It’s the morning after Sir John Richardson’s 90th-birthday party, where 100 of his famous and literary friends (among them Oscar and Annette de la Renta, Sonny and Gita Mehta, and Fran Lebowitz) gathered at ABC Kitchen for a dinner hosted by art dealer Larry Gagosian. Richardson is recalling the drama that went into figuring out the seating, and describing the drag performers (including one who was dressed as a nurse) who mingled with the guests, when his housekeeper announces lunch. A dining table set for five welcomes a sixth as Gita Mehta dashes in to deliver a birthday gift. Things are hectic at Richardson’s Fifth Avenue loft; as they are, it turns out, most of the time. When visitors aren’t around, Richardson spends six to eight hours a day finishing the fourth and final volume of his Picasso biography. He’s also preparing a large show, “Picasso and the Camera,” at Gagosian in November.
After lunch, we retire to Richardson’s turquoise study, where he peruses a manuscript prepared for him in large type (he has macular degeneration in both eyes). The room, like the others he carved out of the 5,000-square-foot loft he bought in 1995, feels more like part of a vast English country house, a mash-up of exotic and classical furniture: a sofa from Mercedes Bass, a carpet from the late Mark Hampton, ikat and suzani textiles that have been thrown over tables and crafted into pillows that all blend seamlessly with the artwork from friends like Lucian Freud, Andy Warhol, and Kathy Ruttenberg.
Richardson banished any traces of open-loft living by creating an enfilade of rooms, one opening onto the other through double doors topped by neoclassical pediments. As he describes his life’s adventures (his time as a journalist for the New Statesman; living with his mentor, the art collector Douglas Cooper, in a château in the south of France; coming to New York in 1960 and establishing Christie’s offices here; being knighted by the queen in 2012), it’s clear that he is that rare bridge to a bygone era. Richardson’s father (also knighted) was 70 when he was born, providing him with a unique link to the last vestiges of Edwardian England. “These ancient relatives gave me a real feel for the mid-19th century,” he says. Yet he’s ever forward-thinking, and planning his next book. “I’d like to write about my early life in New York,” he says with a grin. “But it’s difficult because so much of the material can’t be published.”