David Snowdon is Honorary Chairman, Christie’s EMERI (Europe, Middle East, Russia and India). He is a craftsman who founded the bespoke design, furniture and cabinetry firm LINLEY. His father Antony Armstrong-Jones became the 1st Earl of Snowdon after he married Princess Margaret, the sister of Queen Elizabeth II, and David was styled as Viscount Linley. When his father died in 2017 David Linley became the 2nd Earl of Snowdon.
Why did you become a furniture maker?
Both my parents were very involved with the arts, and one of the many visits I made with them when I was quite young was to the Marlborough House Workshops, who repair and restore royal furniture and pieces. The curator showed me this beautiful mechanical David Roentgen desk in the royal collection, with secret drawers that pop out, and in this case the piece not only popped out but knocked the curator over! As a child I was amused that furniture could have magic and powers beyond itself, and I still am today. My father repaired his Aston Martin car and Triumph motorbike himself, so I come from a let’s see if we can mend it attitude, and then let’s see if we can make something. He encouraged me to make toys and we were always making something in the house.
Were your parents very active intellectually?
They had a very wide circle of friends, people like Jacqueline du Pré the cellist, and Patrick Procktor the artist who did a watercolour of my father and I after he was photographed. My mother was very well read. She devoured books and did The Times crossword by the time she came out of the hairdresser in the morning.
Was your father tough with you?
He was resigned to his son not being good at school, but one of his own reports had said, “He may be good at something, but it’s nothing we teach here!”
One has the idea of a rather pompous childhood?
Sometimes I was in huge houses, and palaces and castles, where there is a definite way to behave.
Who teaches you that way?
You work it out for yourself.
Were you close to your grandmothers?
They both took me to see things, and my father’s mother, the artist and stage designer Oliver Messel’s sister, would come to my bedroom to see what I had collected. She started the Victorian Society in London, and I was named after Linley Sambourne House at 18 Stafford Terrace which you can go and see as a museum. You book tickets through the Leighton House Museum, for which I am now an ambassador, so there is still a family link to the house.
Do you feel that you had a normal childhood?
Completely. We had great fun and lots of friends. But it is also true that once when I was on holiday with friends on the Île de Ré we had got the wrong day, and I should have been on a plane to go and stay with my mother and her sister. When we came in from shrimping there were gendarmes around the house wondering where I was!
“I was appointed vice-president of The Prince’s Foundation this year and it is very gratifying.”
LINLEY Macassar Ebony Desk. With no less than nine secret compartments, the desk was designed to conceal important documents, a bespoke humidor and safe. It uses rich Macassar ebony with polished nickel beading alongside walnut, sycamore and Santos rosewood inlay.
Was your family supportive of your furniture making?
Both parents supported everything I did, and my grandmother the Queen Mother came to my shop when she was 93. I go from workshops to palaces, both are my life.
I was born Armstrong-Jones, then I was Viscount Linley, then the Earl of Snowdon. Now I am David Linley when I am in the shop, and David Snowdon when I am at Christie’s.
Is your life today much concerned with charity work?
Since 2017 Prince Charles, the Marquess of Salisbury and I are patrons of QEST (The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust), which was established by The Royal Warrant Holders Association in the 90th year of the Queen Mother’s life. Members of the association can state that they are suppliers “By Appointment” to the royal households, whether to the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, or the Prince of Wales, and they all give something back by making apprenticeships for training craftspeople.
Is the Prince of Wales a big supporter of craftsmanship?
I was appointed vice-president of The Prince’s Foundation this year and it is very gratifying. Prince Charles rescued the house and contents of Dumfries House, a Palladian country house in East Ayrshire, Scotland, designed by the architect Robert Adam. Thomas Chippendale furniture had been in the house for 300 years, and through Prince Charles supporting heritage crafts locally they have rebuilt the society of the town. It is very uplifting and optimistic, and it is pushing against the tide.
Are you a friend of Prince Charles?
We have always had a good relationship because of our grandmother, the Queen Mother. He is very funny and we have had a lot of laughs together. He works very hard and identifies with so many things: cheese, farming, horticulture, trees, not just architecture. He gets up before everybody and writes all day, has no lunch, walks, comes back in at 6, goes back to his desk at 10 after dinner and works until 2 in the morning – listening to Wagner or whatever music he has booming out.
You were appointed Chairman of Christie’s in 2006 and were promoted in 2015 to be the Honorary Chairman of Christie’s EMERI (Europe, Middle East, Russia and India). What does it mean?
I travel the region, and I enjoy it and the different ways you behave among different peoples. You have to be aware of the sensitivities of what you can or cannot discuss.
Do you travel a lot?
Pretty much every month, but not every week. I am fastidious with my old paper diary and can see a month at a time. I like a scheduled life, but some cultures require immediacy so you don’t always know.
Do you also host many diverse people in London?
I am doing a series of lunches, and the people who come are all different and all characters. Art transcends borders and makes people friends. At Christie’s art is in front of everybody and collectors from around the world get educated about other countries.
How much of your time do you commit to Christie’s?
Almost all of it. It’s my base. I have an office there, from where you can also watch the bidding confidentially.
What is your modus operandi?
I propose ideas that don’t necessarily have immediate results, but promote Christie’s in the long term.
“Art transcends borders and makes people friends.”
Do you live in London?
Yes, and I have moved house in London many times. In Battersea I had a huge loft that I spent one and a half years doing up. It was a beautiful loft with big beams and a dining table for twenty-four, and a studio for my wife’s sculpture. But then we would all sit in the kitchen, which was tiny!
Do you still live there?
It was seventy stairs to the top floor, and when my wife fell pregnant we had to move to a normal house, which we didn’t like. We now live in an apartment in an Edwardian mansion block.
Do you still enjoy going to your house in France?
I love it as a place of freedom. It is in the north east of the Luberon, quiet and very unpopulated. I don’t go there very often because I am working most of the time.
What kind of a father are you to your two children?
I hope as good and kind as I can be.
As a nephew of the Queen what kind of relationship do you have with her?
She is amazing and loved and respected and still working hard. The red despatch boxes never stop, even at 92. We spent a lot of time as children with her and her family. We are all very close. She is phenomenal and intelligent and has seen so many things and people. She is still exactly as she was: incredibly well read, interested in people, always up to date.
Do you frequently ask her advice?
She follows us and finds out how we are and what needs advice or observations. She has a way of telling people things.
How is the royal side of your life?
You have to be careful and have the greatest respect for the family you come from.
Was your father freer?
He was deeply respectful. My father understood what he was married into. It is a strange combination.
Dumfries House was acquired by the Prince of Wales for present and future generations to visit and appreciate British craftsmanship at its best.
Edouard Manet (1832-1883) Lilas et roses, painted in 1882, sold for $12,968,750 on 8 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York in the Rockefeller Collection sales
Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) Untitled XIX, painted in 1982, sold for $14,262,500 on 9 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York in the Rockefeller Collection sales
Detail of LINLEY Macassar Ebony Desk.
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) Pomme, painted in 1914, sold for $3,972,500 on 8 May 2018 at Christie’s in New York in the Rockefeller Collection sales
The first AI work to be sold in a major auction, Edmond de Belamy from La Famille de Belamy, from the art collective Obvious, achieved $432,500.
“I look at each day as a positive and what I can do today to optimise it.”
Do you support a charity in your mother’s memory?
My mother died of a stroke when I was 40, and to say thank you I raise money for research for the Stroke Association. We set up the Princess Margaret Fund and it has grown quite big. I went on my bicycle from London to Paris and raised some money, but then we gave a party and raised six times the money in two and a half hours! I loved being around my mother. In the house were very interesting people from all walks of life, there was creativity and music. She played the piano by ear, and at Christmas she held the Sacred and Profane buffet and people would play.
Were your parents still friends after their divorce?
They were courteous to each other. Both came to my shop and both said hello to each other.
Was your father’s death in January 2017 unexpected?
He began to forget things, and then he forgot everything and that was quite upsetting. He is buried next to his father in a background of the sea and Mount Snowdon, in Wales, where I go to find out more about my roots.
What are you doing for your father?
I am looking at what we can do to keep a memory. His photography and design is very important and his archive is enormous. There are books of his work which are still relevant today that can be republished.
Did his royal marriage impede him professionally?
Yes and no. In his public life he did a lot for disability and design. He worked on Vogue, and designed the aviary at London Zoo. He was in charge of televising the investiture of the Prince of Wales and the background was grey, so to give colour he had everything painted bright red. He was always thinking about things, but he never talked about his work at home except for a story from the day. He did enormous research before a sitting, and got very nervous he would not get it right.
They say that you like old cars?
Do you have a lot of friends?
Yes, and I still have my friends from childhood and school at Bedales. I see them as much as I can.
Are you worried about your country?
I am a professional worrier. When you are making furniture you don’t know what it’s going to look like.
Is the British royal family a reassurance to this country?
Yes, and there are so many facets to the royal lives which I am outside of. My life is Christie’s. I don’t have royal duties and never have, I am only involved with charities. I am also an ambassador for the Landmark Trust, a lovely charity that restores historic buildings, architectural gems, and gives them a new purpose by doing their interiors in such a way that people can rent them for holidays.
What about Brexit?
Unwise to say.
And the future of England?
I look at each day as a positive and what I can do today to optimise it.
Are you a happy man?
Yes. I am a very optimistic person, very happy with life. At Christie’s I hear all sorts of new ideas. I like innovation and am gripped by artificiaI intelligence (AI). We just sold an AI painting for $432,500 and the estimate was $7-10,000. When I started making furniture we made the marquetry by hand and a saw. Now we can make it by laser and computer.
What is new for you?
I am collaborating with the artist Jonathan Yeo, and will launch a series of ideas. The first idea is a daybed. We are putting artificial intelligence to artistic purpose.
Images courtesy of © LINLEY © Christie’s ©2018 The Great Steward of Scotland’s Dumfries House Trust
ENJOY THIS INTERVIEW? SHARE IT WITH A FRIEND.