After a chance encounter, Paul Kenny was driven to learn more about the man whose name is synonymous with Bond and his Bentley. We caught up with Paul to understand more about his journey to publication and one of Ian Fleming’s oldest friends, Amherst Villiers.
What inspired you to write a book on Amherst Villiers?
It all started after a conversation with Paul Fearnley, who was editing Motor Sport magazine at the time. He agreed to publish an interesting story if I found one, and a week later I was in the National Portrait Gallery and my eyes alighted on portraits of Ian Fleming and racing driver Graham Hill. The blurbs on the artist spoke of his lifelong friendship with Fleming, supercharging the Bentley driven by James Bond in the early novels, designing Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang and the engine which powered Hill to his first world championship, and being fortunate not to be on the flight which killed Hill and five of his team.
I clearly had my interesting story, Paul agreed, and my Motor Sport article on Amherst led to an invitation to speak at Brooklands. I had so much material on Amherst by then. That night in the Brooklands bar after the talk it was clear that a book was the logical next step.
Where did your research take you?
I was fortunate enough to enjoy the support of Edward, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu from the outset, and he not only invited me to Beaulieu House, but he very kindly wrote the foreword to the book. I stayed with Amherst’s nephew, Desmond Fitzgerald, the Knight of Glin, at Glin Castle by the River Shannon. Both men have died since, sadly.
But perhaps the most agreeable visit of all was to the Ian Fleming Archive in London. It was, of course, a thrill and a privilege to read through the great man’s correspondence – while researching the conclusion of the car chase in Moonraker, he introduced himself to a marketing exec at Bowater Paper as ‘a spare-time writer of thrillers’! But I was most taken with the art displayed on the walls there. Much of the collection dates back to Ian’s grandfather Robert, the founder of the eponymous bank.
What surprised you most about Villiers and his life?
For all the breadth and depth of his many skills, Amherst was not a great decision-maker. That’s partly because he was the ultimate ‘projects guy’ – there was always something else to be inspired by, and he rarely benefited as much as he should from his current venture. But he was also easily offended and preferred to walk away or sue someone rather than reason things through. He often spoke of having the rug pulled from under him, blind to the fact that he was the common link in what he saw as the all the misfortunes that befell him. In the end, I stopped being surprised by his capacity to trip himself up!
What was Villiers’ relationship with Fleming like?
They met at an Oxford ball, around 1927. Fleming was not yet 20 and still finding his way in life. Amherst was seven years older and his cars had been at the forefront of British motorsport for several years, yet they revelled in each other’s company and often met up if they were both in London.
Fleming told Playboy magazine that he gave Bond a Blower Bentley to drive because ‘Amherst Villers was and is a great friend of mine and I knew something about it from my friendship with him.’ It was a regular joke between the pair that Amherst only read books on engineering and art, never fiction. Fleming dedicated a copy of You Only Live Twice to him with the words, ‘To Amherst. Read it, damn you!’
They saw plenty of each other during the spring of 1962 when Fleming visited Amherst’s Kensington home regularly to sit for the portrait. Each session began with his favourite lunch of scrambled eggs and sausages, washed down with red wine, and then work began. There was plenty of conversation during the sittings, and Amherst sometimes had to banish his wife Nita from the studio when she made Fleming laugh. Fleming liked the portrait so much that it became the frontispiece to a limited edition of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Amherst and Nita were living in California when they learned Fleming had died. Nita told a researcher who worked on John Pearson’s The Life of Ian Fleming, ‘We both loved him and the world will always be less for us without him.’
What was the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang connection?
It began just ahead of the portrait sittings. Fleming explained that he was going to make a book out of the bedtime stories he told his son Caspar about a magical car that could fly. He wanted Amherst to illustrate it, and gave him precise instructions on the wraparound cover, colour centre spread and a dashboard cluttered with knobs.
Amherst described what emerged as ‘a low, green, rakish-looking car – half SSK Mercedes with a round Delauney Bellville radiator’, but he passed up the chance to become a children’s book illustrator when he chose to move to the US to work on a Martian space probe. Jonathan Cape passed his engineering drawings to John Burningham, and John’s images in the Chitty books bear a striking resemblance to Amherst’s original design.
Could you tell us about his painting career?
From childhood, Amherst had always been able to sketch swiftly and effectively, but there was no indication that he would leave automotive and astronautic engineering for life as a professional portrait painter – until he did! He quit Boeing’s Lunar System Group and moved to New York to work for Portraits Inc, a kind of dating agency that matched artists to wealthy clients.
When he returned to London, ostensibly to act as a consultant to the BRM Grand Prix team, he made two trips to Florence to study under Pietro Annigoni, who had achieved great fame with his portrait of the newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth. Amherst developed the naturalistic form of portraiture seen to good effect with his depiction of Fleming and painted Graham Hill around the same time.
A client list of 007’s creator and world champion driver could surely have formed the basis of a successful career as a society portrait painter, but instead, he pursued that Mars project with Douglas Aircraft and the moment was lost. He didn’t return to painting until Nita died, and he seemed unable to match the standards of his earlier work. It became more of a hobby.
What is his ultimate legacy?
Not as great as it could have been. If he’d focused solely on motor racing or rocketry, he might be remembered as Britain’s greatest engineer since Brunel. If he’d stayed with portraiture he might be held in the same regard as Annigoni. But that would be to misunderstand him. When you think that in his early 60s, when many men are thinking of retirement, he studied under the most famous portrait painter of the time, worked on the detail design of a World Championship-winning Grand Prix engine, and was brought across the Atlantic to help establish the optimal route to Mars, then I’d say Amherst Villiers deserves the title of Britain’s greatest projects guy.
Besides, his name proudly projects from the front of the Blower Bentley, one of the most desirable cars in the world, the car which Ian Fleming explained in Casino Royale was ‘Bond’s only personal hobby’ – and millions of us have read about that.
Paul Kenny was raised in Cheshire and studied archaeology at Newcastle University. A lifelong motor racing enthusiast, he has written for Motor Sport and lectured at Brooklands, Beaulieu, and in the US, Canada and Germany.
Villiers’ cars broke lap records at Le Mans and Brooklands. He spent more than 20 years working on the US space programme, and his paintings were displayed in London’s National Portrait Gallery. ‘An authoritative, overdue account of a remarkable man’ – LORD MONTAGU OF BEAULIEU.
Purchase a signed copy of The Man Who Supercharged Bond (Haynes, 2009).
To buy a print of Amherst Villier’s portrait of Ian Fleming, please contact Jon Gilbert at Adrian Harrington Books. The prints are 24” x 30”, about the same size as the original. Price in UK / Europe is £150 c/o Jon Gilbert at Adrian Harrington Books, firstname.lastname@example.org, or $200 in the US directly from Brad Frank, BradFrank@ianflemingfoundation.org.