The Luxury Lap: A Portrait of Princess Margaret

The Transom is pleased to announce the appointment of Trevor Butterworth as its official correspondent on the luxury goods market of Manhattan. For too long, this column has turned its demi-Marxist nose up at $20,000 timepieces, rugs threaded with precious metals, and jewel-encrusted whatnots. Consider this attitude, as of right now, thoroughly corrected!

beaton The Luxury Lap: A Portrait of Princess Margaret
Lot number 542, Christies: Property from the Collection of Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdown

Dazzling though the diamonds may be, the most striking reminder of Princess Margaret now on display at Christies in Rockefeller Center is a smallish ivory-toned photograph, a copy of the photograph that is lot number 542. The photograph itself carries an estimate of £500-800. (The collection, formally called Property from the Collection of Her Royal Highness The Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdown, has highlights on view in New York through June 7; next stop is London, before the auction there on June 13 and 14.)

Taken by Cecil Beaton in 1965, the photograph shows Margaret, then aged 35, with her arms crossed, directly facing the camera. She has the look of someone who imagines herself the only woman in a world populated by adoring men. And she looks adorable: the spell of power and vulnerability is so utterly mesmerizing that it eclipses everything else in the room; Margaret is terrible and beautiful and proud and, in the arc of her life, already doomed.

She had started badly in the romantic department by falling for a decorated war hero, Group Captain Peter Townsend. She was, unfortunately, 15; he was, impossibly, twice her age, divorced and employed as equerry to her father, King George VI. Princesses didn’t marry the help in the best of circumstances, but marrying a divorced servant was tantamount to apostasy for a family who headed the Church of England. Over the course of six years she pursued, paltered and finally, when the stakes would have meant pulling a Duke of Windsor and abandoning royalty altogether, she faltered. Being a princess defined who she was, and she never let anyone forget it.

So Mags swung into the sixties by marrying celebrity photographer Anthony “Tony” Armstrong Jones (who, for the sake of some distinction, was elevated to the Earl of Snowdon). He had won her heart by not taking her seriously and by introducing her to the racy pace of bohemian life in London (she loved it all, except, not unreasonably, having to use an outhouse). He found it increasingly trying having to walk behind her in public. And within a year of the Beaton photograph, the marriage was effectively over. They had swung too hard, collecting a string of affairs between them, including, for Margaret, a lesbian dalliance with an American heiress – if a film released in Britain last year is to be believed. And there were spectacular fights.

“You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you,” Snowdon once bizarrely berated her, according to Sarah Bradford’s biography. By the early seventies, she had fallen for a naif hippie-cum-gardener, Roddy Llewellyn, who was 18 years her junior. The public was not amused—and neither was her sister, the Queen, when the tabloids caught the couple in flagrante.

Margaret and Snowdon were practically ordered to get a divorce in 1978—the first in British royal history since Henry VIII dispatched Catherine of Aragon. Llewellyn eventually left her a few years later, as a life spent chain-smoking and a liver marinated in Famous Grouse whiskey began to catch up with her. Margaret died in 2002, blind and crippled and, ultimately, disappointed in love.

poltimore The Luxury Lap: A Portrait of Princess Margaret
Princess Margaret, wearing the Poltimore tiara at her wedding.

The Christies sale is billed as the most significant collection of Royal jewelry to ever come to auction—a fantastic array of whimsy (the gilt hedgehog Margaret received from the Mrs. Henry J. Heinz III in New York in 1992) and opulence (the Poltimore Tiara, which can—transformer like—turn itself into a necklace and brooches). And when the hammer comes down on June 13 in London, the entire collection may raise up to ten million dollars

But the sale of these 896 items (the best of which is on display at Christies until June 7) has led to much anonymous carping in the British tabloids by “friends of the former Princess,” who profess that she would be aghast to see the treasures of her life dispatched at the auction block. The ailing Earl Snowdon is, according to the Daily Mail, “seething with rage.”

The ostensible reason for the sale, says Christies, is the Scroogesque 40 percent death taxes the children, Viscount Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto, will have to pay on their mother’s estate, which is valued at roughly 14 million dollars. Neither Linley, a gifted craftsman famous for his furniture nor Chatto, an artist, are particularly wealthy; but many critics in Britain seem to think they are wealthy enough to foot the bill. But if Margaret’s life is a reminder that, after so many convulsive years of Princess Di-olatory, history, for the house of Windsor, had merely repeated itself, perhaps neither child can bear in so many exquisite objects, the pity of so much glamour suffused by so much unhappiness.
Trevor Butterworth