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Why has the concert hall been renamed the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall? Amaryllis Fleming (1925–1999) was an outstanding cellist who won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1943, made her Proms debut in 1953 and had a major performing career before returning to the RCM in the 1970s as a professor. Geoff Richards tells us more about her private life and commitment to good causes.Working for the Robert Fleming bank for many years, Geoff Richards became a close friend of Amaryllis Fleming and then Managing Trustee of the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation, which has supported the concert hall’s dramatic transformation...
Well Amaryllis was an extraordinary person. She was incredibly feisty and wasn’t very good at suffering fools. She was lovely, and it was exciting to be with her, not least because if somebody said something she didn’t like or agree with, she would immediately tell them, not in a cruel way but in a very direct way, why she disagreed with them. She did look at things literally, and she couldn’t understand why people would be slow to take a side if it was obvious that they should. She had amazing principles, and she stuck by them.
She never thought she was any good – never! I begged her to keep recordings that she was given when she did BBC broadcasts, but she would just throw them away – she thought they were terrible, shocking. She always thought that they could have been better – the striving for perfection was extraordinary. But I used to sit and listen to her play Bach, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone play the way she played – it was just so moving.
She had a difficult life. She never knew when her birthday was, just that she was born around 1925. Her mother [Eve Fleming] went off on a long trip, a year or more, and came back brandishing a child, saying “look what I’ve adopted on the way”. I’m told that everyone was commenting on her Titian red hair, which matched that of Augustus John, who had the studio in the attic of the Flemings’ house in Cheyne Walk. But it’s said that if anyone even whispered a suggestion that Eve had had a liaison, or had an illegitimate child, they were immediately threatened with legal action.
And that was very sad because Amaryllis didn’t find out until she was 23 that Augustus John was her father. He told her and said “don’t tell your mother!” After that, she had a tremendous relationship with her father, though she had a rather more tempestuous relationship with her mother. Her mother was a very accomplished violinist and encouraged Amaryllis in her music, but I think when Amaryllis obviously overtook her, being so talented, it didn’t make her feel very happy. So there was a bit of rivalry there, and also Amaryllis became very beautiful just as her mother was aging.
Her half-brother Richard, who was chairman of the bank and a wonderful man, was fantastic to her and looked after her. All her four brothers – Richard, Ian [creator of James Bond], Peter, and Michael Valentine – were very fond of her, and they were very close.
I saw Amaryllis at least every couple of weeks but we talked probably every other day, because she would always ring me if she heard of a cause, particularly students who couldn’t afford instruments, or had a problem with their accommodation or their tuition fees. She was quite persistent – she would turn up at the bank and ask to see me, and say “Look, I’ve had the annual report and the bank’s made all these hundreds of millions, a lot of this money we should give away!”
She also had other great causes, such as Tibet. She was absolutely transfixed by Tibet and by the huge injustice perpetrated against the Tibetan people, and so we still support the Dalai Lama’s school at Dharamsala, and other things – Tibet House in London, for example.
Although we were always dishing out money from different sources, she never had much money herself, because as an adopted child she wasn’t entitled to any of the Fleming Trust. But the extraordinary thing about Amaryllis was that she never asked me for anything for herself. She lived like a church mouse really. The whole ground floor of the mews house was like a music room: bare boards, a Steinway, a lot of books, two rickety wooden chairs; nothing grand or comfortable or sumptuous in any way. She lived simply and she didn’t really have a lot of objects, except that every wall was filled, upstairs and downstairs, with Augustus John’s wonderful pictures, which he left her.
Amaryllis continued to teach well into her seventies. In the latter years, when she’d had several strokes and her mobility was not very good, I used to go round and see her, and take her Indian or Thai food. Quite often she was giving classes as I arrived and I would sit and wait, and I thought they were wonderful, these students, and they obviously adored her. Even though she was incredibly sharp and tough – I mean terrifying!
Leading up to her death she had a few heart scares and was in and out of hospital. We talked about death, and she was really frightened. But by chance the Dalai Lama was here on a tour, and because she’d supported him for years, he agreed to see her. So she was taken by ambulance to see him, and spent about half an hour with him. Afterwards she told me “It was wonderful, amazing. I’ve got nothing to be frightened of any more – he’s told me I’m going to fly like a bird to heaven.” And she went to her death absolutely serene.
The day before she died I called her and said “I’m coming to see you, is there anything you’d like?” And she said “do you know, I was thinking Geoff, I’ve never had caviar”. So I went along to Harrods, and I bought this little tin of caviar – it cost me about £250, I couldn’t believe it! – and a little mother of pearl dish and spoon to eat it with, and took it to her in the hospital. And she died some hours after, but she had her caviar. It was the only thing she could think of that she hadn’t done!
When she went I wasn’t sad at all. There was a feeling of joy, because she was a real person, who had done so much with her life. She’d had an amazing life, made many friends, had known absolute love and had a lot of lovers (we all know that!), and she was loved by many. She was loved by her students, and at her memorial service at St Bartholomew’s – I’ll never forget, it was all their idea and they organised it themselves – they all turned up and performed. It was just incredible.
How did the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation come into being?
Towards the end of her life, Amaryllis told me that she wanted me to carry on supporting the causes that she believed in and had always actively supported – students, helping the College, and Tibet; musical, educational and humanitarian causes.
So on her instruction, I sold Augustus John’s paintings at auction after her death, and the money went into creating the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation, as did the proceeds of the sale of her house. That is what is sustaining what we do.
My absolute objective is never to let her name be forgotten. She really did make a difference, in a very quiet way, to a lot of people.
How did you come to support the Hall's refurbishment?
Amaryllis had her favourite students, and Raphael Wallfisch was one of them. He was the first person who I encouraged to take the loan of her Stradivarius cello, as Amaryllis wanted it to be used by people who would appreciate it. So Raphael had it for a while, but then he found it too much of a responsibility, and the insurance bills prohibitive. Then rather than pass the cello on to another student, I decided that Amaryllis would really appreciate the gesture of selling it to benefit the College, specifically the Concert Hall.
What do you think of the Hall?
I think the hall is wonderful – it’s better than I could have imagined. I was dreading what they were going to do to it, but I think it’s absolutely as it should be. I think the Concert Hall is fantastic! (I even have no problem with the chandeliers!)
What do you hope the benefits of the Hall will be?
I want to see exposure for the College, particularly through the BBC Proms usage, which is fantastic. I want Amaryllis’s name to be heard and rung out everywhere. And I think the RCM has an extremely good orchestra, it really does, a tremendously talented group of students, and so I hope that in these magnificent surrounding it will go from strength to strength and continue to be replenished by students as they come through.
What do you enjoy about charitable giving?
If you have the privilege of being involved in making a difference, that’s all there is to it. Nothing else – it’s a tremendous cause.
What motivates you to be involved with the RCM?
It was Amaryllis’s belief in the place and its aims and objectives, which I was incredibly impressed with. She loved the College. She liked the College rather than the Academy; she thought the Academy was for toffs! We all remember that the College, when it was founded, really was for the benefit of students who couldn’t afford it, and it’s an amazing experience to give to something that’s going to make such a difference.
I’d love to help find the money to improve the whole building, because it’s a lovely building but it needs work and needs funds desperately, so now the hall this is done we’ve got to move onto the next chunk, a bit at a time.
The bottom line in terms of our giving to the College, which has been over many years – we bought the new pianos for the Recital Hall, we’ve given money to the development fund and scholarships – is to make it a better place for the students, and to encourage creativity. We hope they’ll appreciate it, because it’s incredibly important.
The whole point is to encourage the creation of excellence in music and in musicians. We support a lot of different things but this is a very special cause because of Amaryllis’s involvement. I know she’ll be looking down, very happy.
What is the immediate future of philanthropy?
Well I sit on a number of boards, I sit as a member of the Prince’s Charities Council, and it’s a huge worry. The people I speak to who are doing the same sort of thing, we think we’ve got a very difficult time ahead for between 7 to 10 years, at least. And charitable giving is going to be hit very badly, not least because of the massive depletion of values. I was sitting in a trustee’s meeting last week next to a person who had had a third of his wealth wiped out in a matter of months. So people start to get jittery and stop everything.
So it’s going to be difficult, but where I think you will be ahead is because people who love music and believe in education will still try and help, will still try and give a bit even if they haven’t got a lot. Myself, I will continue to do what I can, particularly for the College, because without education, opening minds, without introducing children to culture, you are lost.
This interview first appeared in Upbeat, the RCM Magazine, summer 2009.