Oil on canvas, 1986
140cm x 110cm
Teddy Millington-Drake was a nomad, linguist, bon viveur, aesthete and master gardener, but above all an artist.
As a painter, he will best be remembered for his many series of water-colours. They demonstrate his superb draughtsmanship: the control and flow of line admired by the artist Cy Twombly. The pictures of India and Ladakh, exhibited at Eyre and Hobhouse, in London, in 1982, are probably his most successful, and call to mind the work of Edward Lear. Viewed retrospectively his pictures form a seductive narrative of travels spanning more than 30 years, in search of some romantic and melancholy ideal. This ideal came into its own when he worked on Easter Island in 1987, focusing on the famous stone heads, the Moais. Their common moribund expression must have struck a familiar chord in the artist, as it resembled his gloomy look on a bad day.
He was born in London in 1932, the fourth child of Sir Eugen and Lady Effie Millington-Drake, a couple of considerable eccentricity. By the time of his first birthday, Teddy had travelled to Buenos Aires and Paris, and he enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Uruguay, where his father served as Minister in the British Embassy from 1934 to 1940.
Sir Eugen had a flair for spreading intentional misinformation to confuse the Germans, and played a crucial role in the Battle of the River Plate in 1939. He was extremely handsome, and a physical fitness fanatic; the Montevideo embassy staff began their day at 7am doing physical jerks on the Embassy roof. Determined to bring English literature to Uruguay, he translated Kipling’s poem “If” into Spanish, and would recite it at the end of official dinners to the assembled guests; and he had passages from Shakespeare translated into the Guarani dialect for the edification of the country’s Indian population. Lady Effie, a daughter of the first Earl of Inchcape, was a considerable heiress, wildly extravagant, tiny and a Roman Catholic convert. She frequently took the family traveling back and forth across the Atlantic, with a retinue of servants, and up to 30 Vuitton trunks, filled with outfits from Worth in Paris. These were usually ordered from water-colour fashion sketches, sent out by the designer himself. It was in fact these sketches that first inspired the infant Teddy to take up pencil and paint,
The Millington-Drakes returned to Britain in 1940 and settled in London feeling it their duty to help with the war effort. Teddy had vivid childhood memories of the Blitz, and of being made to sing “There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover”, dressed in a sailor suit, to the passengers on a homeward-bound liner. After the luxurious and happy home life he was used to, the experience of an English preparatory school left no happy memories, unlike Eton which he enjoyed, spending maximum time in the Art Schools, under the tutelage of the art historian Wilfred Blunt.
The next few years took him through Oxford, where he bought himself a Daimler on his 21st birthday, and then on into the Rifle Brigade for his National Service. He was posted to Egypt during the Suez Crisis, where he formed a close friendship with the writer and television interviewer James Mossman. Millington-Drake’s sister Marie had become an adventurous traveller at an early age, and her stories of people and places fascinated him. He loved the sound of India, and the glamour of characters such as Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney, a Parsee from Bombay. Post-war England appeared drab and depressing, and the peripatetic painter’s life began in earnest, with a leisurely journey to the Near and Middle East, through Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
He was often welcomed by diplomats who had known his father, but was just as happy on his own staying in hotel rooms, reading good books and venturing out to paint. He loved this part of the world, the soukbs, the street life, the sounds and colours, and was dazzled by the power and simplicity of Islamic architecture. Isfahan was a revelation to him. He settled in Italy soon after, renting a house in Este, near Venice and became close friends with the traveler and writer Freya Stark who lived nearby at Asolo.
Millington-Drake had a great facility for friendship, and an ever-increasing circle surrounded him throughout his life. As a young man in Venice, he was a frequent guest of Daisy Fellowes, a Singer sewing-machine heiress, known for her taste and cruel humour. She was the cause of much amusement to him, as were Barbara Hutton, Elsa Maxwell, and Peggy Guggenheim, who all congregated in Venice in the 1950’s.
In Este, he painted continually and more boldly, turning his hand to abstract murals. Enthralled by the opera in the early Sixties he prepared a complete set of evocative designs for Debussy’s Pellas et Melisande, which sadly have never been transferred to the stage. Bruce Chatwin, who had recently given up a career at Sotheby’s, often came to stay. Millington-Drake greatly admired Chatwin’s original talent and keen eye – he particularly liked Chatwin’s book The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980), set in Brazil and West Africa, which he felt gave expression to Chatwin’s visual flair and esoteric knowledge – but latterly found his long monologues somewhat exhausting. Chatwin was happy to acknowledge what an influence Millington-Drake had been on his life and his perceptions of art and people.
While touring the Greek islands, he fell in love with Patmos, one of the Dodecanse. The island had been part of the Ottoman empire, and sailing ships would stop there between Alexandra and Odessa, bringing wealth to the Patmiots. Millington-Drake bought in 1963 two 17th-century houses in the village of Chora, which surrounds the hill-top monastery of St. John the Theologian. They were converted into an enchantment of spacious white rooms with craggy timber beams. These were furnished with acquisitions from a lifetime’s travel, and the occasional local piece encrusted with mother-of-pearl. An ambience of tranquility and unstudied beauty, charmed the large number of guests, many of whom returned annually over these decades. Although an inveterate traveler, Millington –Drake made Patmos his base for the rest of his life and much of his best work was produced in his studio there.
More recently, Millington-Drake similarly transformed a neglected Tuscan farmhouse in the village of Poggio. There were vine-hung terraces and a skillfully landscaped garden. A swimming-pool was built on a shelf cut into the hillside, so that you felt yourself gliding towards the horizon, suspended in space as you swam.
Besides his water-colours which were exhibited largely in London, but also in New York and Bombay, over a period of 30 years, Millington-Drake worked passionately at other forms of painting. There are haunting large abstracts inspired by Jung, hard-edged acrylic wave paintings and some intriguing semi-calligraphic works on paper based on phrases taken from the works of poets such as Cavafy, Mandelstam and Elizabeth Bishop, whose clegiac poem “Song” meant much to him.
Summer is over upon the sea.
The pleasure yacht, the social being,
that danced on the endless polished floor,
stepped and side-stepped like Fred Astaire,
is gone, is gone, docked somewhere ashore.
Edgar Louis Vanderstegan Millington-Drake, painter: born London 5 July 1932; died Patmos 5 September 1994.