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Natalie Livingstone: We’re the self-made custodians of Cliveden

Sex and scandal have always been associated with one of Britain’s finest estates but that’s not all that inspired Natalie Livingstone to write its biography

    Natalie, pictured here at Cliveden, sees ownership as a sign of changes in society
    Natalie, pictured here at Cliveden, sees ownership as a sign of changes in society

    When Natalie Livingstone is reminded of Nancy Astor - a notoriously antisemitic aristocrat who became a key figure in the Profumo scandal - one senses she sometimes allows herself a wry smile of satisfaction.

    The Astor family owned the breathtaking Cliveden, a vast Italianate palace overlooking the Thames in Buckinghamshire, where, in 1961, after one of the family's suitably lavish soirées, the-then Minister of War, John Profumo wandered outside and stood transfixed as a naked Christine Keeler frolicked around the mansion's outside pool. One thing led to another and the 19-year-old Keeler began a fatal affair with the Tory minister at the same time as she was sexually involved with a Russian intelligence officer - which led to the demise of both Profumo's career and Keeler's close friend Stephen Ward.

    But that's not what concerns Natalie. "It gives me incredible pride as a Jewish woman, and as part of a Jewish family, that we have taken ownership of a house from a woman, Nancy, for whom the word Jew was a pejorative term. She once introduced the great Jewish statesman Chaim Weizmann as 'the only decent Jew I've ever met'.

    "Not only that but she and the Astors were the beneficiaries of inherited wealth. My husband Ian is a self-made man. Today, a few decades after Nancy Astor died, a self-made Jewish family own and run Cliveden, an estate that for hundreds of years was far removed from the kind of people that we are and with whom we grew up.

    "In that sense, this house represents the changing face of British society. All the way through to the 20th century, the only way people who could have had access to Cliveden was through inheritance. In the 21st century, there's a more commercial order and that is where Ian and me play our parts. He didn't inherit success, he made it. That's a sign of how society has shifted."

    And what success. Ian Livingstone, 49, and his brother Richard, 47, are among the most successful property magnates in Britain. The sons of an Ealing dentist, the brothers - one an optometrist, the other a surveyor - started buying property two decades ago after Ian had made a fortune through the David Clulow chain of opticians.

    London & Regional, the company they run, has a £4 billion portfolio that includes the Park Lane Hilton, the Strand Palace Hotel, the Empire Leicester Square, Lovell's Wharf riverside development in Greenwich, fitness clubs and dozens of nursing homes and acute care hospitals.

    Scandal: Christine Keeler in the 1960s
    Scandal: Christine Keeler in the 1960s

    The brothers are hugely protective of their privacy and little is known of them outside of their business dealings. Friends, however, insist they are an incredibly down-to-earth family. In fact, my interview with Livingstone is conducted amid the chaos of a mid-week tea-time at their Notting Hill home where I'm fighting their two little daughters for their pregnant mother's attention ("Sorry, they're both in terrible moods"). And while Ian is notoriously shy, Natalie is the opposite. Gregarious, charming, witty and strong-willed - her forthcoming talk at Jewish Book Week shouldn't be missed. Her streak of determination was crucial in writing an extraordinary account of the women who made Cliveden such a notorious seat of power. The desire to write Mistresses of Cliveden, came to her the moment, one April morning, that she and Ian stepped inside the grand house after he had bought the estate in 2012 for £30 million. "I saw these astonishing portraits on the wall and wanted to know more about these women."

    Her immaculately researched tome is a fascinating, 350-year history of the house - an architecturally stunning mansion complete with clock tower, landscaped gardens and priceless furniture - as seen through the lives and loves of five of her predecessors. It vividly demonstrates how romance, sex, scandal and political intrigue have been central to the house for more than three centuries, and how its women helped to shape society through scandal, intrigue and political machinations.

    Cliveden was built for Anna Maria, Countess of Shrewsbury, by the 2nd Duke of Buckingham, whose mistress she was and whose husband he killed in a duel in 1668. The date of the duke's triumph over his rival is recorded in brickwork on a patch of lawn together with a commemorative rapier.

    The estate later became synonymous with the power-broking of King William III's mistress Elizabeth, Countess of Orkney, who was succeeded by Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, the mother of King George III. Queen Victoria's closest female friend was Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, the fourth of the confident women covered in Livingstone's book. The final one is perhaps the most notorious.

    In 1906, Nancy and Waldorf Astor were given the house as a wedding present. Nancy became the first woman to sit in the House of Commons and her son introduced Profumo and Keeler. Scandal, it's clear, has always been in Cliveden's DNA.

    But was it power these women had or were they just arch-manipulators? "Well, where does power begin and manipulation end," says Natalie. "After all, I don't know if there's much difference between having power over people and manipulating them. Yes it's true that they had their feminine wiles. But in an era when women weren't able to grasp material power, they had soft power through homes and sexuality.

    "In the process of writing this book, I came to understand how all the women appreciated that they had to find ways to exercise their power in whatever capacity they could. They had to fight, given the constraints of their time."

    Did she, too, have to fight, I ask, not for influence but credibility? She might have a history degree from Cambridge University but did the history snobs sneer at a glamorous 38-year-old former journalist - she earned her spurs at the Daily Express newspaper and the Tatler and OK! magazines - turning her hand to construct such a detailed and serious historical biography?


    The house’s original drawings

    "No, not at all. I was lucky in so many ways because I studied history at Christ's College 15 years ago so I already had that academic background, and my contacts there. And then I was fortunate in having the most wonderful researchers help me, and I learned a lot from them. And I was lucky, too, that history has become such a democratic interest. It's not stuffy in the way it might have been in the past -Simon Schama and all the other TV historians have seen to that. We don't live in an age where people get pigeon-holed - you can be an historian and love the fashion scene, you can be serious and you can be frivolous, you can be a mother and you can have a career. Just because of who I am and what I like to do in my spare time doesn't mean I can't write a serious historical analysis."

    And so, having seen the book so well-received, where does she think she fits in with the Cliveden chatelaines? "Oh no, do not call me that," she insists. "I really don't consider myself a chatelaine, oh dear no. I'm at most a very fortunate custodian and feel so privileged that I have played my role already, and that is in telling the story of the house. Remember, this is not our house - it's operated as a hotel, paying guests come and go. I'd be utterly delusional to call myself a chatelaine. I'm not part of this chain of women. My two sisters and I grew up in Finchley - mum (who came from Hungary) was in advertising and dad, who grew up in the East End, eventually ran a successful textile company. I went to North West London Jewish Day School and then City of London School for Girls. It was a wonderful childhood but far removed from those who I've written about in the book.

    "I know how lucky I am. We all do in this family, which is why Ian and I are so committed to supporting charities within the community and outside. I also know how lucky it is to be a loving family. Many of these women found love outside of their marriages. Their husbands gave them security and status but they did not have passionate relationships with those men. I learned that for some women, marriage was more of a transaction, and that is a terrible shame."

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