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Philip Hewat-Jaboor was a champion of the decorative arts and generous mentor to many

8 April 2022

Philip Hewat-Jaboor (1953–2022) was a pillar of the world of decorative arts, design and collecting. An art advisor and chairman of Masterpiece Art Fair, he began his professional life in the furniture department at Sotheby’s Belgravia, where his keen eye and talent were spotted by the auction house’s then chairman Peter Wilson. In 1979, Philip took over Hatfields Restoration, where he was joined a year later by his former Sotheby’s colleague and close friend, the late Philip Astley-Jones (1946–2021). Together, both Philips oversaw the conservation of the Badminton Cabinet, which later became famous for twice beating the record as the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at auction.

A lover of the Regency period, Hewat-Jaboor was the mastermind behind two important exhibitions, whose multi-authored catalogues bear witness to his dedication to scholarship: ‘William Beckford, 1760–1844: An Eye for the Magnificent’ (2001, Bard Graduate Center and Dulwich Picture Gallery) and ‘Thomas Hope: Regency Designer’ (2008, Bard Graduate Center and Victoria and Albert Museum). Philip’s understanding of these two outstanding collectors was unparalleled and he was the living proof that even without a university degree, one can become a leading figure in the field of art history.

Passionate about cross-collecting, the blending of old and new, nature and culture, Philip and his partner of 30 years, the ingenious hatter Rod Keenan, created an oasis on the island of Jersey. The gem of a library they built into the hill might almost qualify as a place of pilgrimage for art historians; and although in many ways a very private person, Philip was happy to share it with whomever showed an interest.

Famously discreet, which came in handy when advising serious art collectors (or ‘grown up’ collectors, as he would put it), one could be sure that one’s secrets were kept better by Philip than by oneself. He was a passionate traveller, his love of India gradually superseded by what can only be described as an obsession with Egypt. With indefatigable vim he sought out monuments and quarries – the more remote, the better. My phone is full of pictures he sent me from his last visit only three months ago, including one of an alabaster shrine he had not seen in 40 years; he was convinced nobody had visited it in the interim.

Philip will be remembered by many for his expertise in imperial porphyry – the beguiling, deep purple stone quarried in Egypt and revered by Roman emperors and early modern European monarchs alike. Not only did Philip put together an important collection of porphyry objects of his own, but his devotion to the alluring colour of the rare rock also extended to sartorial choices, cars, the ink in his fountain pen, commissions (such as from Stephen Cox, RA) and interior decoration, most notably his much-photographed entrance hall at Ennismore Gardens. Indeed, multiple tributes on social media have emphasised Philip’s great sense of style and how he ‘owned’ the colour purple.

His impeccable manners and traditional attire may have conjured the image of a somewhat intimidating patrician set in his ways, but behind the glamorous purple facade was a truly gentle man, a kind soul, probably the most open-minded person I ever met. He was quite the opposite of a snob – although he couldn’t help but reprimand me whenever I would order a cappuccino after lunch: ‘Where were you brought up?!’ His quick wit and incorrigible sense of humour will be what his friends will miss the most, as well as his contagious laugh, which saw his impressive nose rhythmically swing from left to right – a gift for any caricaturist.

Philip Hewat-Jaboor

Photo: Danny Evans Photography

Philip’s extraordinary generosity of spirit and his eagerness to engage with the next generation, made him the sounding board of numerous curators and historians of the decorative arts in the making – his mentorship made even more meaningful by the fact that he himself sought advice from the young, thereby demonstrating just how seriously he took his mentees. He had friends of all ages and while his rarefied lifestyle could have led to accusations for being out of touch, he was in fact keenly aware of the tribulations of professional life and the struggles young curators and scholars face, as they try to establish themselves. He helped where he could and was a passionate advocate of the Bard Graduate Center, Art House Jersey, the Furniture History Society and numerous other organisations. To him, it was essential that, beyond their academic credentials, emerging museum professionals would be presented with opportunities to train their eye. He therefore arranged for young mentees to shadow the vetting committees at Masterpiece, thereby allowing them to learn from the connoisseurship of established experts.

I met Philip Hewat-Jaboor exactly ten years ago, on a Furniture History Society (FHS) trip to St Petersburg. We sat next to each other at dinner on the first night. I had done my homework, he had done his: I had read up on his many achievements, and although I was but a lowly PhD student, he knew exactly where my interests lay. ‘Lisa White tells me you are mad keen on Savonnerie carpets.’ Many FHS visits would follow, for which I put together the programme: Hanover, Vienna, Paris and Lisbon. The bus rides between sites brought out the immature school boys in us – the naughty leader being our mutual pal Philip Astley-Jones. The three of us became an inseparable trio on those trips, and both Hewat-Jaboor and I were heartbroken when Astley-Jones died in August 2021. At every official dinner with our host curators, Hewat-Jaboor would be my trump card. Nobody was to resist his subtle charm. In Vienna I sat him next to the director of the Hofmobilien depot and, hey presto, the next day we were granted entry to the otherwise inaccessible ceremonial apartments of the President of the Republic of Austria, densely hung with pietre dure plaques collected by Francis, Duke of Lorraine.

Many of Philip’s friends knew him much longer than I did; 30, 40 years and more. I was given only ten, but had banked to have him around for at least another 20. Some of my happiest moments saw us racing around the narrow serpentines of Jersey on a late summer’s day (he was an excellent driver) disentangling all sorts of issues; and no matter how serious the subject, the conversation usually ended in laughter.

When Philip got wind that I had declined a job offer to work in New York (I deliberately didn’t tell him, because I knew exactly what he’d say) he summoned me to the Masterpiece Fair, which was being held at that moment, to tell me that it was out of the question that I should reject such an offer. Of course, he was right. Three and a half years later, he and Rod travelled especially across the Atlantic for the opening of an exhibition I curated, the gestation of which he had accompanied every step of the way.

Even after I moved to the States, Philip and I remained in touch almost every day. When we learned he hadn’t much left to live, and he was too weak to speak over the phone, I sent him snaps I took of ‘old friends’, porphyry vases from the Met and the Wallace Collection, as ‘I thought they might brighten up your day’. ‘Yes!’ he enthusiastically replied. The essence of his enjoyment of art and life is captured in the very last message I would receive from him, which was in response to the last piece of porphyry we shared: ‘Fun!’

Wolf Burchard is associate curator in the department of European sculpture and decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.