Culture » Bayswater Bohemian
Technically they may be called Lord and Lady Ogilvy, but they’re making their own names in music and art.
If you’re going to launch a career as a country-folk musician, one who sings ballads about lonesome nights and rain on the train tracks, it helps if your backstory includes a hard-luck childhood in Oklahoma or Tennessee and a string of adult heartbreaks and misfortunes—maybe even a jail sentence or two. When instead you happen to be an Oxford-educated British lord, the heir to a 14th-century estate in the Highlands and a godson of Queen Elizabeth II, things get a bit trickier.
But at a recent Paris concert, where David Ogilvy opened for country star Lucinda Williams, nobody in the audience seemed to know about Ogilvy’s pedigree, let alone hold it against him. Dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt, with an acoustic guitar at his hip, Ogilvy, 49, strummed through a few songs from his three albums, made some self-deprecating jokes in goofy French, then slipped quietly offstage.
Questions of street cred are a bit less daunting for Ogilvy’s wife, Tarka, a painter who works under the name Tarka Kings, because there’s a long tradition of upper-class artists in England. Still, Tarka goes to considerable lengths to avoid being pigeonholed as Lady Ogilvy. Yes, she’s accepted commissions from the Duke of Devonshire and has spent several weekends painting on the grounds of his estate, Chatsworth, but she usually toils in a shed next to a cement works in West London, where the loud clang of dump trucks rattles the corrugated metal walls. David’s recording studio, cluttered with guitars and sound equipment, is around the corner, in an alley next to a metalworking shop. Together, the Ogilvys are one of London’s most genuinely bohemian aristo couples, though they often must make an effort to wear their titles lightly.
“It’s extremely inconvenient,” says David with a laugh when asked about the predicament of being a lord and a folk musician simultaneously. “The two do not marry at all, and they never will. So I just think, F— it! And I try not to let it bother me.”
David grew up primarily at Cortachy Castle, the family’s 30,000-acre Scottish estate, where his father, the 13th Earl of Airlie, still lives. As a teenager he served as the Queen’s page of honor during royal ceremonies. “It was irritating because you had to have your hair very short, and this was in the Seventies,” remembers David, who today keeps his gray mane in a thick but well-combed shag. “There was this royal barber who wore these bizarre clothes—silk stockings and a red braided frock—and he’d sort of attack you with his shears.” After Eton and Oxford, David spent a couple of years in Manhattan, working at Sotheby’s by day, bartending at society hangout Mortimer’s by night and haunting the club Xenon afterward. Back in London during the Eighties and Nineties, he worked for art dealer Richard Feigen and started an organic farming and Angus beef business at Airlie, the second castle on the family estate, where he and Tarka now spend summers with their three sons.
Tarka, 46, who studied art at the Royal Academy Schools, came of age toward the end of the punk era in London, where she used to hang out in Notting Hill with Joe Strummer and Mario Testino. (She was a muse for Testino, who praises “her taste and her style—a mix of the shy and the wild.”) She met David in the late Eighties when he came to play pedal steel guitar at one of the country music concerts she occasionally organized in nightclubs. “Country wasn’t so fashionable then,” Tarka says, but the shows caught on with London’s alt-music crowd, and she and David bonded over their mutual fascination with Gram Parsons. In fact, both had grown up with a bona fide American connection: David’s mother, Virginia Ryan, is from New York, and Tarka’s father moved to Wyoming after splitting with her mother when she was three. (Her late mother, Ann Huxley, was from the famed clan of writers, though “she wasn’t a very famous or successful Huxley,” Tarka notes.)
While Tarka has always been certain about pursuing a painting career, David had to wait until he was 43, he says, before he finally had “the balls” to ignore the inevitable skeptics and make his own record. “The music scene in Britain has always been class-conscious,” he says. “There’s a sense that it’s a release from some kind of social bondage. The fact that I happen to agree with that doesn’t serve me much. You’ll occasionally get people who’ll just say, ‘You’re a f—ing toff. Piss off!’ Sometimes it is quite amazing how deep people’s prejudices are.” While in his 20s and 30s, he worked as a session musician and did some songwriting and producing. Filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, who rented a spare room in her London apartment to David after his 1990 divorce from his first wife, Geraldine Harmsworth, recalls that he rarely spent five minutes away from his guitar. “None of his friends had any doubt that he was meant to be a musician,” she says. She also remembers that he was one of London’s hottest bachelors at the time and that he serenaded so many love-struck visitors that Rothschild finally decided to ban women from the apartment: “He was just ridiculously good-looking, and there was this stream of beautiful girls ringing the bell and saying, ‘Is David there?’”
In 2002 David self-produced his first album, Like It Is, a wistful hybrid of Nashville grit and mystical Celtic lyricism. It got him an agent, radio play and tour dates—which he had to cancel after developing warts on his vocal cords. The chronic viral illness—psychosomatic in origin, Tarka believes—required eight operations over the course of three years. “It was very demoralizing,” says David. “I had a severely impaired voice and had to invent a new way of singing.” His second record, Mockingbird, followed in 2004; reviews were positive, and The Times of London deemed David the “J.J. Cale of West London.”
All the while, Tarka was refining her portraits and landscapes, often painting from inside her Audi station wagon. The Duke of Devonshire, who owns more than five of her works, admires their quiet complexity. “They’re very mysterious,” he says, adding that they reveal themselves over time. “I like being with them.” Her well-received exhibit last November at London’s Fine Art Society showed a new interest in more dreamlike, narrative images. Over tea in her studio, Tarka, dressed in cargo pants and a bulky sweater, smiles slyly and attributes the evolution to the fact that she’s now undergoing psychoanalysis three times a week. The works also seem to comment on the surreal shifts taking place in today’s money-mad London—changes that the soft-spoken artist finds to be “pretty yucky.” Her new cityscapes are peppered with bulky traffic cameras and homesick palm trees.
In the late Nineties the Ogilvys decided to ditch London and move their boys (now ages 16, 12 and 10) permanently to Airlie Castle, but the adventure didn’t last very long. “I couldn’t really do it,” says Tarka. “The weight of the family history there was quite overpowering.” David, who, as the Earl’s eldest son, is in charge of managing the estate, clearly retains a fierce attachment to the place: “I know every blade of grass for 50 miles around,” he says.
Now back in London, where they live in a large but unpretentious house in Bayswater, the couple has mostly put their rebel days behind them: Instead of trying to squeeze into their old leather pants, friends say, they’re mainly focused on raising their sons. But there are a few family traditions they still won’t follow, such as shipping off the kids to boarding school. David explores the nuances of getting older on his new album, Heaven and Earth—a “grown-up record,” he says, about “the complications of middle age.” Intricate rhythms and bigger arrangements take the place of twangy guitar riffs.
Tarka, a lifelong Bob Dylan connoisseur and perhaps David’s most incisive critic, seems to fully approve of her husband’s new sound. “It’s less country,” she says, “which I think is a good thing, really. I think it sounds more like David.”