Lord Rayne

Property developer and philanthropist
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The Independent Online

Max Rayne, property developer and philanthropist: born London 8 February 1918; chairman, London Merchant Securities 1960-2000, life president 2000-03; Founder Patron, Rayne Foundation 1962-2003; deputy chairman, British Lion Films 1967-72; chairman, London Festival Ballet Trust 1967-75; Kt 1969; chairman of the board, National Theatre 1971-88; director, Housing Corp (1974), 1974-78; created 1976 Baron Rayne; deputy chairman, First Leisure Corp 1984-92, director 1984-99, chairman 1992-95; married 1941 Margaret Marco (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1960), 1965 Lady Jane Vane-Tempest-Stewart (two sons, two daughters); died London 10 October 2003.

It is very difficult to recall, except from reruns of Ealing comedies, what central London looked like immediately after the Second World War. It was not just that much of it was not there, the holes left by bombs sometimes so deep as to need a makeshift wall to prevent people falling into them. What was left was dirty, grimy brick alternating with peeling stucco; neglect, stretching back before the war to the Depression and beyond, created its own depression. Soot from coal fires and the smell of leaky hot water geysers added to it. Denis Compton and Bill Edrich enlivened the hot summer of 1947, but for liberty, equality and fraternity we had new watchwords, said Lord David Cecil, "austerity, utility and equality - harsh austerity, drab utility, envious equality".

The one man who took the lead in changing that aspect was Max Rayne. He saw that growth was the answer, and, at a time when it seemed an achievement just to survive, began to recreate all that the West End had once stood for. In little more than 15 years, by careful leasing and purchase, steadily improving what still stood, building where bombs had fallen and there was nothing, without fanfare or fuss he built up a secure commercial empire, based on property built or converted in the right place. He worked very hard, never perhaps so hard before or after, and he got his reward.

Over the next 40 years, through the Rayne Foundation, established in 1962, he was able to bestow some of the wealth and all the knowledge and experience he had acquired on an amazing number of good causes. They all had good reason to be grateful for his generosity, but even more for the advice and practical help that he gave. He had a wonderful gift for sorting out other people's problems, seeing the short, simple way of solving what had seemed intractable difficulties. He was much in demand, but never wasted his time on those who did not need his special gifts of insight and understanding. In all things, people as well as places, he stayed with what he had started.

Rayne's family were Polish by origin, and had arrived in London before the First World War. Like so many from Eastern Europe, they came to settle in the East End. His grandfather, a scholar of the Talmud, was reader in the synagogue, while his father was a tailor who began to build up a prosperous business. Max, the eldest of three children, was born just before the end of the war. His father had joined the Polish Army, not returning until 1922, and his son grew up with a sense of responsibility. He got a first-rate education at the Central Foundation School in Bow, and went from there into his father's business. In the evenings he took classes in psychology and accountancy, and then a night class in Law at University College London. He was 21 when the Second World War began, and went straight into the RAF. He became a radio mechanic, and so good at it that he was kept on the ground, envious of those whose lesser gifts allowed them to fly.

He was demobilised in 1945, and returned to find that his father's business had grown. It was now called Carlton Coats, and had its main outlet in Hanover Street. Max Rayne found that Carlton Coats owned the lease of the whole building there, but only occupied a small part of it. He decided to improve and let the rest, and from this small beginning his own career as a property developer began, ahead of the main boom and others who became his competitors. He was able to add 103 Mount Street to his holding, and then another building in Berkeley Street. More buildings, in Foley Street and Bruton Street, all south of Oxford Street, came his way. His growing holdings were consolidated in British Commercial Property Investment Trust, his main property company.

At this point his progress caught the eye of Sir Edward Gillett, surveyor to the Portman estate and adviser to the Church Commissioners and the Crown Estates. Rayne became increasingly close to him, and under his influence moved northwards. The Church Commissioners owned much of the area between Lancaster Gate and Marble Arch. Here bomb damage had been extensive, and several large areas had now to be rebuilt, not as the monumental Victorian mansions that had once filled the area but smaller and more manageable houses and flats. Rayne had an important part in the long process of reconstruction.

The Portman estate provided other opportunities further east. In 1955, he acquired and developed the whole of the south side of Wigmore Street behind Selfridge's, while Carlton Coats was established in a building opposite. There were several other projects nearby, including the renamed Robert Adam Street, where Rayne's own headquarters was built, in characteristically unassuming style. The New River Company, with its base south of the Angel, the Housing Corporation and several insurance companies were among others who benefited from Rayne's now practised eye for potential development. Cyril Sweett, the great surveyor, was involved in many of these enterprises, becoming a close friend as well. Rayne also ventured abroad, building the fine General Motors Building in New York in the late 1960s, and others in the United States and Canada.

These are only the most obvious of his achievements at this time. Everything that he did was costed and supervised down to the last detail. In1946 he had been fortunate to find in Cecil Elsom an architect who understood how to work to a tight budget, and that good design need not be conspicuous or depend on expensive materials. He also built up a team of contractors who understood these rules, and could work to time as well as budget. His business interests had now grown to the point where a holding company was needed to control them. He bought London Merchant Securities, a virtually dormant bank, as the vehicle. British Commercial Property Investment Trust became its main property subsidiary, and Carlton Industries Ltd was formed as its construction arm.

It was now that Rayne's wider career took off. He set up the Rayne Foundation in 1962, endowing it with London Merchant Securities shares, to give his charity a base, with Sir Alexander Killick as its first Secretary, succeeded by the congenial and enthusiastic Air Commodore Freddy Milligan, a close ally in all Rayne's good works. In the same year he became a Governor and later Special Trustee of St Thomas's Hospital, as well as a member of the council of its Medical School, an association that lasted for 30 years. He was also on the council of King Edward VII's Hospital Fund for London, and of the UMDS of Guy's and St Thomas's.

Many other hospitals, among them University College Hospital, the Burns Unit of the Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead, West Sussex, benefited from his generosity. He also supported medical research at the King's College Hospital Medical School and the Rayne Laboratory at Edinburgh, providing a new Department of Immunology at the Institut Pasteur in Paris and the Sheikh al-Rach Health Clinic in Israel. From 1966 he was vice-president of Jewish Care.

The needy and disabled were not forgotten, either, and the Variety Club, Nightingale House, Sunshine Coaches for disabled children and the Mulberry Tree Child Centre all came in for his discerning care. He was a founder member of Motability in 1979, becoming vice-president for life in 1996. For over 20 years he had a special affection for Chicken Shed, the charity that enables disabled children to take part with the able in theatrical performances. To begin with, it had no home, using church halls or any venue available, but in 1990 Rayne and his wife launched an appeal for a permanent theatre with such success that it was built and opened in 1993 at Southgate, north London, with the site provided by the local authority.

Rayne was chairman of the London Festival Ballet, 1967-75, "the best ever", according to its artistic director Beryl Grey, and with customary care he put Richard Eyre through his paces before appointing him as its director. Sir Peter Hall remembers with equal admiration and affection Rayne's chairmanship of the National Theatre board, where he dealt with a cast of colourful characters with unobtrusive firmness. He enjoyed his other forays into the performing arts, when Lord Goodman persuaded him to be deputy chairman of British Lion Films (1967-72) and Bernard Delfont in First Leisure Corporation, of which he became chairman in 1992-95. He was on the South Bank board from 1986 to 1992.

In 1966 Rayne became a governor of the Yehudi Menuhin School (and its vice-president in 1987), the Royal Ballet School and Malvern College, all of which he helped. The same support in money and sound advice was given to the Civic Trust, the Courtauld Institute and the National Art Collections Fund. He gave the Theatre Museum, threatened with extinction, the money needed to establish itself in Covent Garden. He liked pictures and sculpture himself - a fine John Piper hung in his office, and he had other modern and Impressionist pictures at home - and in 1964 he made it possible for the National Gallery to buy Cézanne's Les Grandes Baigneuses.

New educational ventures also appealed to Rayne. In 1966 he helped found Darwin College, Cambridge; he enabled the College of Estate Management to move to Reading University, and assisted St George's and St Catherine's Colleges at Windsor and the new Southampton University. He was a governor of the Centre for Environmental Studies (1967-73), an honorary fellow of Darwin College, University College, Oxford, and King's and University Colleges, London, the London School of Economics and the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Psychiatrists, and made an honorary LLD of London University in 1968. He was knighted in 1969 and made a life peer in 1976; he was appointed Officier of the Légion d'Honneur in 1987.

Unlike other great benefactors, Rayne did not like to see his name inscribed in large letters on the buildings and institutes that he supported. This was not due to any false modesty; he preferred to get on with what needed to be done without fuss. When the London Library was in sore straits in 1971, he carefully examined its building and needs, and then gave it the money to build up an endowment on which its subsequent success has depended. More recently, when the need for more space became evident, his advice pointed the way for the library to expand.

He remembered his old friends, and helped Rowley Atterbury, also ex-RAF, build the Westerham Press, which pioneered new techniques in colour reproduction, raising it to new heights. There too the first book ever to be computer-set, by Colin Barber's Rocappi system, was given typographic form, followed by the first Bible similarly set. Others were assisted as sympathetically and effectively as any of the institutions with which he was connected.

Despite all the great things that he did, Rayne remained an essentially humble person. Always neatly and elegantly dressed (he was his father's son in that), he was to be seen on the edge rather than in the centre of the photographs of opening ceremonies. He knew his own faults. His simple and direct mind was not given to humour, though he could sum up a discussion with terse wit. He worked others, as well as himself, far too hard, but he would be overcome with remorse if reminded of this. His first marriage suffered from this, and his second prospered because he could by then relax a little; his affection made his two families one.

Max Rayne has left a great mark, in Britain and abroad. Some of the buildings that he created will be a memorial to his skill in renovating a damaged London, and making it as prosperous as it is now. But his real monument lies in the vitality of the countless organisations that he brought into being or enabled to achieve new success. They will always remember him, and the many more that they help in so many different ways owe him as much.

Nicolas Barker