Early last century, an impoverished youth emerged from the East End. Able and hard-working, he discovered — as many had before him — that the City offered an open route to opportunity and riches. By the early 1950s, Rudolph Palumbo decided he could afford a family office. So he commissioned a Queen Anne building on Walbrook. Although it could not compensate for the City’s grievous architectural losses during the war, it was a reassertion of old values: of a long tradition that finance and the fine arts could march together.
Forty years on, Rudolph’s son Peter was having lunch with Mark Birley at the Connaught. Mark, son of Oswald, a much underrated painter, had as much taste as any Englishman in the 20th century. ‘What are you going to do with that building of yours?’ he enquired. ‘I thought of turning it into a club, but only if you’ll design it,’ said Peter. (Mark was the chastellain of Annabel’s). ‘I’d better ask what it will cost. Would a million be enough?’ Mark shrugged his shoulders. The total was twice that, as Peter pointed out, wryly rather than reproachfully.
Twenty years later, this seems like a bargain. The Walbrook is an enchantment: Glyndebourne in the City. The average member has probably spent the morning on the captain’s quarter-deck of his bank or giving orders to trading floors across much of the globe. At lunchtime, he can escape from the counting-house to the country house. The atmosphere is gentle; the standards are of the highest. Young Philip Palumbo, who now runs the Walbrook, always carries a discreet notebook. In a wholly unshouty fashion, he believes in perfectionism — until they invent something better.
Needless to say, the food is excellent. The founding chefs were Michel and Albert Roux. Their spirit still reigns in the kitchen and one eats at least as well as anywhere in clubland.
On a recent visit, we drank modestly but soundly: a gentleman’s vintages rather than a plutocrat’s ostentation. In the 1980s and 1990s, Château Batailley underwent vicissitudes. By the Noughties, the ship had stabilised. We had the ’07 Batailley, which fully merited that splendid accolade, ToC: tastes of claret. I went on to a dinner at which La Lagune ’82 was served. It ought to have outgunned the Batailley effortlessly. Curiously enough, it performed as hesitantly as the English rugger team last Saturday. (There is something repulsive about the Welsh when they win at rugby. They become a nation of Neil Kinnocks.) There are suggestions that some of the ’82s are going back into themselves; to re-emerge, it is hoped, in the longer fullness. There was nothing about the La Lagune to refute that judgment.
Our Batailley was followed by a Dow ’85, which was everything that it should be. The talk was equally good. Peter Palumbo used to see a lot of Margaret Thatcher, who made him chairman of the Arts Council. Like most men who met her, he fell under her magnetism. But he was also impressed by her interest in the arts. She was anything but the raucous philistine of left-wing caricature. She did believe in using art to enhance national prestige, but what is wrong with that? The same was true of Pericles, Augustus, the Medicis and many other revered rulers. At one stage, she and Prince Charles tried to persuade the Thyssen family to bring their collection to London. It was estimated that a suitable gallery would cost £250 million. She did not blink. Alas, it was a done deal between the Thyssens and Spain.
If only the great lady had been in charge of the millennium commemorations. She would have had the vision to ensure an outcome which men would salute in a thousand years’ time — rather than a third-rate concert hall looking like an upended dead insect.
That was a melancholy conclusion, but only after a very fine lunch.