Lord Michael Pratt

Chronicler of Europe's great houses


Michael John Henry Pratt, writer: born Bayham, Kent 15 August 1946; married 1999 Janet Giannuzzi Savelli; died Bayham 3 September 2007.

Michael Pratt was a brainy buffoon, sometime stage-door johnny and enduring joke figure – above all to himself. For most of his life, he inspired merriment, affection, loyalty, envy and exasperation – and on one occasion even prompted a letter to Mary Killen's Spectator column about whether it was correct form to stand up when his portly figure strutted into the room.

Twenty years ago, in June 1987, this well-fed, well-dressed sprig of the aristocracy, usually to be seen – and heard – in the clubs of St James', at first nights and society weddings, seriously dented his playboy image by setting off alone to explore the most inaccessible areas of Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland.

Nothing about Pratt, then a bachelor rarely seen without a carnation in his buttonhole and a cigar at the ready, suggested a willingness to abandon the creature comforts of the western world or his regular haircut at Trumper's in Curzon Street. Indeed his subsequent presence in a blizzard at Zamosc in east Poland has the same improbability as the sighting, at around the same time, of the Mayor of Peking enjoying a nightcap at White's Club.

The purpose of Pratt's perambulations behind the Iron Curtain was in fact profoundly romantic. He was determined, at all costs, to discover the great country houses of the region, the castles and palaces which lay scattered across Eastern Europe like Sleeping Beauties, unvisited and unknown. Very few had been studied in detail and information about how they had survived under Communist rule was also patchy. Some had certainly become schools or lunatic asylums. The fate of many was unknown.

Pratt's qualifications for this heroic undertaking were actually better than most people imagined. His effervescent sociability masked a formidably erudite intellect and enquiring mind; which he had exercised some years earlier with a scholarly book on Corfu and the Ionian Islands, Britain's Greek Empire (1978). Close friends knew that he was as happy in the deepest recesses of the London Library as in the billiards' room at White's.

His interest in Eastern Europe dated back to his days at Balliol College, Oxford, when he first visited the region with five other undergraduates. Being brought up as the younger son of the 5th Marquess Camden at Bayham Abbey, a hundred-room mansion in Kent, stood him in good stead. "I know about the problems of big houses," he boasted, "the physical difficulties, getting the food to the dining-room, the heating problems, the cleaning problems. . ."

So far so good but there were many tribulations ahead. His first solo trip east – he saw 89 houses in three and a half weeks – was exhausting and isolating. He was in Brno, east Czechoslovakia, at the time of the British general election. "But I might have been on the moon. I didn't get the results for several days." Pratt's seven subsequent trips with the Vienna-based photographer Gerhard Trumler were equally tricky.

Pratt found the local languages "fiendishly difficult" and claimed his title made him "an object of suspicion". Living conditions were often appalling and he frequently sank back on the iron rations – marmalade and Kendal Mint Cake – which he carried in the boot of his dark blue Mercedes 260. Unexpected treats, on the other hand, were staying at the Three Ostriches Hotel in Prague and meeting a wine merchant whose uncle had supplied the court at Schönbrunn. "He immediately produced from his secret vault a wonderful sweet Tokay," Pratt recalled. "I've always been very, very fond of my wine."

Some officials may have distrusted him but the local people, old gardeners, butlers and footmen, were apparently delighted to meet this remarkable surviving English milord. Pratt particularly remembered a wonderful old man still helping out at the British embassy in Budapest. "He'd been trained as a footman at Esterhaza and was able to give me lots of photographs of life there before the war."

The fruit of these pioneering labours and many thousands of miles of travelling was the beautifully illustrated Great Houses of Central Europe (1992), still in print today. In spite of this worldly success and his marriage at the age of 52 to the beautiful Janet Giannuzzi Savelli, celebrated with a huge party at the Drapers Hall in 1999, Pratt soon slipped back into his leisurely but frenetic English way of life. He continued to wear suits with fancy cuffs, play bridge once a month with the same people, arrange exotic flowers and have his hair cut at Trumper's. "I've been going there since I was a child," he recalled. "Mr West, who used to cut the late king's hair, assured me aged five that he cut people's ears off if they wriggled. After which I sat extremely still."

During the years ahead, his scholarly self made regular appearances. In 2005, he launched Nelson's Duchy: a Sicilian anomaly with a party at the Italian embassy in Grosvenor Square and during the last year of his life, while coping with a serious heart condition, he penned an erudite introduction to the Blue Guide Southern Italy.

For all his love of fine food and wine, Pratt remained unable to boil an egg – "I was never taught to cook at Eton," he grumbled – but was a good deal more dextrous than some people might imagine. Knocking a valuable vase off a plinth at a recent Grosvenor House Antiques Fair he amazed those present – and himself – by catching it before it reached the floor. An irreplaceable figure in an increasingly monochrome world, Lord Michael Pratt will be much missed, even by some of those he insulted and upstaged.

Andrew Barrow

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker