The barefoot aristocrat tells of life and lies: Tim Kelsey meets Lord Bath but fails to interview him
Longleat House in Wiltshire has been home to the Thynne family for 400 years. Even in the rain, it is spectacular. The late Marquess, who died last week, inherited huge debts with his title and founded Europe's first safari park to keep the Elizabethan house. Alexander, his controversial heir, has lived in the west wing since his birth in 1932.
Cuthbert, a retainer, took us to wait in the New Gallery. On the walls and ceilings were some of the murals that Lord Bath has devoted much of his life to producing. Each huge panel represents a different 'Age of History' in art. They are massive designs sculpted out of paint and sawdust in fierce elemental colours. The place reeks of oil paint.
Cuthbert had been instructed to take us on a tour of the murals. We went up the spiral stairs, past the 'Bluebeard' collection of paintings, one for each of his girlfriends. Lord Bath married his present wife, Anna Gael, in 1966, and she lives part-time at Longleat with their son, who is 18, and daughter, 22, and also in Paris. But he has never been secretive about having a number of what he calls 'wifelets' who share his bed from time to time.
Cuthbert dutifully showed us the bed, a four-poster with mirrors. 'George III once slept in the bed,' he said. 'The mirrors went up later.' This room is most famous for its Kama Sutra-type murals. In 1969 the then Viscount Weymouth opened the room to the public; two months later the police closed it.
Lord Bath eventually appeared, barefooted and wearing a multi-coloured cotton jacket and black jeans. 'I told you I wouldn't give you an interview,' he said.
'I know,' I said. 'I am here to ask specific questions only . . . I'd first like to clear up whether your father approved of your idea for a holiday village at Longleat.'
He wanted to show me a letter, and led us into his drawing-room through a pair of violet doors. This is where he does his painting and writing. Closed curtains shut out all natural light; there was a guitar on a chaise-longue (he once made a record called 'I Play The Host'), a chipped wine flask on the floor, and a battered Thermos next to a tatty sofa; the room is topped off by a word-processor and more murals, this time the 'Ages of Man'.
Lord Bath produced from the bureau a letter written by his father to Michael Howard, the Secretary of State for the Environment, expressing 'total support' for his son's scheme. He is infuriated that the press suggested last week that his father had died opposing the idea.
It is a grand project for a holiday village in woodland on the edge of the grounds, with a leisure centre encased in a large translucent dome. One village in the grounds is against the proposal, but, he said, '80 per cent of the local people support it'.
As he spoke, with great energy and enthusiasm, the estate's agent entered with letters for his signature - the first time he had signed himself 'Bath'. The letters were to Sunday newspapers, explaining that his father approved of the leisure project. He wrote 'Sir' on each until the agent reminded him that 'three of the editors are ladies'.
It is clear that the notorious Bohemian loves the house, and the business of running it. He has been directly in charge of the staff for several years, and Cuthbert said later that they firmly believe that the barefoot aristocrat is the man to ensure Longleat's commercial future.
I ventured a more general question: how does he rate his father's achievements? 'No, no. Can't answer that. Interviewing again. I'm trying not to put myself on the front stage.'
All right, then: are there any mistakes in the press reporting of his life? Yes, indeed. First, the 'misconception' that he had altered his name from Thynne to Thynn because he wanted to distance himself from the family. 'It was spelt without an 'e' historically. Sir John Thynne (the first Thynne, secretary to the Protector Somerset) had snob reasons for adding it.'
Second, it was wrong that he saw his father only twice a year. Relations were strained, he admitted: 'It was safest to keep a certain distance, but I saw him six or seven times a year.'
Third, 'it is a gross lie that I have to publish my own books myself'. Lord Bath has found it difficult to make the literary and art worlds take him seriously, but claims more success than his critics suggest. He has written three novels. The second he did bring out himself, but the first edition of his first work was published by W H Allen. The second edition he printed himself. His third novel, about the sexual exploits of a noble family (it helped rupture relations between him and his father), was printed commercially.
Cuthbert ventured that 'the books are very modestly priced'. Lord Bath interrupted: 'I found the suggestion that I was on holiday in France while my father was ill most offensive. I work very hard while I'm in France, painting and writing, mostly writing now.'
He is working on a 50-volume autobiography - he opened a fireproof safe to reveal dozens of his diaries - and has already written four volumes, covering his life up to the age of 26.
At 26, Lord Bath was leading the life of a conventional aristocrat: Eton, Oxford (philosophy, politics and economics), and the Guards. In 1952 he won the Army Officers' welterweight boxing title. But during the Sixties he became a sexual revolutionary, political philosopher (he still campaigns for Wessex regional autonomy) and full-time artist.
His art 'provides some keyhole glimpses into my psyche', he said. 'This particular room (the drawing-room) took two years. My way of working isn't to set myself hours. I'm just happy with working, when I've finished shopping or whatever. This is a lifetime's work.'
Time for a photograph. He agreed, on condition that he appeared to be an unwilling subject, rather than an 'interview-type' picture. He put his leather boots on, and stood, poised to enter, outside the door in the rain.
And so we concluded our meeting, with a warm handshake and mutual assurances that, of course, nothing approaching an interview had taken place during the past hour.
The funeral of the sixth Marquess took place yesterday at the family church at Longbridge Deverill. In accordance with his wishes, mourners did not wear black, the coffin was made of 'cheap materials' and there was 'no unnecessary expenditure.' A jazz band played Didn't He Ramble, a New Orleans funeral march, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
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