Mrs Thatcher, Christies Auction House
We interview the head of Christie's and get a sneak preview of the controversial Margaret Thatcher auction
The item is one of 350 lots from the former prime minister's estate, that will feature in the upcoming Christie's auction Mrs Thatcher. Taking place on December 15, the auction has understandably received a great deal of attention; not least because of the bitter family feud it has created. (Twins Mark and Carol Thatcher can no longer be in the same room, it is said.)
Thatcher's speeches, wedding gown, jewellery, dispatch box and, of course, great many handbags are all part of the collection. "What you get is the extraordinary insight into both the public and the private person" Christies' impossibly dapper Chairman Orlando Rock told Culture Whisper. "You're getting to know a historical character." The lots are indeed full of surprises, as we move away from the political and into the private: the title of the auction is, after all, the rather domestic 'Mrs. Thatcher'.
The V&A conspicuously turned down the collection, "feeling that these records of Britain’s political history were best suited to another collection which would focus on their intrinsic social historical value”. This snub (slightly surprising, given how conservative the museum is) caused uproar, launching twitter tirades and crowdfunding appeals from those on the right who felt the collection should stay together.
Christie's is a fine art auction house. Why does Rock feel that the collection belongs here? "We believe that she is an incredibly iconic and important character in the history of Britain. We sell and have sold since 1756 very interesting things that belong to interesting people."
Fair enough, but who does he think his market is? "Trying to predict these things is never easy. One expects to have quite a strong level of support from America and Asia. Of course the domestic market is the key market. I imagine half of this stuff will stay here and half of it will go to foreign buyers."
The collection is quite something. The first thing that strikes you are the clothes - and what clothes they are! Thatcher was the daughter of a dressmaker, and knew the importance of sartorial impact. Suits and dresses in riotous block colours, warrior-like shoulder-pads, shawls and capes and oversized brooches. Nothing black, nothing too feminine. Thatcher was a pioneer of Power Dressing; and even without their owner, these outfits ooze pluck and determination.
Thatcher's wedding dress is something of a surprise. Far from a traditional lace gown, it is in midnight blue velvet, with a plunging sweetheart neckline and matching cap, complete with ostrich feather.
Even today, it's pretty out there, and is based on a gown worn by the wild seductress Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire in Gainsborough's famous painting. The dress would have caused quite the stir in 1951; a boldness inconsistent with Thatcher's conservative politics.
The red dispatch box, Art-Deco emerald necklace, and famous Aquascutum raincoat worn to visit British Forces at a NATO training ground are undeniably fascinating. There's a huge and hideous bisque model of an American bald eagle, presented to Thatcher by her best-bud Ronald Reagan as a tribute to their 'special relationship'. There are letters from Gorbachev and Kissinger, invitations from the queen and drafts of speeches.
Perhaps the most interesting pieces, though, are the everyday oddities. The funny little porcelain figures of Churchill and the Duke of Wellington, the sewing kit, the handkerchieves, the surprisingly girlish taste, (Portrait of a young girl a spray of Iris wouldn't look out of place in the study of Dolores Umbridge.) Thatcher was a titanic political force, revered and reviled in equal measure. These mundane objects remind us that, beneath the iron will and colossal rhetoric, she was just a person.
However you feel about Thatcher, there's no denying that these objects are pieces of British history. We'll be following the auction with fascination.