Lord of the Isle: The Extravagant Life and Times of Colin Tennant Nicholas Courtney

Bene Factum, pp.264, £20, ISBN: 9781903071649

Two women are the only heroes of this book. One is Princess Margaret, whom the author points out was far more instrumental in the early years of Colin Tennant’s ramshackle creation of Mustique than merely lending it her unparalleled presence. Quite apart from insisting, after Tennant had fallen out with a slew of architects, that Oliver Messel — now synonymous with the island’s building style — become involved, she advised him on possible investors and operators.

She also stuck by him through all his quixotic irascibility. For his part, he flattered, feted, and fawned on this major star of his Caribbean fantasy. The other hero — or heroine —is his wife. ‘How wonderful Anne has been though all this,’ people say. Nicholas Courtney’s account of life with such an utterly selfish husband shows precisely how wonderful.

Tennant was quite clearly the most attractive, handsome, funny, odd, unpredictable and reckless creature of his time. And Lady Anne Coke, the beautiful and shy daughter of Lord Leicester, breaking the bounds of the sheltering stateliness of huge Holkham, fell once and for all for Colin’s raffish magnetism, his elegance, his knowledge and his unpredictability. Through thick and thin, through bastardy and treachery, through celebrity and celebrations, through physical cruelty and family tragedy, even for richer, for poorer, Anne remained Colin’s steadfast supporter and mainstay.

It can’t have been at all easy, however, or whenever, glamorous. Colin, richly born into ‘trade’ money, but distantly related to what remained of old Whig aristocracy, and closely to that hyper-intelligent, if slightly selfconscious ‘corrupt coterie’ the Souls, had inherited many of the latter’s traits; an amalgam of progressive thought, social-barrier breaking, classical knowledge and hi-falutin’ intelligence, mingled with class security and provocative teasing.

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This bloodline endowed him with searing intelligence, a steel-trap memory, profligacy, flamboyant taste and a fatal, for many, but specifically for Anne, enchantment.

Having lost his rag on the first night of their honeymoon, Tennant continued to lose it with anyone who disagreed with him, while charming those who didn’t. An early foray into developing his family’s holdings in the Antilles came to nothing, due to both these characteristics. However, the tropics enthralled him, and having built a substantial mansion in Chelsea for himself and Anne, he hit on the desire for a tropical island fiefdom — and quite soon found one for sale, albeit infested with mosquitoes. He blitzed it with DDT — after all, bugs can’t be choosers — and began to build a harbour, import workers and stake out plots for future sale.

Within a decade, Mustique had become the most covetable getaway for many rich and some famous — the most famous being in the hour-glass form of Princess Margaret. Having been given the most perfect plot on the island, the Princess, under cover of darkness, surreptitiously and sensibly extended the mark-out stakes — only to find, at dawn, the boundaries reinstated by Colin.

Her glamorous, if sometimes infamous, presence on Mustique lured the luminaries Colin needed; and the elaborate extravaganzas laid on for birthdays generated the notoriety he craved. But beneath these somewhat unreal revels lay the real troubles attendant on paradise. For all his show-off-manship, Tennant was a stranger to delegation; and one can’t but feel sympathetically sad when his dreamland began to crumble, and was inevitably taken over by more stable though less sensation-seeking administrators.

Moving to the nearby island of St Lucia, Colin tried with dogged — or perhaps elephantine, as he imported one, called Bupa — determination to manufacture another magic kingdom, but his ever-fallible judgment, frequent furies and failing health began to its toll. Throughout these years, Anne, despite the devastating death of two of her sons, and the late discovery of an older son of Colin’s by an early mistress, resolutely and bravely flew to his side, for the pleasures and unpleasantness Colin could still dish out in unequal measure.

More was to come. At the uncrating of Bupa, Colin noticed her immediate affectionate response to a young, illiterate St Lucian boy. Angrily dismissing two mahouts who had travelled with their huge charge from India, Colin installed Kent Adonai as the elephant’s chaperone, and gradually as his own. Soon Kent was assisting at every level with the administration of various St Lucian ventures, joining Colin on visits to London and Glen, the Tennant family home in Scotland, to Italy, and to India.

The family sighed with relief; Kent could calm Colin’s infuriated outbursts and rein in his extravagance. By now gradually toothless, and seemingly more clawless, he appeared resigned to an old age passed between the twin peaks of the Pitons, more genial to associates, fonder of his family, his collected treasures around him. The shock that at his death he left nothing to any member of that family, including Anne, was profound; more unfathomably, he had willed everything to Kent Adonai.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. As the author makes clear, his subject all too frequently pulled the rug from under his own feet, as well as those of anyone who became close to him. But what a vivid tapestry Colin Tennant wove with his life, even if the threads were tarnished with self-absorption. And that fatal enchantment.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated