Mark Birley

Proprietor of private members' clubs who established a luxury brand with Annabel's, Mark's and Harry's Bar

Monday 03 September 2007 00:00

Marcus Lecky Oswald Hornby Birley, club proprietor and businessman: born 29 May 1930; married 1954 Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1975); died London 24 August 2007.

Mark Birley had an unerring eye for the rightness of things: the shape of a room, the height of a table, the springing of an arch, the fall of a curtain and proper presentation of food. From his lofty perch – he stood 6ft 5in in his immaculately-cobbled shoes – nothing, whether a permanent or passing feature, escaped his glance.

It was this perfectionist perspective that made the private members' clubs he founded in London – Annabel's, Mark's and Harry's Bar principal among them – the finest of their kind in the world. And which made them last as long as they have. The Birley clubs have been the most sought after – for their setting, service and clientele – since the first of them, Annabel's, was opened as a night club in 1963. Collectively, they represented a grande luxe brand as impeccable as long-established names such as Cartier, Bulgari and Louis Vuitton.

At first, Birley had had modest ambitions for his first venture. He had worked in advertising, art-directing the Horlicks account for J. Walter Thompson in the early Fifties, and later for the French luxury-goods maker Hermes, while he and his wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, brought up their young family. In December 1961, he was offered the lease of the basement of 44 Berkeley Square, in Mayfair, by their friend John Aspinall. Upstairs at 44, Aspinall was restoring William Kent's exquisite Palladian interior with the collaboration of the architect Philip Jebb and the decorator John Fowler, making it the setting for the Clermont Club, gaming den for London's high rollers. It was a restoration project that set new standards for post-war London.

Accepting the lease of the basement, just two rooms deep, Birley thought of setting up a small piano bar. He took on Jebb as his architect, but did not invite the imperious Fowler on board, getting help with the decoration from the Peruvian artist Pedro Leito. Birley had all the talents to be his own decorator, or indeed his own architect, and when he invited collaboration it was with sympathetic partners. Jebb, like Birley still in his early thirties, had already done extensive interiors work in London, turning Belgravia houses into flats for Birley's friend Douglas Wilson. Jebb suggested to Birley that they should extend the basement as far back as 44 Hay's Mews by digging out the garden, involving the hand-barrowing of tons of London clay.

The nascent piano bar could thus become a full-blown night-club. It was named after Annabel Birley. The club has always been a striking spacial experience, at once intimate but theatrical. The visitor comes down the area steps, under a heavy blue and gold awning, and into a small lobby. From here a carefully modulated spinal corridor runs to the dance floor at the back, passing the Buddha room on the left side, the private dining room on the other, and the main bar and dining area.

Mark and Annabel Birley, one of the most glamorous married couples in London, attracted a raft of their upper-crust friends to be founding members. The club was an immediate success, and became a great meeting place for swinging London, but no one thought the place would stay open for more than a short period, still less for 44 years and counting. The Clermont and Annabel's made 44 Berkeley Square the grandest evening-out address in London. Sadly, Birley and Aspinall fell out in tumultuous fashion over Aspinall's wish to use part of the basement as a wine cellar for the Clermont. Aspinall recalled that the sole witness of their argument described Birley as red with anger and Aspinall white with rage. There remained a lasting chill between them, although the two men were, according to Aspinall, in friendly contact by letter in the years before Aspinall's death in 2000.

Birley's secret was day-to-day presence; being on hand to make decisions as Annabel's became established. As he told the writer Naim Attalah in 1989:

It's not so much perfectionism I'm after in the way I run Annabel's, as the way I think things ought to be. I just want to get everything right in the way I think to be best. Of course it is a matter of going on and for years and staying interested enough to try to improve things. I'm not good on committees. One of my failings is a lack of patience. I'm used to taking my own decisions... That rather autocratic way of running things has advantages and disadvantages but one of the main advantages is that makes for speed and makes your employees happier I think. They like somebody who can say yes or no.

At Annabel's, Birley never let things stand still. A private dining room was added, and a new bar. And all the time, under the watchful gaze of the superb maître d'hôtel Louis, staff remained discreet about the members' private liaisons. As the writer Candida Lycett Green recalled, everyone at the club was slightly in love with Birley

It's something about his elusiveness; the way he looks so inexorably sad; the way his suits are immaculately cut; the way his eye for a picture never falters and a certain wild bohemianism hovers in his closet.

That artist's eye, that sense of that lurking bohemianism, was Birley's heritage as the son of the portrait painter Sir Oswald Birley and his redoubtable wife Rhoda Pike. Sir Oswald was the favourite artist of the royal family, society figures, and of Winston Churchill, with whom he spent painting holidays. The Birleys were patrons of the Russian ballet. They had a Clough Williams-Ellis villa in St John's Wood, and Charleston Manor, a perfect small Georgian house near West Dean in Sussex.

Mark was educated at Eton, and spent one year at Oxford, where his future wife first encountered him, and was struck by his youthful air of languid self-possession. In London, they met again, and Annabel noticed Mark "swirling deb after deb" around the dance floor. They fell in love at Queen's ice-skating rink, were married in 1954, and their first son, Rupert, was born in 1955.

One of their first married homes was the exquisite Pelham Cottage, half of a hidden Georgian farmhouse close to South Kensington tube station. Mark took charge of the alterations to the house, one of his earliest collaborations with the architect Philip Jebb.

Birley and Jebb started work on a second club, Mark's, at 46 Charles Street, around the corner from Annabel's in 1969. Mark's is a hushed lunching and dining club, in a converted Edwardian townhouse. In 1975 Birley took a lease on a former wine merchant's shop at 26 South Audley Street, 200 yards northwest of Annabel's. Here, he and Jebb created Harry's Bar. The name came from the famous Cipriani hostelry in Venice. But, in Birley's view, his was a far more ambitious undertaking.

His Harry's Bar was to be a meeting place, a private restaurant for the special Birley clientele. The dining room there, he felt, was the most beautiful room he had created thus far. The special feature is its low seating, and the spacing of the tables, all to generate the feel of an alfresco meal. The opening of Harry's Bar was probably Birley's apotheosis, where he and his friends brought the Birley brand to its highest pitch. Afterwards Birley created George, another dining club, and the Bath & Racquets Club, a gentleman's gymnasium.

Birley was courted by many international associates who wanted him to take Annabel's international. There was a hotel project in Malta; approaches to create an Annabel's in Hong Kong, another in Mexico City; the Ritz in Paris asked him to set up an English bar. None of these projects came to fruition. And probably just as well, as Birley knew that the success of his brand depended on detailed personal supervision, something that would have suffered with any sort of international spread to his empire.

Birley widened his net from clubs to shops in London: an interiors emporium in Pimlico Road, in collaboration with the decorator Nina Campbell, in 1973, and Birley & Goodhuis, a cigar and wine shop, in the Fulham Road in 1978.

His son Robin added to the family brand when he opened his first Birley's sandwich bar in Shepherd Market, Mayfair. The business really took off when Robin launched branches in the City of London soon after, but from the first his menu of exotic, good ingredients, hand-assembled with edible bread, revolutionised lunchtime eating in London. It has been much imitated globally.

Mark Birley was a friend and patron of artists: his mother's contemporary Adrian Daintrey; the glass engraver Lawrence Whistler; and the portraitist John Ward. In 1983 Ward produced a triptych of the founding members of Annabel's to mark the club's 20th anniversary. Birley liked cars. When Annabel's held a members' raffle in the early days, the first prize was an Aston Martin DBS. In the 1970 World Cup rally, from London to Mexico, he co-piloted a Mercedes with the racing driver Innes Ireland. And they led during the early European stages, until their brake fluid boiled, the car became undriveable, and their race ended, Birley at the wheel, nosefirst against a roadside tree.

For all his old-Etonian bon ton corrrectness, Birley had something raffish, self-branding and up-to-date about him. His cars, all with an MBA number plate, could be seen parked outside his office or his house. His transatlantic social life meant he kept abreast of new trends in the Seventies and Eighties, sporting a Sony Walkman or working out with weights before either had become universal phenomena. Throughout these years, young men on the make in banking or property aped his manners in the hope of finding social prominence.

For the past four decades he lived at a series of houses in South Kensington: first Pelham Cottage; a house around the corner in Pelham Street after he and Annabel were separated (they divorced in 1975, when she married the business magnate Sir James Goldsmith); and Thurloe Lodge, opposite Brompton Oratory, his final home.

At Thurloe Lodge there was much work to be done. At first Birley perched in a small sitting room, and he and Jebb did up rooms in turn as money allowed. Jebb brought Birley back into contact with Tavener & Co, London's leading builders and joiners. The firm had done work for Sir Oswald and Lady Birley, and the brilliant Roger Tavener – part of the Beatles circle and brother and backer of the composer John – thus became the third generation of his family to work with the Birley clan.

In Birley's houses, as much as in his clubs, there were multiple reminders that he was the son of two artists. At Thurloe Lodge, in its well-set, square drawing room, he made a marvellous setpiece, where his hanging of Edwardian art was all of a kind. In its homogenous initial impact it was as arresting as any comparable drawing room in London: Sir Brinsley Ford's salon of Richard Wilson landscapes in Mayfair; Lady Diana Cooper's run of portraits of herself by Ricketts, Shannon and McEvoy in Warwick Avenue; or Linley Sambourne's room of his own drawings for Punch magazine, now preserved as museum in Stafford Terrace, Kensington.

Birley suffered a shattering blow in 1986 when his son Rupert disappeared while taking a morning swim while working in Lomé, west Africa. His body was never recovered. Birley organised an emotional funeral at St James's Piccadilly, where the singing of the Inspirational Choir made a heartbreaking occasion more moving still.

Towards the end of his life, Mark Birley was regularly in ill-health, and spent long periods in the Cromwell Hospital. He passed the running of Annabel's to his children Robin and India Jane, who did much to revive the membership of the venerable flagship. In June, the entire Birley fleet of clubs was sold for a reported £90m. The Birley brand had remained intact to the end.

Louis Jebb

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