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19th Century European Paintings

Jane, Lady Abdy – Belle of the London Art World

Hugo Vickers is a writer, broadcaster and the biographer of many figures in British society, politics and royalty. He was also close friend of Jane, Lady Abdy, whose outstanding collection of art goes on sale in our online auction, La Belle Epoque: 19th & 20th Century Pictures. Here, Vickers remembers the vibrant circles she moved in, and lessons she taught him on collecting. 

Jane died at the age of 81, just before Christmas in 2015, at her London home, 8 Pelham Place, famous as the London home of Cecil Beaton from 1940 to 1975. Here she recreated an atmosphere of serenity over which she presided with considerable elegance. She was a lady of rare quality. If Jane might have preferred to live in the Belle Epoque rather than the late 20th century, this would have been of no concern to her, since she chose her homes, her pictures, her clothes, her jewellery and her friends with equal care. It was a privilege to have known her for over forty years, to have attended her dinner parties, occasionally accompanied her on interesting expeditions and to have enjoyed private views and informal visits at her Bury Street Gallery where, many years ago, I bought two Helleu drypoints. It would be easy to present her merely as a lady of fashion living in the heart of London society, with a good eye for pictures. That was of course the case, but the truth is more interesting. 

C-TYPE PHOTOGRAPH OF PAINTING BY JAMES REEVE, JANE, LADY ABDY. ESTIMATE: £100—200. 

This was not her original world. She was born in Leicester, the daughter of Dr John Henry Noble and his wife, Grace, of 119 Loughborough Road.  She was educated at Wycombe Abbey and later went up to Somerville College, Oxford, where she read English.  When she graduated in 1955, she worked in London as an assistant selling Old Master paintings. It was there that her life changed when she met Sir Robert Abdy, 5th baronet, himself an art dealer and a man whose father had owned considerable dockland property in London. Once his eye fell upon her, her life changed. As one friend said: "He created the mise-en-scène for her and she fitted into it perfectly."

Bertie Abdy was an unusual man. Cecil Beaton described him as the "most retiring of men."  He courted anonymity, and was surrounded by a small group of friends who loved him for his peculiarities.  His father hated anything to do with the arts, but he loved art from the age of 10. He collected Fragonards and Renaissance bronzes, and was instrumental in introducing Degas and Kokoschka to Londoners. He advised rich collectors such as Chester Beatty and Calouste Gulbenkian, and was consulted by dealers such as Wildenstein, Seligmann and Partridge.  Later he bought a bronze torso by Henry Moore for his water garden at Newton Ferrers in Cornwall and became a friend of the sculptor.

CECIL BEATON, SCULPTURES BY SARAH BERHARDT. ESTIMATE: £1,000—2,000. 

Jane was his third wife. Following their marriage in 1962 – he was 66 and she was 28 – Jane assisted Bertie as an art dealer. Unlike him, she was a astute businesswoman, with a well-trained eye. In her own right she became close friends with Cecil Beaton, Anne, Countess of Rosse, Kenneth Clark and Diana Mosley. The Abdys divorced in 1972 but she continued to look after him until his death in 1976.

As a lone figure, she ran the Bury Street Gallery in Mayfair, and entertained in her house in Gerald Road.  Like Cecil Beaton, and unlike Nancy Lancaster, she was keener on elegance than comfort, the drawing room dominated by a large Winterhalter of Grand Duchess Constantina Nikolayevich in blue crinoline and lace. In 1990 she moved to Cecil Beaton’s house, 8 Pelham Place and stayed there for the rest of her life.

PAUL CÉSAR HELLEU, A PORTFOLIO OF NINE PRINTS. ESTIMATE: £500—700.

She loved the Belle Epoque and dealt in works by Helleu amongst others. There are several beautiful Helleu drypoints in this auction and, if not deep in school fees, I would bid for these. Jane sometimes bought for the Royal Collection, as an anonymous bidder.  She taught me how to bid. She waited for the bidding to settle down. She did not rush in with paddle on high at the beginning. More than once, I watched her bid successfully with supreme efficiency and absolutely no fuss. The paddle went up and the hammer came down. She was the kind of art dealer who created a market for pictures she herself genuinely loved.

JAMES TISSOT, ENTRE LES DEUX COUER BALANCE (WENTWORTH 30). ESTIMATE: £600—800. 

I shared with her a deep love of the Belle Epoque and first met her in 1975 when researching a book about Gladys Deacon, Duchess of Marlborough, who had lived in the heart of that world. Jane was a great encourager of her friends. I believe her to have been a good judge of character so it is flattering to have been considered her friend. She appeared nervous and shy, but there was considerable strength and resolve beneath that veneer.

RAMÓN CASAS, PÈL & PLOMA. ESTIMATE: £2,000—3,000. 

These contradictions make me wonder which way round things were. Did Bertie Abdy perhaps rely more on her, than she on him? Although she went to large parties, I never felt she enjoyed them. Idle social chatter was not her thing, though she liked discreet, well-informed gossip. I think on balance she preferred a good intelligent conversation.

Discriminating collectors could do worse than to inspect the works now on sale with care. Like their owner, they represent a world of elegance and calm, not always to be found in the fast moving world of 2016. 

La Belle Epoque: 19th & 20th Century Pictures Online sale is open until 12 December

MAIN IMAGE: FRENCH SCHOOL (19TH CENTURY), ONE PAINTED NOTEBOOK COVER AND ONE SET OF FOUR WALLPAPER DRAWINGS

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