JAMES MORTIMER 23rd October 1930 – 20th April 2020
A long standing friend of LASSCO, we first got to know James when he came to St Michael’s Shoreditch to take some snaps for a John Diamond piece for the Sunday Times in the late 1970s.
Immediately we warmed to him – a ‘bon viveur’, a ‘roue’, impeccably connected and a sailor.
Trencherman and Bohemian with a scrupulous eye, he provided endless gossip about the decorating trade and the scandals of the glamorous set; stylish and debonair he was associated with the the most refined of female companions.
James was born in the English Concession in Shanghai, the son of a Pharmacist. He was educated at Paston Grammar School in North Walsham [alma mater of Horatio, Lord Nelson]. Appropriately he joined the Royal Navy as a cadet and he attended Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. With an inclination to technical matters The Senior Service sent him to Cambridge to pursue this aptitude. It is said that he was given a Rail Warrant and plotted a course by way of Paddington and Liverpool Street – but a wayward waypoint took him via Soho – and the Nation’s loss was Fashionable Society’s gain.
The affinity for the technical – plus the glamour – took him Motor Racing where he enjoyed some success both on the track and off.
Later he joined that generation of photographers including Bailey, Swanell, Duffy and Donovan who considered James to be the socially refined gentleman counterpoint to their demotic – an escapee from the generation of Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton.
Given his unerring taste, his social contacts and his Bon Ton he gravitated to the photography of the well decorated and usually aristocratic house. He enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the World of Interiors under the tutelage of Min Hogg; his eye for detail, light, ‘correct’ arrangement and the social niceties was unmatched – [except in the case of Jeffery Archer] he was treated as a valued, visiting artist by the chatelaines whose interiors he recorded.
With his work at Tyntesfield, the Ritz, Winfield House and a whole series of National Trust and other significant properties it could be said that he created an archive of historic record that will endure to arguably match that of Bedford Lamere.
Although his subject matter was almost invariably antiquarian his embrace for the latest technology was up to the minute as might be expected from an expert in marine electronics.
James’s lifelong enthusiasm for boats was an added attraction. We sailed many miles in company in the Aegean. And he brought his ‘opulent eye’ to boats of all sorts.
He explained how the discriminating owner might be rowed a fair distance from his vessel before turning to admire her lines and rig – being of the officer class he would be seated in the stern sheets facing ahead while the lowly bo’sun [myself] would be doing the rowing.
With our old friend and shipmate, Dennis Rolfe, James was given very informally the honorific of ‘Commodore’ – that of a three member Yacht Club of occasional and armchair sailors. Dennis and I had a clutch of boats under our belt and had a venerable record of service in the lower reaches of the Royal and Merchant Services. James was unimpeachably of the RN Officer Class and never missed the opportunity to fly the Blue Ensign [to which he was, debatably, entitled] on his splendid 60’ Herd & Mackenzie MFV, “Glory be of Orwell”.
Ours was a competitive relationship; I would defer to his ear for Pablo Casals – and he would defer to me about the merits of chain drive Scamells [those of you who know what I’m talking about will appreciate the nuance].
James was a ‘snob’s snob’. Consistent in his appreciation of excellence in ‘society’, decor, food and music. He was, nevertheless, entirely at home in the company of rogues and rough charmers – hence his feel for the Antiques Trade.
Nothing so vulgar as a Virus took him out – a life fully lived, rich in friendships, loves, talent, knowledge – and appetite.
On a personal level it will be difficult to adjust to his absence – but his example, for better or worse, is one that will endure.