Swellboy on… Mark Birley

Remembering the highly civilised – and basilisk-eyed – club owner as his possessions go up for auction

Image: Brijesh Patel

Sotheby’s has announced that it will be selling the effects of the late Mark Birley on March 21, and the news reminds me how much I miss this remarkable man. I remember the first time I went to his house, one summer afternoon more than 20 years ago. He was sitting on the terrace enjoying something alcoholic made with freshly squeezed peach juice, an iced jug of which stood (with a little muslin cover over it) on the table next to a box of the just-launched Cohiba Siglo I. It was a snapshot of civilisation: life well lived and all that. I have never forgotten it. He had an eye for detail that could also manage a basilisk-like glare of icy intensity; around Mark, one – or at least I – tried to be on best behaviour.

Mark was the living definition of what it meant to be preceded by a reputation. Although it is some years since he left this life, his continues to stalk the streets of Mayfair, where his son, Robin, has opened 5 Hertford Street – rapidly accepted as the ne plus ultra of West End dining, drinking and dancing clubs.  


Mark had very particular ideas of how things should be. I remember him being keen on reintroducing “the coffee man” to London restaurants. Apparently, this figure was a fixture at smart venues before the war. He would move between tables, preparing coffee according to some arcane ritual, as though it were a sacerdotal ceremonial concoction rather than the mass-produced muck served in gigantic cardboard cups with plastic lids that it has become. The only reason his house, Thurloe Lodge, managed to get along without the services of a coffee man was that it was run by his housekeeper, Elvira, who once when I rang to speak to him, told me that Mr Birley was unable to come to the telephone because he was “busy relaxing”.

It will be strange to see his things go to the highest bidder, and the star lots are such items as the taps and the tiepin rather than the more expensive paintings, as they give a flavour of the man and his flair for putting things together. Any description falls short, because the simple enumeration of the clubs he opened and the people who went to them, the personal tragedies and triumphs, will inevitably fail to capture his presence. I hope Sotheby’s has done a proper job with the catalogue, because – as far as I am concerned – Thurloe Lodge’s role as a laboratory of taste makes this sale as important as those of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1997 and Charlie de Beistegui’s Château de Groussay in 1999.


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