Swellboy on… talent and temperament

An Hermès legend proves that nice guys can finish first

Image: Brijesh Patel

Occasionally I get a vicarious feeling of pride in another’s achievements or good luck: the signature on a painting, the amassing of a spectacular fortune or the propitiously profitable sale of a house. I am human (at least from time to time) and I am far from immune to the sense of envy that Gore Vidal captured so lucidly with the oft-quoted epigram, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” But I have sometimes come into contact with people whose success I find it almost impossible to resent, simply because they are so talented and so nice with it.

I have reached the conclusion that talent is a reason to behave well and not an excuse to behave badly. Once at a dinner someone, a highly gifted individual of whom you will definitely have heard and might even know, started copying my voice with an unmistakable (he is a talented mimic) and unpleasant, if not downright vicious, accuracy. It took me right back to the first days of my public school career in the 1970s, and I wondered why someone who has enjoyed so much success needed to act like this.

You see, talent rarely has anything to do with the person who possesses it. Of course, there is the parable of the talents in the gospel of Matthew to be considered, and one has to work to elevate a talent from the level of a proficiency to an art, but one has to have the talent in the first place – which is why they are known as gifts. This is equally true whether one believes that talent is God-given or merely the result of a godless genetic accident. The truly gifted individual has the talent, has had the good sense and application to work at it, and is also blessed with the humility that comes with the recognition of their good fortune.

The thought came to me as I was arranging a particularly agreeable Hermès scarf over the screen of my new Sony computer. This quad core, touch-screen, 3D, sizzlingly fast piece of kit functions at a level that is way beyond my means. It is a little like needing a shopping trolley and going out and buying a Ferrari: certainly not cheap, probably not necessary, but gratifying nonetheless.


Anyway, this sacerdotal object of veneration sits on my desk, and to protect it from dust, I drape it with an Hermès silk scarf (I lost the opaque plastic sleeve that was part of the packaging and grabbed whatever came to hand as a stand-in). While arranging the pleasing, polychromatic, quadrangular scrap of cloth, I caught sight of the signature of Henri d’Origny, and this cheered me up immensely.

Origny is a languid legend who has worked at Hermès for more than 50 years, having impressed Robert Dumas, the father of Jean-Louis and grandfather of the current artistic director, Pierre-Alexis Dumas. I have seen him sketch horses and people with an ease that is almost magical, and his scarf designs, frequently symmetrical arrangements of equestrian accessories, always appeal to me. I wear them wound around my neck as cravats or as bandanas when cycling.

But it is his courtesy and friendliness that is most striking, as well as his self-deprecating humour; I always enjoy an object much more and understand it a little better if I know and like the person who made it. And it is hard to dislike Henri. He once explained how he came to forsake the artistic life for a full-time job: “As I am a civilised man, in other words unbelievably lazy, I asked if I could be an employee.” The fact that the Dumas family spotted a genius and wanted to secure his talents was, if you believe him, nothing to do with it. As it happened, he went on to invent the Hermès tie and design some of the brand’s best-selling watches – while maintaining a sort of offhand elegance of manner.

It is one of the privileges of toiling in the salt mines of the luxury world that from time to time I am brought into contact with such people, and it is a source of great satisfaction that when I venture out of my house muffled against the cold to clamber aboard the Pashley and pedal off to the West End, my throat is warmed by one of Henri’s designs.


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