In the early days of News International’s Wapping factory and as a self-proclaimed expert on the works of portrait painter Harold Speed, I was often driven around London in Charlie Wilson’s Jaguar, looking for paintings to buy.
Once I got out Times office directly in the car and the heat radiating from the notched seat surprised me. I asked Joe, the driver, why he was so hot and he said, “I just left Rupert Murdoch”, as if that explained everything. It might have led to an argument in itself, but when I closed the door the whole interior panel came off in my hand. “Don’t worry,” Joe said, “this will be back soon. Mr. Murdoch drove it last week and it broke, ”adding:“ At a roundabout. ‘It’s to push it.’
Many said Charlie was terrifying in the newsroom, being gifted with a verbal dexterity that would presumably scare off fish scales. But I’ve never seen him and I think his staff respected him. His authority came with decency, empathy and kindness, or with due apologies. We met in 1981 because he placed an ad in Times and since he had not been charged with lineage, his succinct quality testified to his taste for clear, concise copy: “Harold Speed, 1872-1957” is all he said, with a landline number. I was 19 and worked unhappily for Journal of the Antique Trade, a Covent Garden weekly. Intrigued, I called the number that rang through his small corner office as the then assistant manager, located on Gray’s Inn Road. From my first visit there, I knew it was a thrilling portal opening, but it was not logical to imagine a 40-year journey forward.
Charlie explained that he owned Harold Speed’s old house in Kensington, for which he wanted to acquire photos. Her availability for the meeting provided an index of her character. He didn’t exactly lack knowledge, but he was very good at finding and deploying people who amplified what he instinctively understood. So we once discussed a painting of a Greek scene.
Charlie: “It’s the Acropolis.”
Me: “The Parthenon?”
Charlie: “Same thing.”
I first went home on a Saturday, and waited for it to unplug from a distant phone. Time passed; finally, Sally (his then wife) filled herself with champagne, gave me a glass of pity, and left. It was 11.30am and she had gone to see the palatial Argyll House nearby, but she told me she preferred theirs. I started to marvel at their world, not least because Charlie seemed pretty down to earth.
He advised me to use as many contacts as I could, any distant relative or friend of his to advance myself, because he had not had such advantages. Eventually, I asked him for a job and he interviewed me in Wapping. He later sent me home through Joe and Jaguar to mitigate the bad news, but he fought for me as a freelancer, knowing it would be more appropriate. He may have been a former Gorbals and Royal Marines boxer, but Charlie was never homophobic and it was no problem for me in those days that he would call me “Honey”. John Russell-Taylor, previously Times The art critic, who preferred to work late in the office, once told me of his sweet surprise when he felt someone’s hands over his eyes, which were Charlie tiptoe behind and saying, “Guess who?” I also realized that when being with certain people was difficult, he masked it by acting with confidence that he really didn’t have it. With others, he might be playful.
The timing of his lines sometimes fell gratifyingly. As for those outbursts of anger in the newsroom, he once told me that his anger towards his absent father was something that was poured out on others, and later he would be terribly sorry, sending gifts to the unfortunate interested people who would remember the rest. weather . So he spread his reputation as a stick on the carrot but he wasn’t the core of him. Nor was he the Philistine in the “Gorbals Wilson” column. Private detectivea distortion that has endured too long.
At home in Campden Hill Square, we spent years procuring many Speed paintings for the walls, almost as if we were returning them to the walls where they had been hung before. More recently, I have worked in vain to persuade him to at least leave his vast library of books up for auction at my company after witnessing its dismayed spread on the full-size pool table in the former painting studio.
Charlie was highly educated and would have enjoyed participating in her scattering, but he wasn’t a purist except for not selling stuff. It was evident that he had little affinity with other prominent former residents of the house such as the “Lost Boys” of Llewelyn-Davies and JM Barrie, but in the case of Speed’s tenant, the poet Siegfried Sassoon.
When I lived in Bayswater we met in the evenings, we drank too much and he was very direct in asking me about my life
We dramatically increased the number of paintings when works belonging to Speed’s daughter Delia were auctioned in the late 1980s. I warned him from overseas, but I couldn’t go back to see him or make an offer for him, so he fought alone, limiting the offer to the lovely but battered Breakfast time which reappeared in a few months at Sotheby’s where he went to pick up seven times a lot. Curiously, Charlie didn’t seem to resent this. An alarming number of catalogs and boxes of ephemeral objects filled the huge truck sent to pick them up.
When I lived in Bayswater we met in the evenings, we drank too much and he was very direct in asking me about my life. Once or twice, he would volunteer things from his past of him. His third wife, Rachel, introduced him to things like ballet, where we also met altogether. She was so good with him. I’ve never seen him in the same room as Annie [Robinson] but he resented her Memories of an unsuitable mother – “How could he even remember?” – while from that marriage, his daughter Emma was another source of joy. The idea we had in 2019 of having them come to Portugal when he craved the winter sun didn’t materialize, although not because Emma’s preference was to take him to Agadir. He wasn’t well enough to fly, which was the first time I knew he was sick.
Later, we met for lunch in Notting Hill. At first he was unchanged, still elegant, good looking, and I was the only one who contracted food poisoning from identical starters in an elegant joint. Then we went to the Pizza Express, where he only handled half of his order and I finished the rest.
During the first lockdown we mostly exchanged text messages which became slightly erratic. For the first time, he mentioned his aversion to him for trips from the farm to London for chemo. Gradually, his lyrics revealed what seemed to matter most to him: Rachel, the cat Vincent, eight racehorses, young and old, his laptop. Christmas happiness without children and grandchildren, then happiness with them.
Finally he arrived: “I have not been at my best … I will contact you in a few days. C. “
When nothing materialized, I called dear Wendy Henry, ex News from the world editor, and after getting a bit stuck that Charlie was (then) 86 without us realizing it, and what it meant to each of us, she recounted that the two of them faced Murdoch during everyone’s horrific Tuesday meetings. the editors. ‘He was brutal, brutal to Charlie, humiliating him with,’ It’s not Times, and you’re lowering the tone ‘when it really wasn’t. Ironic. Charlie was as capable as he was kind, generous, intelligent, and extraordinarily hard out of necessity. Perhaps not very well known, while he was working for Robert Maxwell trying to buy New York Daily News in some secrets, Charlie has to phone on Maxwell’s behalf and negotiate with the residents of the local print shops, who have seriously made Wapping look like a daycare.
While he wasn’t an obvious candidate for a knighthood, although it might as well have been an injustice, I think he would have refused on the grounds that no self-respecting cat allows a tin can to be tied to its tail.
My last unanswered message to him included a picture of a Speed drawing that was about to be auctioned: “Beautiful study … not of Speed’s beautiful mural at the Academy … which I remember: you remember stopping by the RA, led by Joe, and ending our conversation with ‘I think I have to go. The PM saw me from the window and wants to talk. The draw comes Monday; I’ll try to buy it as a souvenir’ “.
That grocer’s daughter wasted that night at the RA with the entire art budget, but I am not aware of any damage directly caused during the extraordinary and nonconformist life of Charlie Wilson, the miner’s son.