Jocelyn Stevens

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From The Times 14th October 2014

Jocelyn Stevens loved his demonic image and the stories followed him throughout his career — of throwing a fashion writer’s typewriter out of the window, snipping a cable to get an employee off the phone and sacking a secretary over the PA. “Like putting King Herod in charge of child care” was one comment on his appointment as chairman of English Heritage.

Irascible and provocative, though charming when he wanted to be, he was swiftly dubbed “piranha teeth” by Private Eye (and some of his staff). He tore through senior management in Fleet Street, the Royal College of Arts (RCA) and English Heritage, relishing — and excelling — in slicing unwieldy bureaucracies down to size and shaking up financially ailing organisations. The stuffier they were the more fun he seemed to have.

Arriving as rector at the RCA in the mid-1980s — which he described as like entering England at the time of King John — he found resignations from apprehensive professors already waiting on his desk. The senior common room — where the pinstripe of Stevens’ suits was immediately at odds with the traditional tweed — was said to be an even more dangerous place than Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Moving to English Heritage in 1992 he was warned “watch out for the archaeologists; they will bury you”. Unfazed, Stevens cut 700 jobs and moved sprawling operations from five buildings to one.

Employees who were humiliated by Stevens in front of colleagues or were summarily sacked often claimed he was a monstrous bully. His temper was certainly legendary. In his newspaper days he threw a telephone through a glass partition. He once shouted, “How dare you come here with this little man” during a meeting with an eminent surveyor who had suffered childhood polio. “Thought and reflection are not his thing. . . He believes you get the best out of people by shouting at them,” said one colleague at the RCA.

Stevens was unapologetic: “There’s always blood on the walls when you start something new.” He enjoyed cheerily pointing out to visitors the notice on his office door: “The floggings will continue until morale improves”.

However, at the RCA and English Heritage he was widely held to have streamlined the organisations and put them in more productive, even creative mode. No less important, he left both on a much better financial base — notwithstanding the prodigious sums he would lavish on events and parties. For years he also poured his considerable energies into rescuing Stonehenge from encroaching roads, saying: “I want people to be able to walk again among the stones and feel the excitement of it all.”

Stevens’s motivation puzzled many. Having inherited £1 million when he was 21, he could have lived the life of a playboy, surrounded by elegant women, racehorses and yachts. And he had no obvious empathy for most of the jobs he did — he admitted he thought he had inadvertently opened someone else’s post when he received the RCA offer. However, the answer was surely that he loved running things and he loved the limelight. His English Heritage press releases had banner headlines as large as those in the newspapers, often leaving space for no more than a line or two of text on the first page. And Stevens held more breakfast launches than government ministers.

When he wasn’t working, he led in many ways a golden life; flying regularly to Gstaad for weekends — often with his partner of many years Vivien Duffield, the heiress of tycoon Sir Charles Clore. He had a country house on the River Test and a shooting lodge in a glen in Angus. He loved cars but wrote off the Aston Martin DB4 he bought himself for his 21st birthday within 24 hours. “He seems to live every hour that exists,” the photographer John Hedgecoe once said. “He is the one at midnight after a dinner party who’ll say, ‘Let’s go on somewhere’.” It was once claimed that he spent 300 nights a year in clubs.

Stevens’s mother, Betty, was heiress to the Hulton publishing fortune and died from postnatal complications 13 days after his birth in 1932, leaving him £750,000. His father, Major Greville Stewart-Stevens, held him responsible for his mother’s death, Stevens always thought. The young Jocelyn grew up — Fontleroy fashion — in a flat of his own with a chauffeur, a cook, a maid, a priest and a constant succession of nannies. He was dressed in white satin and driven around London in a Rolls-Royce. “I had to get tough, at least on the outside,” he said. When his father remarried he went to live with his new family in Scotland before he was sent to Eton. He won the Sword of Honour at Sandhurst but then was sent down from Cambridge after going off to ski and incautiously sending his tutor a postcard saying “wish you were here”.

Tall, good-looking with piercing blue eyes, Stevens was known in his early years as a charmer — the “Adonis in a pinstripe suit” — and the golden boy of the Princess Margaret set. For a while he went out with Princess Alexandra. The Tatler called him “one of the most enduringly glamorous people of this century”. In the evenings he flitted between Annabel’s and his Chelsea home in Cheyne Walk.

However, Stevens was adamant: “I’ve spent more time working than playing.” After a spell as a trainee under his uncle Sir Edward Hulton, he bought himself the then stuffy Queen magazine (founded by Mrs Beeton’s husband a century earlier) for his 25th birthday, bringing in Mark Boxer, Lord Snowdon — a lifelong friend — and Willi Lander to make it the fashionable read of the 1960s. He was one of the first to publish work by Mary Quant. At Queen Stevens also made his name for his temper. It was said that he once fired the entire second floor over the intercom, causing floods of debutante tears.

Stevens’s genuine marketing flair — he backed the pirate station Radio Caroline — took him in 1968 to Beaverbrook Newspapers where he arrived as the potential crown prince to Max Aitken, the first Lord Beaverbrook’s son, and was given the Evening Standard on which to cut his teeth. “I hear young Stevens bites the carpet,” Aitken said. Stevens rebranded the delivery vans in their familiar zigzag designs and built bridges with the unions, promising that they would be the first £100 a week van drivers in Fleet Street.

Moving on to the ailing Daily Express in 1972, he oversaw the closure of Beaverbrook’s Glasgow production plant — and with it 1,400 jobs. However, after being appointed managing director and deputy chairman of Express Newspapers, he found himself out of work in 1981 after losing a battle on the group’s future with its owner Lord Matthews. When he asked the woman who organised boardroom lunches to put on a leaving party she burst into tears — a mark of his popularity.

His obsession with work and winning, he once said, contributed to the breakdown of his first marriage to Jane Sheffield, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, in 1979. He faced the death in his 20s of one of their sons, Rupert, who was born with brain damage. Stevens was later devoted to raising money for his son’s condition. Similarly when his daughter Pandora became a drug addict, Stevens battered down the door of the squat where she was living. Pandora later married the property developer Charles Delevingne and had three daughters Cara, Chloe and Poppy Delevingne, who have made their names as models and socialites. Stevens’s other son Charles has held senior management positions at Microsoft, and another daughter, Melinda, is the editor of Condé Nast Traveller.

Stevens was chosen in 1984 by Mrs Thatcher as the new rector of the Royal College of Art. His academic background was negligible but he was an outsider with a taste for cutting dead wood and it was hoped he could put the college on a commercial footing. “A master’s degree student who can get a job only as a waitress is a failure, a failure on our part because we’ve wasted that person’s time and we’ve wasted taxpayers’ money,” he said. He sold off buildings and slimmed down courses. “The noticeboards are currently plastered with an illustration of me as Adolf Hitler,” he grinned. But by the time he left student applications were up by 27 per cent, the budget was balanced and £20 million had been raised for new buildings.

In 1992, at the behest of Michael Heseltine, he became chairman of English Heritage, which he ran in characteristic buccaneering style for eight years. The papers had a field day with headlines including “Terminator 3 arrives at English Heritage”. However, despite fears that he would sell off ancient monuments and sacrifice listed buildings, Stevens became an enthusiastic heritage campaigner, launching a register of historic buildings at risk and intervening to save endangered buildings such as the Crescent at Buxton in Derbyshire.

The cause which he made truly his own was Stonehenge, where neither English Heritage nor the National Trust had dealt with the problem of the two main roads holding the ancient stones in a scissors embrace. When the Department of Transport declined to pay for the tunnel that Stevens proposed, he simply refused to take no for an answer and secured the promise of funding, even though it is still to be built.

With Vivien, his partner of 25 years, he gave legendary parties. For his 50th birthday in 1982 they flew 130 guests to Gstaad and showered them with presents. At dinner every table had a tree of diamonds, sapphires and emeralds while the band floated on a pool. His home in Hampshire included a huge collection of fishing books.

His relationship with Vivien ended in 2005 when he moved in with Emma Cheape, daughter of Sir Iain Tennant and 22 years his junior. They married in 2008 and divided their time between London and Malaga, where friends said he had mellowed. “He never shouts at anyone any more,” said one.

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, publisher, rector of the Royal College of Art and chairman of English Heritage, was born on February 14, 1932. He died on October 9, 2014, aged 82

© 2005-2022 Alastair McIntyre