The director and chief executive of The Design Museum on a childhood rendezvous at Harrods and how the Knightsbridge backdrop is architecturally uplifting, even in the rain
My Knightsbridge: Tim Marlow Director of Design Museum
What are your earliest memories of Knightsbridge? When did you first go there/discover it?
Without being too precise, July 1975. Throughout my childhood, we used to make trips from Derbyshire to London (before we moved here eventually) and on one occasion, after seeing a day’s cricket at Lord’s, I remember a rendezvous at Harrods – where else? I recall my father telling me you could buy anything there, even an elephant, if you ordered ahead. I bought a tiny bar of soap, so I could have a Harrods bag.
What are your favourite memories of Knightsbridge and why?
After a visit to the V&A, my brother and I were let loose by our parents and given a couple of hours to roam before dinner. As now, I loved the elegance and feeling of exoticism that those great museums embody – it somehow permeates the entire neighbourhood. I also remember a date – I was still at school, but was meeting a girl one afternoon at the end of the summer holidays and walked from Marble Arch to New King’s Road in the late-summer sun. We lounged about in Hyde Park, had an illicit drink outside a pub somewhere near Beauchamp Place and then had to say a teenage love-struck goodbye on the edges of Knightsbridge. It felt magical then and still does when I recall it now.
Can you recommend any hidden gems in the area?
I remember the restaurant Ménage à Trois in Beauchamp Place. The glamour of eating somewhere Princess Diana frequented was exciting to a Derbyshire lad. John Sandoe Books was and is wonderful. It’s just off King’s Road in Blacklands Terrace, so I’m claiming it for Knightsbridge, although it’s not officially within the boundaries. Cadogan Square is understatedly elegant, and I’ve sometimes dreamed of living there. I have some affection for the more in-your-face Dutch Victorian eccentricities of Pont Street. There’s that line in Brideshead Revisited about anything vulgar being “Pont Street”, which is the height of English snobbery and still amuses me.
What do you like most about the area?
In spite of the phenomenal wealth and grandeur, it still feels strangely understated and to be discovered.
What is the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Knightsbridge? And why?
Aside from shameless romantic indulgence? Composer Eric Coates, actually. That march he wrote in homage to Knightsbridge in his London Suite often plays through my mind as I cycle or walk through Knightsbridge. Obviously, it wasn’t the soundtrack to the Knightsbridge of my teenage memories. That would be more a mixture of the Isley Brothers’ Summer Breeze, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? and the Average White Band’s Let’s Go Round Again on a shared Walkman, although I’m not sure it’s a soul mecca for many others.
What does Knightsbridge mean to you?
Teenage romance, elegant aspiration and inspiration and a place I travel through almost daily to and from my work at The Design Museum. It’s often a backdrop or transitional space for me, but never banal. Cycling up from the junction with Knightsbridge tube, along the south side of Hyde Park past the barracks and then the Albert Hall and Albert Memorial is always uplifting, even in the rain.
What would you recommend a tourist do for the day in Knightsbridge?
Go to the great museums, and don’t forget Apsley House, home of successive Dukes of Wellington since soon after Waterloo and with one of the great but overlooked art collections in London. Velázquez’s Waterseller of Seville is one of my favourite paintings – seemingly simple, but so nuanced, staggeringly rendered and the beginnings of one of the most brilliant careers in Western art. All the South Kensington museums are world class, as is the Serpentine and, as you’d expect, my particular recommendation would be the V&A, in particular the Cast Courts, with nearly three millennia of supreme human imagination and achievement and animating inanimate material on display. Of course, they’re copies for learning, but as an immersive crash course in where to go around the world and why art has always mattered, well, it’s not a bad place to start.
Where would you go for the best drinks – alcoholic or otherwise?
In the summer, the Serpentine Pavilion, without question. Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates’ open structure there this year – textured and complex – and Sumayya Vally’s wonderfully generous 2021 collaboration with places and spaces across the city condensed into the stone structure she assembled were both perfect places to drink and think and read. I also have a soft spot for the Brutalist concrete Park Tower Knightsbridge hotel and its bar for a cheeky malt whisky and a panoramic view across the city. The Polish Club is great too – the terrace at the back looking out across Prince’s Garden is discreet and the food is good.
What’s your favourite type of cuisine? And where can you find this in Knightsbridge?
I like so many different cuisines, but I guess Japanese is my favourite. The best I’ve had in London is just outside the Knightsbridge borders, in the Japan Centre, en route to The Design Museum. My favourite restaurant in Knightsbridge is oriental cuisine, but Chinese, and a landmark in what my friend Christina Makris calls ‘aesthetic dining’ in her book of that name about the art restaurant. It is, of course, Mr Chow. Michael Chow is a genius – utterly original. He trained as an artist and studied architecture too. Over the past 50 years, he’s been quietly painting (the only thing he does quietly), while setting up a global network of Mr Chow restaurants. London is the founding one and, like the ones in LA and NYC, there is great art on the walls. But the whole experience of eating and being served is performative, a performance art really.
What’s the most Instagrammable spot in Knightsbridge?
Almost everywhere has possibilities.
You were the artistic director of The Royal Academy of Arts for several years. What do you think of Knightsbridge’s connection to the arts? Has anyone painted Knightsbridge or used it as the basis for an artwork that you know of?
The Royal College is just outside the western border of Knightsbridge, so where do you start with its alumni over the years… Antony Gormley has just installed a masterful, monumental geometric body form in the public walkway through Imperial College. It’s called ALERT, although the students initially misread an abstracted iron block/limb and thought it might be better titled ERECT. The Victorian/Edwardian Royal Academician Sir John Lavery had a portrait studio, which is now a beautiful space at Cromwell Place, next to the bar there (great for drinks). But it’s the spectre of Francis Bacon that haunts me and, like Lavery’s studio, his studio in Reece Mews is just over the border, but they are Knightsbridge to me in a way that all of South Ken is. Of course, the Bacon studio was moved lock, stock and palette to Dublin, to the Hugh Lane Gallery, and Bacon tended to cruise and drink in Soho, but he still lived and painted and drank and played out many of his visceral fantasies in his home and studio in Reece Mews. That is where “the brutality of fact” (to coin one of his most celebrated phrases) was wrestled with and confronted head-on.
Now as director and chief executive of The Design Museum, what’s your view on Knightsbridge’s architecture, old and new?
As I’ve said, I love the imperial (and updated) elegance of the great museums, but actually my favourite building has slowly become Basil Spence’s Hyde Park Barracks. I used to be utterly bemused by it: why was it here and why was it allowed by a conservative establishment with deep suspicions of Modernism, let alone Brutalism? But I’m so glad it’s there – loud and insistently proud, but slowly developing the dignity of age. Gilbert and George have an unrepeatable description of it (something connected with the guardsmen who reside there), but it’s best not to put in print. It adds a layer of affectionate humour for me when I cycle past it, though.
If you could own or live in any building in Knightsbridge, which would it be and why?
I guess, Hyde Park Barracks. Sadly, I’d have to throw out the soldiers and turn it into a personal pleasure palace, with a penthouse with unparalleled views. Having said that, a house in Cadogan Square would do instead and be a less Brutal intervention, in every sense.
What gives Knightsbridge its charm?
Personal and collective memory for me – curiosity, too. The museums are repositories of knowledge and understanding, but they also ask so many questions and when you leave the Science Museum, Natural History Museum or the V&A, you don’t return to a bland or mundane place – you’re in beautiful Knightsbridge. This potential to see things differently and be transformed is what I really love about it.
Can you sum up Knightsbridge in three words?
Almost endless possibilities.