December 4, 2018 – Published in Design & Decor Winter 2018 issue
Mr Ambassador… your residence awaits
Words Jim Dunn
There's no doubt that being an Ambassador for one’s country certainly carries a whole heap of privileges… hot and cold running staff, cars, chauffeurs, respect, lots of elegant and free dinners, travel, influence, responsibility and a busy and at times enviable social life. There is one privilege however which I’m sure we would all enjoy… there’s usually a very grand residence to go with the job.
Well, that certainly was true in the past, but is it still the case now? Sadly no. Financial cutbacks and the change in the political climate has meant that many Ambassadors from many countries now have to ‘slum it’ in small flats and apartments doubling as offices, squeezed in with the day to day requirements of Embassies for visas and work permits.
Certainly leafing through a marvellous new tome ‘British Embassies… their Diplomatic and Architectural History’ by James Stourton with stunning photographs of marvellous interiors, by Luke White shows that sometimes, to be an Ambassador and travel the world even to war zones and in these cash struck days is not a bad way to pass the week.
And British Embassies are certainly not the grandest around the world. Just look at the millions spent recently by the USA on its new Embassy in London when they had a perfectly good and grand one already in the centre of the capital. More security was the reason given.
During my travels I’ve visited many Embassies around the world belonging to a great number of countries… Spain, Argentina, China, Hong Kong and its Government House and Italy to name a few… and I’ve been fortunate when I was a working PR man, to relax in some of their hospitality.
Ambassadors are the symbol of the way in which States recognise each other and the conduit for communication between them.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Embassies were exchanged between Courts, usually with great noblemen representing the Monarch. Now the emphasis is more on the importance of ‘soft’ diplomacy and trade. Ambassadors today have to work much harder than their predecessors.
Kabul in Afganistan is one of the most dangerous cities in the world for diplomats but this didn’t stop them holding their first charity ball in 2007 with a tent pitched in the sports ground. So a certain amount of bravado is also needed in the diplomatic profession. At the start of the Velvet Revolution in Hungary in 1989, Britain suddenly found itself in position to assist the new government of Vaclav Havel with a ‘know how’ fund sending out a team of the finest British accountants, lawyers and bankers to help the transition from a command economy to a free economy. Promoting business interests is also a major part of an Ambassador’s life.
Embassies play a special role in the history of a country… they represent that country in bricks and mortar and express… at least in the eyes of foreigners, a country’s national character. They are an unsung part of our heritage and deserve to be better known.
Increasingly some Embassies around the world, particularly those with an interesting history and architecture are available for tours if you plan ahead.
One Ambassador said of his work, ‘he will not have to work in the limelight, he will know that the actual process of negotiation is nearly always slow and undramatic and that it will not be helped by the constant beam of publicity. Nor does a diplomat have to show personal success for the outcome. Nothing makes negotiation more difficult than if one side fears that it is going to be made to look as though it has yielded too much by the other claiming that it has had a great triumph’.
BREXIT negotiations come into mind…
Being an Ambassador was once called ‘laying down your liver for your country’ as the job used to involve so much entertaining and socialising. Not so nowadays I hear the diplomatic world shouting! Cutbacks and the advent of social media where everyone has the opportunity to see what an Ambassador is up to, have meant that they have to be very careful about how they are perceived by the outside world.
Embassy interiors no matter which country, at least some of them, can be very grand as we can see from the photographs in Stourton’s book. Filled with appropriate pictures, artworks and furnishings – mainly from Government Art Collections. Britain is not the only country to go grand with its Embassy interiors. Some countries now employ their top interior designers to create a ‘look’ for their Embassy. Jackie Onassis famously redecorated Washington’s White House, her official residence almost immediately her husband, John Kennedy, came into power as President and then encouraged the US Embassies around the world to have a look at their individual interiors and spruce up where required, using top local and international talent.
As you travel if you get an opportunity to visit and view your Embassy I would certainly recommend a viewing. These days with heightened security it is becoming more difficult to gain access but perseverance can pay off wonderfully.