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

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home