Christopher Gibbs, who died in Tangier, Morocco, on Saturday, his 80th birthday, bestrode the aesthetic world like a rock star, and not just because his clients and friends were literally rock stars – among them, a very young Mick Jagger, who once confided to a fellow guest at a dinner party hosted by Gibbs, “I’m here to learn how to be a gentleman.”
That level of celebrity might come as a surprise, given that Gibbs was an antiques dealer, not typically known as a glamorous career choice, but he was something quite a bit more rarified than a purveyor of beloved old things. He was a broodingly handsome, wittily eloquent man whose quirky, funky, exotic, counterculture taste, and vast curiosity influenced a generation of individuals who fell passionately in love with what The New York Times once called his “distressed bohemian style.”
“I’m not interested in creating a dazzling impression of richness,” he told The Guardian. “We can make do with surprisingly little in life. It is best to have a few things which are really nice. I don’t approve of the mean look, but I do approve of the spare look, where every little bit is telling.”
Some of the finest bohemians in the Age of Aquarius sprang from posh backgrounds, and Gibbs, as a grandson of a baron, son of a baronet, and a descendant of Blessed Margaret Pole, Countess of Shrewsbury, the martyred Plantagenet heir to the English throne, was a prime exemplar. An ancestor established the family fortune by founding a successful London trading company in the 18th century, and an uncle became governor-general of Southern Rhodesia. Known far and wide as Chrissie or Dibbley, Gibbs threw himself not into commerce or politics – he had been expelled from Eton, he revealed, because of “illicit drinking, panty raids of other boys’ rooms, that sort of thing” – but into dandyism, becoming a Beau Brummel of his generation while also operating a buzzy little antiques shop that he opened in 1958 at the tender age of 20.
“Being a shopkeeper, I used to sell things sometimes,” said Gibbs, who stocked Moroccan garments and textiles and the like before expanding his stock into atmospheric antiques. “Then I used to parade around in them.” As he told Life magazine in 1961, he “encouraged friends to dig into their heirlooms, to wear old clothes, to turn their backs on ugliness and conformism.”
A heroic 17th-century Italian painting, Fez needlework cushions, an Anglo-Indian sofa, and a splash of flowered chintz outfit the living room of El Foulk, Gibbs’ Tangier residence, captured by Miguel Flores-Vianna in his book Haute Bohemians.
All that peacocking led to the so-called King of Chelsea being hired to be editor in chief of Men in Vogue, a job that allowed him to cover the sartorial, social, and swinging lives of his circle of finger-snapping, hashish-smoking, LSD-dropping, snake-hipped dandies, a heady brew of toffs, entertainers, socialites, bright young things, and kohl-eyed sirens of both sexes, from J. Paul Getty Jr. to Marianne Faithfull (which explains why, later in life, biographers and historians relied on his memories of that fertile, fantastic period he called “a time of experiment, dope-fueled and acid-elevated”).
He was painted bare-chested by Patrick Procktor, photographed broodingly by Lord Snowdon and David Bailey, and loved devotedly by Peter Hinwood, the blond Adonis of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, who became Gibbs’s life and business partner as well as an enormously admired dealer and designer himself. “A man of great, great taste, almost better than the master,” says AD100 interior designer Veere Grenney, a part-time Tangerine and close friend, about Hinwood, who, along with several nieces and nephews, survives Gibbs. The dealer will be buried on Wednesday, August 1, at the cemetery of the Church of St. Andrew in Tangier, following a funeral that, appropriately enough, Grenney says will incorporate “Islamic elements plus be in the Anglican tradition.”
Gibbs also created sets for the 1970 cult Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell crime-drama Performance, which starred Jagger. “I got a lot of things from Tangier,” the dealer explained in an interview for Christie’s.“We had things made and sent over in a hurry – materials both old and new. There was a lot of sleuthing around the film hire places, sourcing what might help knit together and work in the whole picture. The most complicated thing was making the tiled wall in the bathroom, inspired by a 16th-century garden carpet in the V&A; it made the perfect backdrop to the bathtub frolics.…
The bed for example was based on the story of the Princess and the Pea; many mattresses on top of one another, and a mighty stack in multi-coloured velvets was made and trundled north from Morocco.” His passion for the North African kingdom had begun with a trip there in 1958, and he remained enthralled by zellige, tadelakt, and Berber carpets for the rest of his life, even though, as he once admitted, souk chic had become a bit old hat.
His apartment at 100 Cheyne Walk, a seductively louche magnet for London’s hip set, appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising. “The [drawing] room was dominated by an enormous painting by Il Pordenone that had previously belonged to the duc d’Orléans,” a biography of William S. Burroughs, a Gibbs intimate, recounts. “A huge Moroccan chandelier cast a thousand pinpoints of light over Eastern hangings and silk carpets. In the summer, afternoon tea was taken under the mulberry tree in a garden designed by Lutyens.”
Cheyne Walk was also where Gibbs hosted a famous party for Allen Ginsberg, which Princess Margaret attended as did. So did Talitha Pol (Mrs. J. Paul Getty Jr.) in a see-throughtransparent dress that revealed a total lack of undergarments. Trays of uUnexpectedly powerful hashish brownies (the recipe came from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book) were passedamong the hors d’oeuvres, and Her Royal Highness ended up in hospital with what was publicly blamed on “severe food poisoning.”
Though AD once described Christopher Gibbs Ltd. somewhat blandly – “Eclectic and unusual items from the 17th century through the 1960s” – it was, Canadian interior designer Colette van den Thillart has recalled, “a Kunstkammer filled with the most astonishing wonders…a vibrant yet gloomy forest of beauty.” It was the sort of place one could find anything from a 19th-century American whip that once belonged to Lord Rosebery (“It was probably used for whipping slaves,” Gibbs blandly observed) to what Manhattan decorator David Easton called “large eccentric furniture,” such as a pair of 20th-century sofas copied from a grandiose design by 18th-century architect William Kent or bookcases so immense that they required a castle to suit them properly. One could find Jagger poking around as readily as one could glimpse Bill Blass, Pauline de Rothschild, or Lincoln Kirstein; one of the salesmen, appropriately enough, had been Bulent Rauf, the Turkish mystic.
Simon Wells, in his book Butterfly on a Wheel: The Great Rolling Stones Drug Bust, twigged Gibbs’s taste perfectly, defining his haute-hippie chic as “well-worn grandeur with vibrant treasures from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, particularly Morocco. Aware that much of Middle Eastern art and decor resonated strongly with the psychedelic experience, Gibbs was a much sought-after expert when pop people turned their attention to decorating the interiors of their flats and houses.” Jagger relied on Gibbs to decorate multiple houses for him, having fallen completely under the dealer’s spell; Lord Rothschild and Paul Mellon were fans too.
“It was a memorable experience to leave the hustle and bustle of Bond Street, pass through that narrow darkened passage, to burst into the high, top-lit treasure house of salivation,” architectural historian John Harris recalled of Gibbs’s shop. “Here would be found the genial and constantly creative Peter Hinwood, one of whose roles was aesthetic arrangement and juxtaposition, what one might call the shaking of the kaleidoscope.
I was always aware of how object answered object in many sensitive ways, and there was always what might be called creative rearrangements. I suppose the exhibit that evoked gasps from all and sundry was Lord Iveagh’s sock cabinet from his bedroom at Elveden Hall, Suffolk; its drawers still containing an array of smelly socks wrapped around Sir William Chambers’s designs for the cabinet, no less than the medal cabinet designed for Lord Charlemont at Charlemont House, Dublin.”
Photographs of Gibbs’s residences, from Davington Priory in Oxfordshire to El Foulk in Tangier, which was featured in Miguel Flores-Vianna’s book Haute Bohemians (Vendome Press, $64), were widely studied, ravishing more than one generation of admirers. Each home was a shrine, Christopher Mason wrote in The New York Times in 2000, to the dealer’s “elusive brand of anti-decoration, high-bohemian taste favored by self-confident Englishmen, a look based on well-worn grandeur, disarming charm, and unexpected contrasts. The magic is in the mix of masterpieces and oddities – like an assemblage of refined and wild-card house guests who mysteriously combine to create the ideal convivial country-house weekend. The allergy here is to the banal, not to dust.”
Gibbs reveled in a lifelong “delight in quirky objects whether humble or precious,” Hamish Bowles of Vogue posted on Instagram shortly after hearing about his garrulous, inquisitive friend’s demise from cancer. (For Bowles’s own Gibbs tribute, see vogue.com.) Nearly everything in the shop had a story attached to it, leading The New York Times to declare its owner a “provenance fetishist.” Gibbs happily concurred, saying, “I like intrinsically beautiful things, but if there’s a yarn attached, that’s a big plus.”
Wear and tear was welcomed, even preferred: gilding worn to the quick, carpets closing in on the threadbare. “I like things in their natural state – people especially,” Gibbs told Mason. “Objects and people that are unmonkeyed with, that are themselves, not trying to be something else.”
The shop, to howls of protest, closed more than a decade ago, after Gibbs decided to move permanently to Tangier, as much because of his advancing age as for changes in popular taste, which he politely decried. Collectors today “want a good car, a good sound system, and a huge pink heart painted by Damien Hirst with dying butterflies on it which costs £400,000,” he said, plainly puzzled. “Yet for much less you could buy something completely fascinating made 300 years ago.”