The 3rd Lord Glenconner, formerly Colin Tennant, who died on August 27 aged 83, transformed the West Indian island of Mustique from a barren insect-plagued rock into a lush multimillionaires’ paradise. His obituary in The Telegraph recalls his role in the post-colonial appropriation of Caribbean spaces as the playground of the rich and famous, a process that brought tensions and renewed economic exploitation to newly-independent islands.
The island became famous during the 1960s and 1970s for Tennant’s grand parties and for the roll-call of pop stars, aristocrats and royalty – most famously Princess Margaret – who found it a refuge from the British winter and the paparazzi.
The Tennant family owed their fortune to Colin Tennant’s great-great-grandfather Charles Tennant, a Scottish scientist who invented an industrial bleaching process which revolutionised the cotton industry and brought the industrial revolution to Scotland.
As business prospered, the Tennants bought estates and built grand houses, including, in 1850, a gloomy neo-gothic castle in Peeblesshire, the Glen, which became the family seat. By the early 20th century the Tennants had not only amassed a huge fortune, they had also established family connections with the Asquiths, Wyndhams and Lyttletons. Edward Priaulx Tennant was created the 1st Lord Glenconner in 1911.
Colin Tennant acquired Mustique in 1959 with money from the sale of a piece of land in Trinidad that had been acquired in the mid-19th century by another Charles Tennant, second son of the scientist, a youthful banner-carrier for the Chartists who became a successful businessman. His one business mistake had been to sell off the Trinidad pitch lake, failing to foresee the coming of Tarmac; the remaining acres yielded grapefruit.
Until Colin Tennant arrived in Mustique, the Grenadine island had been a neglected backwater of Empire. The two resident white families had visited each other in carts, Gone with the Wind-style, for centuries. There were no modern conveniences – even a camera was a novelty – and the journey to Mustique from England took three days. “It was like a graveyard,” said Tennant, “run down and badly managed – very mouldy.”
At first Tennant bought the island simply because he liked the beaches and thought it would be a pleasant place to retire. He intended, he said, to specialise in “sea island cotton, beef and mutton”. However, he soon had other ideas.
In 1963 his father sold the family merchanting business, C Tennant & Sons, to Consolidated Goldfields, and Colin suddenly inherited £1 million. At first father and son were kept on as chairman and deputy chairman, but after his father’s retirement in 1967 Colin was passed over for the job of chairman, so he resigned.
With money and time on his hands, Tennant worked at establishing Mustique and providing the island with an infrastructure. First he built a village, then a hotel and then constructed and sold “fantasy” houses, designed in a variety of architectural styles. A school was built, then a doctor’s surgery. A police station, custom house and post office followed.
The island’s popularity was assured when, during Princess Margaret’s honeymoon visit to Mustique in 1960, Tennant gave her a piece of land as a wedding present. Later he built her a Georgian-style colonial villa, Les Jolies Eaux. It was there that she went to find refuge during the break-up of her marriage in the early 1970s, often in the company of her friend Roddy Llewellyn. Mustique was, she said, “the only place I can relax”.
In Princess Margaret’s wake came the rich, the chic, the famous – and their hangers-on. There were rock stars (Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie), media folk (John Cleese, David Frost, Nigel Dempster) and socialites.
Tennant’s hospitality and lavish fancy dress parties became celebrated. At his 50th birthday in 1976 Princess Margaret crowned him “King” of Mustique, while during the celebrations village youths formed an honour guard wearing gold-painted codpieces made from coconut shells. For his 60th birthday he took his guests 100 miles by boat from Mustique to neighbouring St Lucia. “I’ve always found that people envy you less if they get things for free,” he observed.
To Colin Tennant, the role of monarch of Mustique was more than a party joke. Like his grand Liberal forebears he took his patrician responsibilities seriously: on his arrival in Mustique, for example, he awarded pensions to all the island’s grandmothers.
In the late 1970s, however, things began to go wrong. Recession and exchange controls turned profit into loss. In 1978 he sold 13 paintings by Lucian Freud from a substantial collection built up during the 1950s and 1960s, terminating a long-standing friendship. Freud regarded the sale as a financially motivated act of personal betrayal.
Worse, Tennant’s subjects grew restive. Muddles about service charges and a cavalier attitude to accounting led to rows with the island’s management committee. Tennant eventually sold his interest in Mustique for £1 million – the total of his original investment. He sold his own home, the Great House, to Christina Onassis’s third husband, the former KGB agent Sergei Kauzov.
“You should never sell to the rich,” Tennant once remarked. “They always make sure they get the best value. The owners and bankers made all the money, not me. I got a lot of publicity, but it got me nowhere. Even my barman ended up a millionaire.”
Meanwhile he decided to buy land in St Lucia, to which he moved in 1992 with his pet elephant, Bupa. His second attempt at empire building, however, was not successful. He fell out with St Lucia’s most famous son, the Nobel Prize-winning author Derek Walcott, who objected to his plans to build a huge hotel complex – La Jalousie – on a sacred site.
In 1992 he had to sell his £6 million London home to help raise funds. Another Freud – a portrait of Tennant himself – went under the auctioneer’s hammer in 1997. Meanwhile, he quarrelled with his Iranian partners in the investment, who bought him out.
By the mid-1990s Glenconner (he had inherited the title on his father’s death in 1983) was living a somewhat more reclusive existence in a small beachside house, with only a remote chicken restaurant, a rum hut and a lot of empty land. At the end of his life, however, he was much involved in the construction of an upmarket beachfront village in St Lucia, and was planning a boutique hotel to be owned and run by his long-serving valet and personal assistant, Kent Adonai.
Even in his heyday there was always pathos behind the frivolity. Some detected the emotional insecurity that lay behind his need to be liked. And though usually urbane and good-humoured, he was prone to mercurial changes of mood – courteous one moment, in a temper tantrum the next.
His relationship with his wife, Lady Anne Coke (daughter of the Earl of Leicester), whom he married in 1956, was happy, although they lived apart for much of the time. After his move to Mustique, they holidayed together regularly – winter in the Caribbean, summer in Scotland – but for most of the year led separate lives. She preferred to live in England, where she was Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Margaret, he in Mustique.
Family tragedy – Glenconner rejected all talk of a family curse – struck in various forms; their first son, Charlie, a one-time heroin addict, died of hepatitis in 1996. Their second son, Henry, died of Aids in 1990. Their third and youngest son, Christopher, was disabled following a motorcycle accident in 1987.
Despite everything, Glenconner continued to throw parties. “We weren’t brought up to throw in the towel,” he said. “We were brought up to bite bullets and to fold towels neatly.”
Colin Christopher Paget Tennant was born on December 1 1926, the son of the 2nd Lord Glenconner. His mother, Pamela, was the daughter of Sir Richard Paget, 2nd Bt.
After his parents’ divorced in 1935, for years Colin Tennant seldom saw his father. Holidays from Eton were spent with his maternal grandmother, Muriel Paget, a formidable grande dame who had diverted a train from the Crimea to Siberia in the First World War to save the lives of 70 British nannies.
After Eton, Tennant went straight into the Irish Guards, serving during the tail end of the war. After the war he went up to New College, Oxford: “I read diplomatic history from 1898 to 1904. It was not very helpful.” At Oxford he gained a reputation for being terribly kind to plain girls with nice manners and extremely waspish to pretty ones with nasty manners.
After graduating, he settled down to work in the family firm in the City and at the same time began to attract the attention of the gossip columns as Princess Margaret’s escort.
During the early 1950s he was often involved in amateur dramatics; in 1953 he took part, with Princess Margaret, in a production for charity of an Edgar Wallace play, The Frog; Tennant played the title role (a serial killer) and the Princess was assistant stage director.
In 1954 he was forced to deny newspaper reports that he would shortly announce his engagement to the Princess. “I don’t expect she would have had me,” he said, gallantly, years later.
As his business ventures in Mustique were beginning to turn sour, in 1977 Tennant joined the Scottish Nationalist Party and briefly flirted with the idea of standing for Parliament.
In 1998 he returned to Scotland from St Lucia, bringing Cletus and Marcellinus, twin St Lucian limbo dancers and fire eaters, to appear at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The climax of their performance was the 71-year-old Glenconner himself “limbo dancing” under a low pole aided by the St Lucian twins.
In old age, Glenconner was dismissive about his life: “Nothing much has happened to me… I don’t think about the past; it’s like a party – gone the day after.” He was, however, working on an autobiography.
He and his wife Anne had five children, and she survives him with their third son and their twin daughters. The title passes to Cody Charles Edward Tennant, born in 1994, Colin Tennant’s grandson by his eldest son. Last January, Lord Glenconner discovered that before his marriage he had fathered a son, Joshua, by Lucian Freud’s former muse Henrietta Moraes. Joshua has since been welcomed into the family.
For the original obituary go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/7970632/Lord-Glenconner.html