Viscount Linley: Del Boy at the palace

Flogging off Princess Margaret's cherished possessions has earned her son a fortune - and scorn

By Sholto Byrnes
Wednesday 01 April 2009 17:31

"The past two days have shown the deep affection in which my mother was held," said Viscount Linley on Wednesday night, after bidders at a Christie's auction had demonstrated their regard for Princess Margaret by coughing up a total of £13,658,728 for 800 of her possessions. If the large amount raised did indeed signal affection for the late princess, it is a sentiment not currently being extended to her son.

The 44-year-old is currently enduring some of the worst press he has ever received, as a direct result of his decision to sell off items ranging from plastic umbrellas to her prized tiara. It was done, he says, in order to pay the £3m death duties on his mother's estate.

Flogging off the Annigoni portrait of Princess Margaret was deemed particularly unseemly (it "beggared belief", said her biographer Christopher Warwick). The 1957 picture is a sister piece to the one of the Queen that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, and the fact that Linley was willing to let go of such a remarkable likeness of his mother lent credence to the accusation that he is the Del Boy of the royal family. Linley's father, Lord Snowdon, was said to be "seething" about the sale, and there was a bizarre moment when one of Margaret's children - thought to be Linley's sister, Lady Sarah Chatto - asked for the right to bid for the Annigoni. (In the event, it sold for £680,000 to a mystery buyer, possibly Lady Sarah herself, who promised to keep the picture in the UK.)

The announcement that one item was to be withdrawn from sale and donated to the nation sounded promising at first. Could this gesture counter the perception that Linley's behaviour was grasping and careless of his mother's memory? The public relations fiasco worsened, however, when the item turned out to be some iron railings which might have proved tricky to remove from Kensington Palace in any case.

The furore has been an unfortunate episode in the life of one of the few royals not previously known for being either gaffe-prone, a freeloader, lazy or stupid. Unlike his cousins Andrew and Edward, David Linley has earned a degree of public respect by keeping his head down, earning a living, and behaving - as much as possible - like a normal person.

But if Linley were a normal person, we would not be so interested in his mother's effects. That the news of the sale has generated so much coverage is proof that Princess Margaret's claim that her children were "not royal - their aunt just happens to be the Queen" never really fooled anyone. He may not be an HRH, but Linley is part of the Windsor soap opera, whether he likes it or not.

So why did he do it? "He's a commercial person: that's how he thinks," says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. "Originally I thought, how could he do it? But what were he and Sarah going to do with all this stuff? You've got to store it somewhere, you've got to insure it. And maybe he didn't like the Annigoni. Otherwise why would he have sold it?"

Linley certainly seems to need money. It is not the first time he has sold his mother's possessions. Her Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith went for £20,000 shortly after her death in 2002, and he made £1.5m from the sale of Les Jolies Eaux, Princess Margaret's home on the Caribbean island of Mustique, six years ago (property prices have risen so steeply on the island that if Linley had held on to the house and sold it now, he would have been able to raise more than enough to cover the death duties that prompted the Christie's auction).

Linley's furniture business is valued at £7.5m. The pre-tax profits, however, are rather smaller; in 2004 it cleared £163,000, and the previous year there was a £384,000 loss. The salary he draws is estimated to be only around £50,000. His father-in-law, Viscount Petersham, is said to have a £250m fortune. But it seems that wife Serena Linley has to share any largesse with a large tribe of female relatives.

Perhaps he hopes that his usual low profile will help the current brouhaha blow over before long. Compared with his rather raffish parents, the details of whose love lives continue to entertain (not least in the recent Channel 4 drama The Queen's Sister), David Linley has always been ordinary to the point of dullness.

As a child, the young David encouraged the likes of Frank Sinatra and Mick Jagger to pop upstairs from the Snowdons' parties to sign his bedroom wallpaper. But, by the time he was 17, he was living in less glamorous circumstances, forming a furniture-making collective in Dorking with two other students at the Parnham House School for Craftsmen in Wood. Later, he shared a one-bedroom flat above a chip shop. The passion for creating intricately detailed furnishings had developed in his early teens - at 14, he made a desk, and at 15, a chair - and was possibly inherited from his father, who was not only a celebrated photographer but also an inveterate gadget-collector.

At 23, he opened his first shop on the New King's Road (he now has branches in Mayfair and Chelsea), catering to those whose tastes run to ebony card boxes at £320 a go or £16,000 tables. A share in a restaurant chain, Deals, followed in the late 1980s. Even then, some criticised Linley, who had opened the company with his relative Lord Lichfield, for trading on family connections. Deals was later closed, but the chain enjoyed 10 years of business - longer, to be fair, than just the existence of royal burger-flippers could have sustained it.

Linley's name cropped up in the gossip columns, especially during the time he was stepping out with Susannah Constantine (she of the What Not to Wear duo), but the mentions were innocent compared to reports of the antics of his wilder kinsmen. Happily married to the former Serena Stanhope since 1993, and the father of Charles (six) and Margarita (four), Linley seems given to moving his family inordinately often (they have had 12 houses in the past 13 years), but has mainly concentrated on his business.

"He's a very modest guy," says a neighbour in the Pimlico Road, where Linley's shop is surrounded by other upmarket furniture emporia. "He's very well-liked, and not in the least pretentious." Last Tuesday, Linley's shop was serving drinks for the area's annual open evening. "As far as the other traders are concerned, he's popular because he takes part in these events just like everyone else. Although I couldn't see him on Tuesday," added the neighbour.

Linley was seen at his shop on Friday and said to be in "combative mood". But as Ingrid Seward points out, if the auction was a PR disaster for Linley, it may have had the opposite effect on the memory of his mother. "At least we now don't think of Margaret as this overblown, sad person she seemed to be towards the end," she says. "We think of her again as a beautiful young woman who had lots of lovely things." That's one positive way of looking at it. The other, from Linley's point of view, is that he won't have to worry about the school fees ever again.

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