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 BarrowReuse content