Book review: Lord Of The Isle: The Extravagant Life and Times of Colin Tennant

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IS this the story of a poor little rich boy? A man who managed to shed a vast fortune and was all the same unhappy? No, somehow it isn’t.

Lord Of The Isle: The Extravagant Life and Times of Colin Tennant

by Nicholas Courtney

Bene Factum, 320pp, £20

Colin Tennant, who was my cousin, knew that whatever he spent, there was always more to call upon. He was a difficult person, as many discovered. As a child, he would say: “I’m the Horrible Colin Tennant.” He would fumble for ‘honourable’ and come out with ‘horrible’ and many who fell out with him would agree with the latter.

Colin Tennant, or Lord Glenconner as he became on the death of his father, was beloved by the press for his party-going antics, especially on his Caribbean island where he entertained lavishly as if the day of reckoning would never come.

The Mustique years read like a less profound Memoirs of Saint-Simon: pages packed with celebrities, royalty and aristocrats. Colin’s friendship with Princess Margaret unfolds like a fairytale of royalty with nabob but there was never any sex beyond some petting. Physically, Colin said, he didn’t turn her on. Laughter joined them.

The money that came to Colin he owed to primogeniture; the Tennant riches had been made 150 years earlier by our ancestor, Charles Tennant.

The son of a subsistence farmer in Ayrshire, Charles showed great perseverance, and with his invention and patenting of dry bleaching powder, the path was set towards enormous wealth. His was an Industrial Revolution fortune to rival that of Wedgwood. By the 1850s the Tennants had moved their social life from Glasgow to the Borders, where Colin’s entrepreneurial great-grandfather, known as the Bart, amassed paintings and objets d’art.

The faux baronial castle, called Glen, was where Colin Tennant entertained but then he bought Mustique and the real spending began. He had vision but less business sense. His eye was excited only when there was something he wanted to buy. He would roam the continents to make a purchase – from Indian silks and jewels to an elephant.

In spite of his self-glorification, there was a generous side to Colin. He saw to it that all the children on Mustique had a proper education there. He built for them a school house. With his own children he had to survive disasters. He lost one son to hepatitis C – the result of heavy intravenous drug-taking, another to Aids, and a third was severely injured in a motorcycle accident.

Against this sadness, he continued to throw entertainments on a massive scale. On his 60th birthday on Mustique he dressed in white and gold and wore a crown of gold. Guests were flown out from England to a boat tethered offshore, and so went £2 million.

Nicholas Courtney has written a warts-and-all biography. One assumes Colin would have approved of that. He knew he was neurotic, mercurial and impossible.

The reckoning came in his last few years. Mustique was sold, bought at a bargain price by the various house-owners on the island. Colin departed to St Lucia to start again, and by then he was in his seventies. But rows prevented his scheme there from being fully realised.

By the mid-2000s, he was cash poor. He died in 2010 aged 83. By then, £100m had evaporated into nowhere.

Once he said to me at Glen: “The Tennants have been destroyed by their vanity.” He meant the later Tennants, namely my great-uncle Stephen Tennant and my grandmother, Clare, the Cecil Beaton beauty, but he was also referring to himself.

l Simon Blow is the author of Broken Blood: The Rise and Fall of the Tennant Family.