Walter Charles Lees
Walter was awarded the Royal Victorian Order, Military Cross and was a Chevalier of the Legion d'honneur. Deeply loved and admired for his service to country, devotion to friends, and generosity to those in need.
Walter was born in Edinburgh in 1916.
Walter enlisted in the first days after the declaration of war in 1939, joining the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He served with great distinction in the North Africa campaign, participating in the great desert battles of El Alamein and El Akarpwia, where he was awarded the Military Cross. Captured at Sousse he was transported first to Tunis, then up through Italy via Naples, Capua, Modena and Bolzano, where on 15 September 1943 he and his two great friends, Arnold Vivian and Norton Brabourne attempted to escape from the transport train. They were all re-captured and his two friends were shot. He eventually arrived at the prisoner of war camp Oflag V A where he was incarcerated for the rest of the war.
After hostilities ceased Walter served in Palestine and then in Cairo, where he greatly enjoyed the cosmopolitan and exotic post war life of that great city. He had the chance of being posted to India to serve under Lord Mountbatten, but at the suggestion of Doreen Brabourne, the mother of his friend Norton, he decided to go to Paris to serve as an honorary attaché at The British Embassy under the new Ambassador, Sir Oliver Harvey, Bt., who was replacing Sir Duff Cooper.
Walter arrived in Paris in 1948 on the Golden Arrow with the Harveys and so began his Parisian life, which lasted for over fifty years. He was devoted to Oliver and Maudie Harvey and adored being at the Embassy - all his life he remained fiercely supportive of both the British Embassy and the British Ambassador in Paris. His considerable diplomatic skills were immortalised by his friend Nancy Mitford in Don't Tell Alfred, where the character Philip is closely based on Walter. He occupied a suite of rooms that had been decorated by Christian Bérard for Duff and Diana Cooper's son, John Julius, and it was perhaps there that his passion for arranging (and re-arranging) rooms first began to flourish. The world of Paris in the 1950s and 1960s was a glittering and elegant one - a heady mix of famous social, intellectual and artistic figures. It was the world of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Arturo and Patricia Lopez-Willshaw, Countess Mona Bismarck and his great friends, Hubert de Givenchy and Philippe Venet. Friendship was central to his life and his collection reflects both his enormous generosity and extraordinary variety of friends from Louise de Vilmorin, Marthe Bibesco, Chips Channon and Dame Margot Fonteyn to Edith Piaf and Josephine Baker.
The Windsors living in Paris always posed a delicate diplomatic problem for the Embassy. The instructions were to treat them with respect, but only to ask them to dinner at the Embassy once a year. The Duke asked if there was a young attaché at the Embassy who he could invite to their parties. Walter was proposed for the role, which he carried out with the greatest tact and understanding, remaining unfailingly loyal to the Queen, but seeing a great deal of the Windsors. He fulfilled a very special function as the Duke was able to talk to him and together they enjoyed Scottish dancing and singing hymns, both of which the Duke was very nostalgic for. On one occasion as a surprise on Christmas Eve Walter arranged for the choir of the English Church to sing carols in the garden of the Windsor's house in the Bois de Boulogne.
Walter was made a member of the Royal Victorian Order in 1957 after H.M. The Queen's triumphant state visit to Paris in 1957.
After serving under the Gladwyns, who succeeded the Harveys, and to whom he was also devoted, Walter decided he needed to earn some money, working firstly as the assistant to Stavros Niarchos, the great shipping magnate, and then for the famous actor, Yul Brynner, which took him on location to Japan and Greece as well as Los Angeles where he first met Hubert de Givenchy at a party given for Doris Brynner's birthday. Their friendship was to last all his life. Finally he worked for Pierre Schlumberger until he retired in the 1980s.
The acquisition of his apartment at 1 avenue de Tourville allowed him to develop the talent for creating rooms that had emerged in his rooms at the Embassy. Given the lack of space everything had to be stored very neatly and Walter developed his trademark of arrangements in glass-fronted cupboards. Whether it was cashmere jerseys, coloured glasses from Venice, kitchen knives or Campbell soup tins, everything was transformed in a spectacular arrangement that was amusing as well as practical. Indeed the glass-fronted cupboard in the cloakroom with its stacks of Guerlain soap, Noxzema shaving cream, bandages and plasters was a Damien Hirst Infinity Cabinet created before the artist was born.
Walter's eyes were always open and receptive and with his very immediate nature he 'got' things quickly. He always said he learnt much about taste from Princess Elizabeth Chavchavadze, whose brilliant flair influenced Rory Cameron, from whom Walter also learnt so much, especially about India. Van Day Truex, the celebrated design director at Tiffany, was another great friend whose taste Walter admired greatly - if you ever enquired where something you admired came from the answer was always 'Tiffany's of course'.
Paris of the 50s and 60s, with its extraordinary array of specialist ateliers and craftsmen whose skills and knowledge had their origins in the 18th century guild system, was a thrilling place in which to commission things. Walter always knew THE place to go, Toulouse for metalwork, especially the telescopic gilt-brass tables created for Arturo Lopez-Willshaw and Alexis de Redé Meilleur for the best reading lamps, Leroy for upholstery, Malbranche for linen, and of course Diego Giacometti for his extraordinary bronze furniture. L'art de la table was particularly important and his magical dinners in his tiny kitchen at a long narrow table laden with Augsburg silver-gilt, glass from Tiffany, plates from Mme. Simone Favier at Riez, near Moustiers and linen from Mme. Malbranche became legendary. He was a ceaseless acquirer of plates and glasses, all articulated with brilliant mastery to create endless different amusing and charming settings, which gave huge pleasure both to their creator and his lucky guests.
In the late 1980s Walter bought a flat in Pimlico which he decorated as a mirror image of his Paris apartment, even to the extent of having two portraits of himself painted by Andrew Festing, one set in his London drawing-room which he kept in Paris and the other set in his Paris salon which he kept in London. The patterned carpet was the same in both flats, but as a double jeu the Paris one was woven in England by Crossleys, while the London one was woven in France. With more wall space in London he began to collect Old Master Drawings seriously, building on his enduring enthusiasm for architectural designs, and that in turn brought great friendships. He also took up photography travelling extensively, especially in India and Russia, the two countries which are a leitmotif through the collection and he had successful exhibitions in Paris, London and New York, all in aid of charity.
Walter's distinctive, imaginative and eclectic taste, distilled from all the varied strands of his fascinating life, in turn had a profound and lasting influence on his many, many friends of all generations.
Walter died on 30 January 2010 and under the terms of his will he gave instructions for a charity to be established to be called the Walter Lees Foundation. The bulk of his estate passed to this charity.
The trustees are grateful to Charles Cator, Deputy Chairman, Christie’s International for permitting them to print large extracts, which are included above, from the biography he wrote for the Christie’s catalogue: Living with Design: The Collections of Walter Lees and Mr NC.