Ball of Fire" costume in which, a decade later, he emerged through fire and smoke to the applause of 400 guests, are each estimated at pounds 300-pounds 500 in the sale - just two lots among his exquisitely tailored suits, collectables and camp accoutrements that are the remains of a life seemingly dedicated to a stylish re-enactment of the Oedipus myth.
Bunny, who founded the Neil Roger fashion house in 1937, invested in Hardy Amies and sold out lucratively to Debenhams in 1973, died of cancer last year, aged 86, having partied until a week before entering hospital. He still weighed a trim eight stone and had a waist measurement that, he said, was the same as Princess Diana's.
His father, whom he despised, was spared the Amethyst outrage, having died in 1961. But he was still hale enough to explode with anger when, in 1956, the People newspaper carried an expose with pictures of Bunny's New Year fetish party at his London home, at which men wearing leather bondage gear and high heels led women on the end of chains.
Lady Roger attempted to soothe Sir Alexander by marvelling that a man could spend an entire night in high heels. Whereas her husband had had no shoes at all as a boy in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, where he sang for pennies, Helen, Lady Roger, was the daughter of a mayor of Leith in Lothian, where, presumably, shoe fetishism is less uncommon.
"The boys" - Sandy, the youngest, Alan, the eldest, and Bunny in the middle - clung to their mother, and to each other, throughout their lives. She was a stunning beauty and a matriarchal dominatrix of mythic scale. She collected papier mache furniture and turned her sons into aesthetes. It is to her that their queenliness - particularly Bunny's - must be attributed, though some credit should be given to the vigorous regime of Loretto School, Edinburgh, which Sir Alexander thought would turn his boys into men.
Sir Alex did not always get his way. When Bunny asked for a doll's house as a reward for being selected for Loretto's junior sports team, he got it. At the age of six, for reasons that one cannot begin to fathom, his mother and father had given him a fairy costume with diaphanous skirts and butterfly wings. As parents, they were a transvestite's dream.
All three boys went to Oxford. During the vacations they invited exotic friends to lavish parties at the big country houses that their parents rented. One house had 14 servants. Both parents had the partying habit - they were indefatigable socialites while on business trips abroad.
Bunny, by then an established roue, was sent down from Oxford, where he was known as a "beauty", after being accused of homosexual practices. He later mixed with Terence Rattigan and Freddie Ashton's set, derided by Evelyn Waugh as "lesbian tarts and joyboys". During a memorable summer holiday in Toulon, attended by the artist Edward Burra and the playboy-photographer Brian Howard, Bunny refused to sunbathe so that he could mince magically down the Rade like a white Greek god.
The brothers' aestheticism took different directions. Both Bunny and Alan - who died three months after him - collected the work of Burra and other contemporary artists. But Alan, who served with MI5 in Teheran and Hong Kong during the war, before being posted to Hong Kong after the defeat of the Japanese to deal with re-settlement problems, acquired an enviable collection of Chinese ceramics, textiles and scroll paintings, which he commissioned. He also championed the now-famous studio potters, the Viennese Lucie Rie and the German Hans Coper, wartime refugees working in London. They made him garden pots for the bonsai trees he popularised in Britain and for his meticulously tended horticulture.
Sandy, the youngest brother, who alone shouldered the burdens of the family business and was the first to die, 18 years ago, turned his late father's office overlooking the Thames at the Temple into what was compared to the citadel of a South American dictator.
It was Lady Roger's dressmaking account at Fortnum's, together with a grudging pounds 1,000 from Sir Alex, that launched Bunny as a couturier. He draped his clients, who included Vivien Leigh, Princess Marina and the Lygon sisters, in the sort of flowing gowns worn by his heroine, Marlene Dietrich (he once plucked his eyebrows to resemble hers). Neil Roger gowns were both sexy and tasteful. He developed an acute sense of colour, and a feeling for the weight and fall of particular fabrics.
But his own taste, both in dress and home furnishings, was a camp send- up of masculinity. During the war, serving with the Rifle Brigade in Italy and North Africa, he claimed to have advanced through enemy lines wearing a chiffon scarf and brandishing a copy of Vogue. It was a joke that he enacted, in one way or another, throughout his life. His suits - he bought up to 15 a year, costing pounds 2,000 each - were of macho military cut for day wear: padded shoulders, fitted waists and narrow trousers without turn-ups. His overcoats sometimes had two tapering rows of buttons, Hussar- style, emphasising the slim waist. But, crowned with a carnation, Watson, Fargerstrom and Hughes's tailoring achieved a pernickety dilettantism that was unmistakably feminine. In the evenings, he wore suits made of gay brocatelles, silk velvets and satins. At louche parties at Dundonnell, kilts were obligatory and Bunny revelled in the male/female double-take.
Among the Regency and Victorian architect-designed Gothic furniture from Addison Road is a pair of pine hall chairs with backs carved as a bull and a goat, symbols of rampant male sexuality - and a set of 12 ebonised chairs covered in cowhide by Elizabeth Eaton: rural rawhide transformed into closet camp.
The pictures in the sale are evidence of an intimate involvement with contemporary art and artists. There are two still lifes by Eliot Hodgkin (1905-1987), whose work was bought cheaply by a small coterie of connoisseurs before the art market latched on to it. His Six Quinces is estimated at pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000, his Eight Pheasants' Eggs in Two Punnets, pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000. Hodgkin's meticulous photo-realism would have appealed to Bunny. But then, so would the broad, macho brushstrokes of Josef Herman (b1911), who gained fame by painting burly Welsh miners. Herman's Road to the Mountains is estimated pounds 800-pounds 1,200. Alan Roger supported the young Scottish artists William Maclean and James Hawkins.
That twilight world where the genders play tricks upon each another was a constant source of amusement for Bunny. When a taxi driver spotted him powdering his nose as he got out of his taxi and quipped, "You've dropped your diamond necklace, love!", Bunny retorted, quick as a flash: "Diamonds with tweeds? Never!"
The Roger Collection, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 28-30 January, 10.30am-2.30pm daily at Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-293 5000).
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