FAMOUS EXPATS

Alice Keppel

A royal road to Florence
by Deirdre Pirro   (issue no. 180/2013 / March 28, 2013)

The epitaph on her tombstone at the Cimitero degli Allori (Evangelical Cemetery of Laurels), just outside Florence, tells us ‘she was gay, unselfish, brave,’ but Alice Frederica Keppel had one other invaluable quality: she was discrete. This was to make her the last and longest-serving mistress of Edward VII (1849–1910), the king of the United Kingdom, the British Dominions and Emperor of India. For 12 years, from 1898, the year in which they first met, until his death in 1910, Keppel, with style and a sharp eye for keeping up appearances at all costs, satisfied her lover in bed; diplomatically advised him behind the scenes; played bridge; went shooting, to the races, boating and on holiday with him; and, generally, fussed over him. In 1925, no longer a central part of the London social scene after the king died, Keppel bought Villa Ombrellino at Bellosguardo with the generous bequest the king had left her. Until her death on September 11, 1947, without ever learning a word of Italian, she reigned over her many royal and aristocratic guests as well as the city’s insular Anglo-American colony.

 

Born on April 29, 1868, in Scotland, the youngest of the nine children of Sir William Edmonstone, 4th Baronet, and his wife, Alice grew up at Duntreath Castle, Loch Lomond. On June 1, 1891, a beautiful 22-year-old with milky white skin, thick chestnut-coloured hair, bright blue eyes and a stunning hour-glass figure, she married Lieutenant-Colonel George Keppel (1865–1947), the handsome, although not wealthy, third son of William Coutts Keppel, 7th Earl of Albemarle. They had two daughters: Violet Trefusis (1894–1972; see TF 179, 172), a writer who worshipped her mother and was, in return, totally spoilt, despite Violet’s scandalous affair with Vita Sackville-West; and Sonia Cubitt (1900–1986), neither as beloved or talented, who would eventually make Alice Keppel the great-grandmother of Camilla, now Duchess of Cornwall and second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales.

 

Keppel was 29 when she was introduced to 56-year-old Bertie, the diminutive name of the future King Edward VII. A uniform-loving chain smoker, Bertie was a big, bearded man with a huge appetite at the table and for all the pleasures he indulged in. Notoriously hard to please, he was easily bored, especially by his legion of lovers. Adroitly able to keep him amused and to wisely and tactfully advise him, Keppel soon became indispensable to him, as well as respected and accepted (even by the queen) at court. With an accommodating husband who never dreamt of upsetting the royal apple cart, she had a glittering lifestyle, full of privileges and perks for her and those close to her—while it lasted.

 

On Bertie’s death and the succession of the more conservative George V (1865–1936), Keppel became an embarrassment to the royal family.

 

Obeying her innate good sense, she dropped out of sight for a while, taking her family on a two-year trip to Ceylon and the Orient.

 

Returning to London, Keppel bought and opulently turned a piano warehouse at 16 Grosvenor Street into a magnificent home, where her balls and soirées were attended by the rich and famous of the day. During World War I, both she and her husband George contributed to the war effort, she working at a field hospital in France whilst he fought in the trenches. After the war, she sold their London home and, looking for a place in the sun, chose the fourteenth-century Villa Ombrellino, with its magnificent views over Florence. However, unimpressed by the villa, Harold Acton did not include it in his Tuscan Villas, maintaining that, although ‘Mrs Keppel removed the excrescences from its front terrace and replaced the tawdry Victorian palms with Venetian statues ... the house is a pretentious pastiche.’ Nonetheless, once home to astronomer Galileo Galilei and to poet Ugo Foscolo, the villa, which took its name from an external Chinese-type metal parasol construction, proved the perfect place for Keppel to entertain Europe’s bluebloods and handpicked local expatriates. She furnished it plushly and, in 1926, commissioned British architect Cecil Pinsent to redo the garden.

 

Her husband, according to Kinta Beevor in her book, A Tuscan Childhood, had other interests. She writes that George Keppel kept a bachelor pad in town where he liked to photograph young women in racy poses. Sorry for him, she comments ‘everybody adored his wife ... and he must have felt left out.’

 

Forced to decamp to England in 1940 until World War II ended, the couple returned to Florence in 1946. The following year, Alice Keppel died of liver disease. Scarcely two months later, George Keppel also passed away. In her memoir, Don't Look Round, Violet Trefusis confided that ‘he did not wish to survive her. Always the most courteous of men, it was almost as though he were loath to keep her waiting.’ Her mother left Villa Ombrellino to Trefusis for her lifetime. After she died in Florence in 1972, it passed to her sister, who immediately sold it.

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