‘Harold said to me, “I cannot see what he sees in her.”’ ‘I had seen the photos. I knew exactly.’ ……
……. ‘So what did you do to earn some money?’ ‘Well, by chance, I became the profitable painter of men’s mistresses in Oxford.’
The death, at 85, of a good friend, and a steady regular of my port and conversation monthly meets at Baring Crescent, gives me the opportunity to say a bit about a fascinating man, the available obituary of whom captures only a few facets of the sparkling jewel that is a rich and complex personality. I start with how we got to know each other, move on to art, and then onto a range of other matters.
Moving from Oxford to Axminster, Oliver approached me to take up an earlier contact. We had a shared interest as published military historians, though, when I agreed that he could attend my lectures, I little thought that he would become an assiduous attender of my World History to 1750 and World History from 1750 first year courses and my third year Newspaper History course. He also asked if he could shadow me, which led to him sitting in on MA classes, PhD supervisions, and office hours. He would say very little, and only when invited, but the MA and PhD students found the observations of an ex-colonel of interest. Afterwards, we would discuss the people involved and why I had taken the stance I had adopted. He would then drop me off at home on his way back to Axminster. I enjoyed his company, and he soon became a staple of dinners, parties, and salons at Baring Crescent. As so often with friendship as a whole, he was then taken too quickly, in his case to cancer, albeit at a very good age, and having fought it for long with great courage.
So, what were his most outstanding qualities? First, Oliver had great interpersonal skills. He treated me with that mixture of encouragement and forbearance which suited my personality, but he also had a manic energy, as anybody driven by him will recall. I never thought you could get from Axminster to West Bay so fast. Into his eighties, he aimed to walk nine or so miles a day. A charitable man with an active piety, he was not only a keen churchman but also visited indigent ex-servicemen, worked at Christmas soup kitchens et al. He was very well read, with an excellent library in history, especially military, but far from confined to it. He was curious about strategy, military systems, and comparative effectiveness, not the ‘boys and toys’ approach.
Much-married and a skilful charmer, Oliver was appreciative of female looks until the end and was popular with the nurses in his last months. The line in the obituary about his turning his face to the wall and declining rapidly after the death of his companion Caroline, is simply wrong. Indeed, he reminded me of one of the two best pieces of advice I was given as a young academic at Durham by the professors (one piece of advice from each), namely that as you get older you will find more women attractive. The other told me that he could not take seriously anyone who did not write 5,000 words daily.
With the luridly coloured corduroy trousers, regimental tie, tweed jacket, countryman’s shirts, and distinctive timbre to his voice, Oliver, a committed old Stoic, was very much from a certain background, but he was open to all and devoid of snobbery. Indeed, I only once heard him make critical remarks about an individual (other than family members by whom he felt let down), and that was of a fellow Guardsman and military historian whom he considered arrogant and condescending.
To art. The obituary produced by the Royal Society of British Artists says little about the background of his engagement with painting. He was encouraged by Earl Alexander, a former Guardsman who had thought of becoming a painter before ending up as a Field Marshal, but, aside from finding art a salve, he was also driven by financial circumstances. Oliver lost heavily in Lloyds and also in supporting two successive partners who died of cancer. He took cash-down for much of his colonel’s pension, and found himself in difficulties.
Already a highly accomplished, indeed distinguished, painter by this stage, Oliver, as a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, then living in Oxford, was approached to paint a mistress; not the head of a college but a kept woman. The success of the commission led to many more.
Lunching with him one day at Axminster (the wine of course was better than the cooking), Oliver showed Sarah and myself the half-size preparatory studies he kept for himself. He said that he was struck by the similarity of the women: all in their thirties, all somewhat wistful about what had happened to their life; and of the commissions, with their focus not being on the face, which is unusual for portraits. I asked him why he did not call the women lovers and he said they were all being paid. Oliver thought it sad.
He gave me the mountain scene that hangs in the television room. It shows his rich palette and brilliant ability to handle light, and I am very pleased to have it and somewhat humbled. I could never produce something so beautiful.
Harold Macmillan wanted a young Guards officer as his office man at No. 10 to handle Intelligence material, and Oliver was selected. They got on. He referred to him as Harold, which the Prime Minister had told Oliver was the name he should use as a fellow Guardsman. Oliver recalled one Friday afternoon, Macmillan saying let us visit the battlefields, and Oliver, the PM, and the latter’s private detective going for a weekend. He handled material from the Profumo and Vassall affairs. The quote at the start of course concerns Christine Keeler. Oliver said the times on the photos of Profumo entering and leaving her place made it quite clear he was lying. Oliver thought the Vassall photographs would shock Macmillan, whom he considered somewhat sexually naïve, and he decided not to pass them on.
Subsequently, Oliver served in Military Intelligence in Germany, including working on Soviet manoeuvres in East Germany, used his skiing expertise on at least one Intelligence mission, and worked for Shane Hackett in BAOR as a Staff Officer. Indeed, the three men he praised were Hackett, Macmillan and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to whom Hackett introduced him to and with whom Oliver cooperated. He took a very dim view of those responsible for the murder of British prisoners.
Subsequently, he worked for Robert Maxwell, in part reporting on him to the Security Services. According to Oliver, Maxwell was murdered by his former employers Mossad whom he was trying to blackmail, and this was achieved by two frogmen pulling him under from the back of his boat.
Oliver’s clubs – the Guards, Special Forces, Chelsea Arts and Royal Cornwall Yacht – testified to his wide interest. So did books, such as Boatbuilding in Europe; prizes, such as the Le Clerc Fowle Gold Medal of the ROI; exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1980; leading historical tours, including to the Kasserine Pass when Tunisia was in the shadow of terrorist attacks; interest in the wine trade; and having paintings in leading private collections. He retained a lifelong loyalty to the Welsh Guards in which his father had served, and into which he was commissioned in 1953, commanding No 2 Company before he went to the Staff College and Shrivenham. Some of his paintings can be seen online, as can a 2016 lecture he gave, or can be seen in galleries, for example Folly Bridge (2003) in the Ashmolean.
I liked Oliver a lot. He was stimulating company, very thoughtful, highly reflective, and lacked the tedious conceit, indeed bluster, too many of the military sometimes show. Though very different in age and experience, we greatly enjoyed time together.
Last thoughts. Oliver showed a robust patriotism, a committed conservatism, not least with an affection for institutions that had helped give his life meaning, notably Stowe and, even more, the Welsh Guards, and a continual, almost vigilant, thoughtfulness. He was undoubtedly extremely charming, but, putting that aside (and charm is so often synonymous with insincerity), there was also a warmth of engagement with people and a curiosity about them that was both impressive and soothing. So also with the paintings. There the engagement was with light and landscape, reflecting the influence of the Newlyn School. I have written of my love of the sight of light on water. Oliver could do much better. He could capture it. Much missed.