Co-ordinated pair with the finest taste in decoration

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The Independent Online
"If thought appropriate, Lady Irvine would be happy to assist," Lord Irvine of Lairg wrote in a letter to Black Rod on 1 July last year.

He was referring to prospective tours of his newly renovated residence at which those with "a bona fide interest in historic buildings and art" would have an opportunity to look at the more than 100 works of art which he plans to borrow from the nation's galleries.

And Lady Irvine would apparently be happy to act as tour guide, something for which she is highly qualified, as the Lord Chancellor himself pointed out: "She is an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute in London."

The Black Rod Letter, as we might call it, emerged yesterday and provided yet another new twist in the long-running farce entitled The Refurbishment of the Lord Chancellor's Residence. It was proof that Lord Irvine had in fact approached museum and gallery curators with a view to borrowing their works of art more than a month before the House of Lords had actually approved the lavish pounds 650,000 redecoration of his Westminster apartments. The new fixtures and fittings are famously to include handmade wallpaper at pounds 300 a roll, silk curtains at pounds 20,000 and a pounds 3,000 Pugin-style lavatory which critics have dubbed "Lord Irvine's Throne". Such is the level of media interest in the renovations that a 24-hour security guard has now been placed on the apartments. This follows a complaint from one of the contractors that a journalist offered him a bribe to gain access.

"Lady Irvine and I have had a lifetime's interest in fine art," Lord Irvine wrote in his letter, and there is general agreement that his wife would have influenced his choice of artworks. And why not? Home-makers everywhere will be familiar with such a scenario, although perhaps not on such a grand scale. ("I know you like the Augustus John, darling, but I really do prefer the Landseer." "But darling, we've already got three Landseers. What about a Piranesi?")

The couple are known to fit their European holidays round the major art exhibitions and are keen collectors. "I envy the Medicis their taste and the sensible use of their great wealth in accumulating these treasures," Lord Irvine told The Independent last April. His own great wealth, earned as one of London's most successful commercial QCs, has been put to use buying the impressive collections to be found at the Irvine home in West Hampstead and their rural retreat in Argyllshire. Paintings by Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Sir Matthew Smith and Paul Nash adorn the walls, as well as a considerable number of works by Scottish artists. One dealer has commented that the couple "always drive a hard bargain". Lady Irvine is said to sell many of the paintings they acquire, constantly refining the collection. As well as her MA, which she took as a mature student 10 years ago, she has a degree in art from Glasgow University. The couple make "a fantastic team", according to an art-dealer friend. "He is very intuitive, the way he assesses pictures. Alison is both intuitive and trained. But he always buys within his means."


Lady Irvine is of course the former Mrs Donald Dewar and left her husband in the early Seventies for the then up-and-coming lawyer Derry Irvine. What is less well known is that Irvine himself was also married at the time their affair began. He had married Margaret Veitch in 1962 when he was 22 and she was 23. In 1970, when Irvine stood as a Labour candidate at Hendon North, it was Margaret who appeared at his side. When she divorced her husband in 1974, the co-respondent was Alison Dewar. It has been said that Irvine and Dewar didn't speak to each other again until 1994, when both were pallbearers at the funeral of John Smith. Irvine, however, has said that the two of them maintained a cordial relationship, especially as the two Dewar children were raised in his home. "Donald and I have met over the years on many occasions and had conversations perfectly harmoniously in the interests of the children," he said last year.


The name of Pugin has become inextricably linked with that of Lord Irvine. Pugin was the architect who oversaw the rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster after a fire in the mid-19th century and the Lord Chancellor's apartments are being restored in his original style. Born in 1812, Pugin equated good design with high moral standards and led a campaign for the Gothic style, which he considered to be an expression of a just and Christian society in contrast to the social ills of 19th-century industrialism. He was mainly responsible for the Victorian Gothic Revival and was a considerable influence on John Ruskin.


"He has never got over losing his children, it was a terrible blow," a close friend says of Donald Dewar, who was left behind in Glasgow with only his books for company when his wife took their two children and went off with the then Derry Irvine in the early Seventies. Dewar has never remarried and is generally regarded as something of a lonely figure. He never goes on holiday. "If you haven't got anyone to go on holiday with, what's the point in going?" he said recently, somewhat poignantly. He has been known to refuse dinner invitations on Christmas Day, preferring to stay at home with a good book and a plate of fish fingers. Such behaviour tends to bring out a mothering instinct in women. "They worry about him eating properly and remembering to get his hair cut," says a female friend.


Margaret Irvine moved to Canada in 1976. She lives alone in a hamlet 40 miles from Toronto, where she teaches children with special educational needs. Still bitter about the break-up of her marriage, she said recently, "I haven't spoken to my ex-husband since I left Britain. I've cut all that out of my life. I had to put him behind me. After the way he behaved, I wouldn't want to stay in touch with him. It still upsets me."


Lord Irvine is the Government's top earner, with a salary of pounds 142,508, which is pounds 40,000 more than Tony Blair. Twenty years ago, he became the country's youngest QC at the age of 37.