The endowment

When a discreet donor funds a new arts centre, will ego or distaste for vulgar ostentation win the wing-naming day?

Image: www.phildisley.com

"Anonymous?” mused Sir Henry Clive. “Or in my name?” He paced around his office. “The Clive Wing.” He lifted a putter off the coffee table and took a gentle practice swing, grazing the deep carpet with the head of the club and raising his eyes to watch an imaginary golf-ball plop neatly into an imaginary tin cup 12ft away. “Nice. But then again…”

The hallmark of Sir Henry’s long career in the diplomatic service had been calm and discretion: the gentle thud of baize doors, the purr of a Rolls, the chink of decanters. He had, in a succession of postings to Singapore, mainland China and pre-independence Hong Kong, established a murmuring entente with the top tiers of oriental officialdom; and after leaving the service his contacts there had enabled him to make a fortune in business.

Now his thoughts were turning to his legacy. Having fixed on a substantial endowment for the mammoth new Centre for Oriental Sculpture in Oxford, he had a choice to make. Ego pulled one way; but his distaste for vulgar ostentation – his toes curled every time he visited the National Gallery’s Onadugo Wing – pulled the other. No, it would have to be anonymous. People – the right people – would know.

And that, he thought, was that. Or it was, until the London Evening Standard landed on his desk a few months later. As he browsed its pages, the lead item in the “Londoner’s Diary” caught his eye. “Whispers reach me,” it announced, “that the mystery donor to Oxford’s new Centre for Oriental Sculpture is none other than the reclusive property tycoon Laszlo Lyle. ‘Laszlo has always wanted to give something back,’ says my mole. ‘But he prefers to stay behind the scenes.’” The reporters had approached Mr Lyle’s office to confirm the story, apparently, and been met with a discreet and gracious “no comment”.

The cheek! Sir Henry had a pretty good idea who this “mole” was. Laszlo flaming Lyle was who. A memory – Henry, aged 14, pushing the 13-year-old Lyle’s head into the cistern at Sherborne – flashed across his mind’s eye. But Sir Henry knew not to act in haste. One squib in a gossip column was tomorrow’s fish-and‑chip wrappings. But the story took hold. Several subsequent news pieces mentioned en passant that Lyle was thought to be the donor, and one actually referred to “The Lyle Wing”.  

Sir Henry could be patient no longer. He picked up the phone.

“Henry,” purred Laszlo. “How nice to hear from an old schoolfriend. What can I do for you?”

“One and a half million I spent on that centre, and you’re claiming credit for it!”

Advertisement

“Slow down, old boy. Not sure I follow you. Which centre?”

“You know damn well.”

“You mean this thing in Oxford? I did hear something about that, now you mention it. Someone approached our office. I never comment on these things. That was you? Very generous.” There was a smirk in his voice. Sir Henry hung up.

Could he ask the centre to put out a press release? Hardly dignified. A campaign of counter-briefing? Futile. The lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.

No. He had a better idea. Arrangements were made for a special exhibition. Sir Henry called in a lot of favours behind the scenes. The Chinese government loaned some pieces that had never before left the country and Wonders of Tibet, on its opening the following year, became front-page news. But not entirely for the right reasons. When the Dalai Lama – a peaceable chap, usually, but this really had his dander up – gave a disapproving interview to TheGuardian, that just about did it.

The centre was besieged. And, for eight weeks solid, the lobby of Lazslo Lyle’s Mayfair offices – pleasingly, visible from the car on Sir Henry’s daily drive to work – was blockaded by Free Tibet protesters waving flags, banging drums and chanting.

Eventually, Lyle put out a press release stating categorically that neither he nor his company had ever had any involvement with the Centre for Oriental Sculpture. The next day, a reporter got through to Sir Henry on his direct line.

“Sir Henry. We’re informed that you were the anonymous donor who endowed –”

Advertisement

“I’m sorry,” Sir Henry said, cutting him off. “We never comment on such matters. Good day.”

See also

Advertisement
Loading