Peter Coni: Turning Over An Old Leaf

The three times life-size statue of Achilles on London’s Hyde Park Corner, commemorating Napoleon’s nemesis, the First Duke of Wellington.

8 May 2017

Tim Koch remembers a man who wore many caps:

On my recent trip to Hyde Park to view the Queen’s Birthday salute, I revisited a statue that had a connection with a man who had a remarkable influence on rowing in Britain for more than 30 years until his early death at the age of 57 in 1993.

The 18-foot tall statue of Achilles, the Greek hero of the Trojan War, was commissioned by a patriotic, upper-class society, known as Ladies of England. It commemorates the soldier and politician, Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington. It was made by Sir Richard Westmacott using bronze from cannons captured in the Duke’s campaigns in France. The body is modelled on a Roman figure on Monte Cavallo in Italy, but the head is based on Wellington himself. The statue was originally completely nude but this caused outrage on its unveiling in 1822, so a fig leaf had to be added soon after.

Moving on 170 years, in 1992 a letter appeared in The Guardian newspaper:

Is there any truth in the suggestion that sculptures of nude males in the Roman and Greek sections of the British Museum had their sexual appendages diligently removed as a form of censorship by the Victorians? If yes, who was responsible and what happened to the removed parts?

Dr Peter Webb, Principal Lecturer in Art History, Middlesex University, replied:

When researching my book, The Erotic Arts… I applied for permission to examine the various restricted collections of erotica in the British Museum. In the Greek and Roman Department I was shown the Museum Secretumand among the fascinating items was a selection of marble phalluses. I was informed that these had been removed from classical sculptures by 19th-century curators in order to make them suitable for public exhibition… I later discovered that similar prudery was the rule in other countries. Michelangelo’s ‘David’ was provided with a marble fig leaf in the early 16th century which was not removed until 1912…

Mr Leslie Jerman also responded, writing about the Achilles statue’s fig leaf in particular:

(It) was apt to come loose, and in 1961 it was either prised off or fell off in the frost. But the then Ministry of Works had a stock of new leaves, so they applied another…

Some tourists provide perspective on the size of the statue of The Iron Duke, made from 33 tonnes of bronze.

Jerman’s letter produced a confession from a leading lawyer, PRC Coni, OBE, QC, of London SW1, who revealed that it was not climatic conditions that were responsible for autumnal falling of the noble Duke’s leaf in 1961, it was, in fact, the determined efforts of himself and other members of London Rowing Club who were after an impressive door knob for London’s clubhouse:

Mr Jerman is not entirely correct about the demise of the original fig leaf on the Achilles statue at Hyde Park Corner. I can assure your readers that it was not apt to come loose, nor did it fall off in the frost. It required a great deal of hard work with a hacksaw, the blades of which snapped frequently, to get the fig leaf away. It was secured by three very solid brass bolts, and it was necessary to get a park chair in order to climb up onto the plinth of the statue and then to put a second chair between the feet of Achilles in order to reach up between his legs to get at the fig leaf. As I remember, it took us about six hours of sawing on different nights to get through the three bolts. We were fortified by pints of beer from The Nag’s Head* in Kinnerton Street. We had in mind attaching the fig leaf to the door of London Rowing Club at Putney as a spectacular door knob but it was so heavy it proved unsuitable. (In 1992) I spoke to the Ministry of Works officer in charge of the statues in Hyde Park and asked whether it would be acceptable if I were to return the fig leaf and pay for its reinstatement or whether she would take a serious view that we had been defacing a work of art. Happily, she thought the whole affair very amusing and I paid a substantial sum for its reinstatement. So, Achilles is now again wearing his original ‘underwear’ – a much more impressive fig leaf than his temporary one in the 1960s.

The normally precise Coni reported that the fig leaf was held in place by bolts (presumably where the nuts should be) but it looks like it is in fact screws that secure the Duke’s organic merkin.

The story of what some would consider a ‘jape’ (but which others may class as vandalism and theft) and the eventual restoration of the status quo says a lot about PRC (Peter Richard Carstairs) Coni, a man who was, in many aspects of his multifaceted life, a ‘conservative rebel’.

Peter Coni was born in New Zealand in 1935 but was educated in Britain at Uppingham, a very old independent school in the East Midlands, and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. At Cambridge, he discovered rowing, something that he enjoyed so much that he eventually graduated with a third class degree – which was ironic for someone with a first class mind. In 1957, it was St Catharine’s College Boat Club that brought Coni to his first Henley Royal Regatta (HRR), losing on day one but falling in love forever with the event that he would later be credited for saving from possible oblivion. Moving to London on graduation, the young barrister joined London Rowing Club (LRC) and represented it enthusiastically at many regattas, from the mighty such as Henley to the minor such as Chiswick. He was in the LRC Grand Challenge Cup crews at HRR for seven consecutive years between 1960 and 1966 – but never won a round.

In 1964, Coni’s Henley four collided with another before the start and overturned. The rest of the crew abandoned ship in favour of the Thames Conservancy launch, but, typically, Coni took it upon himself to rescue the boat.

Coni’s competitive rowing career lasted until 1974, but he lacked the physique to do well at the top level. However, London Rowing Club soon found that PRC Coni’s brain in the committee room was far more valuable to them than his brawn on the river. During difficult years, he held most of the important posts in the club including captain, treasurer and president, but also took on apparently mundane jobs, such as house steward. However, he never, as is often the case in such organisations, acted as a space filler or a time server, but always made important and often bold changes. Not only was Peter Coni a man for tasks – he was a man for multi-tasks. In his history of London Rowing Club, Water Boiling Aft (2006), Chris Dodd noted that, ‘Whatever the office, his clarity of thought made for lively committee meetings’, and quoted Coni’s obituary in the LRC newsletter:

Sweeping into the club with the appropriate drawer from his filing cabinet for that meeting…. (and) removing his LRC blazer to reveal the latest outrageous t-shirt, Peter would open the Times at the almost-completed crossword together with assorted other papers (legal or rowing) on which he proposed to work during the meeting. Whilst completing the crossword intermittently, the meeting could rely on Peter not only to sum up clearly a lengthy debate but also to offer a ‘wholly sensible’ suggestion to close the discussion.

Jim Railton, writing in The Times in 1977, agreed:

He has the ability to blend into any rowing community, analyse a problem objectively, make a decision and take a stand.

Another illustration of Coni’s multi-tasking abilities was shown by the fact that he could devote an enormous amount of time to rowing but still build a reputation as a brilliant and always well-prepared lawyer, becoming a Queen’s Counsel, a Bencher and a Recorder. Chris Dodd, in his history of LRC wrote that ‘his devotion to rowing deprived the legal world of an outstanding judge…’ and noted that his chief clerk was also a member of London Rowing Club who kept his employer’s summer case load quiet.

Coni, the Henley Chairman.

All this builds a picture of a man seemingly from another age, a time when eccentrics were commonplace and when ‘gentlemen’ were very much in charge, such chaps taking their pleasures seriously and relegating their work to second (or possibly third) place. First impressions on meeting Coni seemed to confirm this view. I first encountered him in 1986 when I was very new to rowing and he was head of the organising committee for that year’s World Rowing Championships. He had secured a room for the event’s office at my club, Auriol Kensington (AK), a convenient short walk away from the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA). I was fascinated by the figure that I frequently encountered striding purposefully along the tow path between the ARA and AK, or ascending the latter’s famously tightly wound spiral staircase, always seemingly in need of a hair cut, always slightly dishevelled in the way that only ‘posh blokes’ can be, always gripping a Sobranie Black Russian cigarette in a short holder between his teeth, always with a large pile of papers under his arm that constantly threatened to spill over onto the floor – but which never did. His plummy, slightly affected voice matched well with what Chris Dodd has called ‘a living Spy cartoon’.

Coni in a detail from a picture by Paddy Page.

The Coni residence in Churton Place, Pimlico, was open house to a changing and eclectic collection of characters from all sections of his life and interests. Outside, he had three cars, a 1938 Bentley for arriving in style, a Ferrari for arriving at speed, and a battered Mini for arriving (or leaving) after a few drinks. He also somehow found time to indulge interests including the theatre, stamp collecting, Mensa (the high IQ society) and art (particularly David Hockney). He was a loyal fan of the long-running television soap opera, Coronation Street, a programme which portrays a working class community in an industrial town in the North of England – the antithesis of Coni’s world. When he was dying and was to present the trophies at what he knew would be his last Henley, he arranged to enter the prize-giving to the band of the Grenadier Guards playing the theme to Coronation Street.

Sartorially, his preference was for a double breasted blazer with LRC tie, adding a London cap and pink carnation when appropriate, though often shod in training shoes (sneakers), however formal the occasion. For a time his blazer sported a badge that pronounced ‘Gay Whales Against Racism’, a joke on the liberal-left of the 1980s and perhaps a sly reference to his own sexuality. For his first 32 years, homosexual acts were illegal in Britain and, even towards the end of his life in the early 1990s, attitudes were very different to now. Thus, while Coni was never officially ‘out’, he was only very casually ‘in’. The fact that he was gay was widely known in the rowing world and I had the impression that even the most elderly, conservative and old school members of the rowing establishment did not discriminate against him because of it. Perhaps it was a case of charm and ability defeating prejudice?

The famous badge, now held by the River and Rowing Museum.

Perhaps it is tempting to class Coni as a ‘Bertie Wooster’ character. However, Wooster’s world was full of fools and idlers, two things that the polymath and workaholic Coni most defiantly was not (though there may have been a touch of the infallible Jeeves about him). His Times obituary noted:

If Peter Coni had a weakness it was a reluctance to delegate; he never took a back seat, which of course was precisely why he was pressed into so many activities.

Coni (centre) at the end of the memorable re-row between Nottingham County and Harvard, Henley 1989. Picture: sportinglandmarks.co.uk

Of these activities, it was his chairmanship of Henley Royal Regatta that gave Coni his highest profile. As the obituary by Hugh Matheson later said, ‘it was his knowing of every precedent and every administrative wrinkle, and the pleasure he took in solving the problems of the regatta, that captured the attention’. In a typical Coni accelerated rise to the top, he was invited to become a Regatta Steward in 1974, was on the Committee by 1976 and was Chairman a year later, with all the great and perhaps absolute power that the job confers. Writing in The Times in 1977, Jim Railton held that:

Mr Coni, in his new post, finds himself walking a tightrope. The competitors are already hammering on his tented office walls demanding reforms, while the establishment regards with some suspicion this ‘floating whizz kid’… Mr Coni has already been through a painful initiation. He came under fire for refusing the late entry of Christiania Roklub of Norway, the record holders of the Thames (Cup)… Even diplomatic overtures on behalf of (Norway’s) Crown Prince Harald and (the British Minister of Sport) were of no avail…

Mr Coni… is increasingly concerned… with crews appearing as floating billboards… even the pop group, Abba, have sponsored a boat…

Pressures apart, Mr Coni knows his success as Henley’s chief of men will be judged solely on his ability to keep this floating show on the road financially…

The Christiania Roklub incident was not the only time when Coni stuck to the rules when a lesser man would have yielded under the pressure of popular opinion. In the 1981 regatta, the University of Natal had travelled 6,000 miles from South Africa to compete – but were late onto the start. Umpire Coni generously waited three minutes, but then set the race off without them. In 1987, Redgrave and Holmes broke the course record in a heat of the Goblets but then rowed back down the course to receive the crowd’s applause. Coni called this grandstanding ‘part of the John McEnroe syndrome’ and gave them a false start penalty.

In a 1989 interview for a television programme on Henley Regatta, Coni gave his philosophy on running the event, the ‘we’ referring to the Stewards:

there are occasions when we deliberately do not move with the times because we enjoy being different, but underneath all of that we actually have quite a good idea of what is desirable for the Regatta and for rowing long term and are prepared to make changes – at the appropriate time… It is unfashionable these days to have people who believe that they know what is best and are not subject to everyone else telling them what they ought to do… the unique thing about the Regatta is that it is still run and controlled entirely by the Stewards… We take the view that if people do not like the Regatta that we provide….. then, it’s no skin off our nose if they do not come…. It’s not democratic at all… House rules are that the rowing comes first, always.

The Chairman spots something that incurs his displeasure. It could be any number of things.

The years of Coni’s HRR Chairmanship, 1977 to 1993, were ones of great social and political change. The notable political problem that he had to deal with were crews from the increasingly shunned apartheid South Africa entering Henley within the rules but via the back door, under the names of British clubs. He allowed this on the grounds that South Africa was still a member of FISA, the International Rowing Federation. For various reasons, boycotts threatened by some countries did not usually happen, but in 1985 the Commonwealth Games Federation threatened to ban all Henley competitors and officials from their event if South African nationals rowed at HRR again. Coni uncharacteristically gave way and avoided confrontation by getting the South African Rowing Federation and individual SA clubs to agree not to enter crews for Henley for the foreseeable future.

As the pressure for equal rights increased, Coni had the unaccustomed experience of dealing with the demands of women. Some wanted to raise their hemlines in the Stewards’ Enclosure and others wanted to lower their boats onto the regatta course.

‘Ghastly’ short skirts remained prohibited in order to ‘maintain a level of dignity’. The un-PC QC was quoted in The Times in 1988:

If you go with fashion you get middle-aged women showing thighs that should have been kept secret for years. What is the next stage? You start having people stripping to the waist because it’s hot. It will begin to look like Lord’s or Wimbledon; God forbid we should get down to their level.

On the rowing front, in 1981 and 1982 there were some invitation events for women. The seemingly half-hearted experiment was soon deemed a failure on the grounds that overall the quality of the entries was ‘indifferent’. Coni dismissed the resulting protests as ‘women’s squealing’ but always claimed that ultimately he wanted women rowing at Henley Royal. In 1981, he unsuccessfully proposed, together with Richard Burnell, that Leander accept as members women ‘who now achieve rowing standards and give administrative services to rowing which would qualify them for election if they were men’.

Between 1977 and 1993, Coni introduced many radical changes while still preserving the Regatta’s traditions and fending off commercialism. In The Independent in 1993, Hugh Matheson summarised his HRR Chairmanship:

In fifteen years as chairman, Coni took the regatta from four days of racing to five. He put up and paid for, an admired headquarters building designed by Terry Farrell. He admitted women’s races and then dropped them. He admitted huge numbers of corporate entertainers but kept them, mostly, outside the Stewards’ Enclosure, although he took enough profit from them to move the regatta surplus from £1,500 in 1975 to over £300,000 in each of the last five years.

To this list could have been added rule revisions and course renovations, creating the Henley Stewards’ Charitable Trust, recognition of the regatta by FISA, and replacing ‘boring old Sousa marches’ with Beatles music on the Henley bandstand. Matheson continued:

From this axle (Henley) the spokes of Coni’s influence in the rowing world radiated and he was involved in every organisation of importance in the sport.

In FISA mode, 1992 Olympics.

The ‘spokes of Coni’s influence’ were too many to go into detail here and a brief, non-chronological, non-exclusive list must suffice. Largely because of Peter Coni, rowing was one of the first sports to start random, out-of-season drug tests for athletes and he was invited to chair the inquiry into drug abuse by all British athletes in 1988, a body that eventually made far-reaching recommendations. He was Chairman of the highly successful 1986 World Rowing Championships held at Nottingham and thereafter often wore the necktie of ‘The Workers of the World’s’. Between 1970 and 1977, he chaired the Amateur Rowing Association Executive Committee, the time in which moribund British international rowing began its turnaround to become the world-beater it is today. Other bodies that he served on include the Central Council for Physical Recreation, the Thames Water Authority, Leander Club, the Metropolitan Regatta, the Head of the River Race, the River and Rowing Museum, Britain’s National Olympic Committee and FISA (where he served as treasurer). In 1987, he was awarded an OBE for his services to rowing. A cartoon by Keith Ticehurst published in Regatta magazine in July 1988 summed up Coni’s many involvements by showing him in umpiring pose while wearing many hats – or, rather, caps.

‘Coni by Ticehurst’, as reproduced in Chris Dodd’s ‘Water Boiling Aft’.

Sometimes, Coni’s two worlds of law and rowing would overlap. In 1987, he persuaded the Port of London Authority (PLA) to abandon their plan to enforce the International Starboard Hand Rule on the Thames Tideway, a measure that would have had a devastating effect on the many clubs on that water and beyond. In 2018, the PLA, still keen to justify its existence, plan rule changes which will see most of the splendid old wooden launches used for umpires and the press banned within their jurisdiction. There seems little effective opposition to this and I am probably not the only person who is thinking, If only Coni were still with us! However, there are a few people who are unique and irreplaceable, and Peter Richard Carstairs Coni OBE, QC was certainly one of that number.

*The unreconstructed Nag’s Head is still Coni’s kind of place, even today. It is independent of any brewery and is staffed by ‘colourful characters’ who, allegedly, are a little brisk with customers for all sorts of reasons including not hanging up their coats, using mobile phones, drinking too much and drinking too little. ‘Trip Advisor’ votes are almost evenly split between ‘excellent’ and ‘terrible’.

PS It occurs to me that the three new events for women to be introduced at this year’s Henley will need names. It is too late for this year but 2018 will see the 25th anniversary of Peter Coni’s death and this would surely be the right time for a ‘Coni Cup’. If this happened, no doubt someone will produce some of his un-PC comments, but this does not change the fact that it was Coni who introduced the principle of women rowing at Henley Royal, he simply did not pursue the idea at a speed to everyone’s liking.

8 comments

  1. The mention of Peter Coni’s long involvement with the London Rowing Club reminded me of another well known LRC member: Graham Hill–perhaps better known as an F1 race car driver. Perhaps you could do a post about Graham’s days on the water.

  2. Thanks, Tim, for a terrific tribute to a remarkable man. Coni was far better known as a stamp collector than as an aggregator of rowing artifacts, but he did on occasion tread that path. Many years ago a medal – the only 1839 medal known to exist – from the first Henley Regatta (it was not then Royal) was scheduled to go on the block. It would have been the keystone piece in any collection. I was planning to enter the bidding when I was told that Peter intended to purchase it for the Stewards trove of memorabilia. In deference to Coni and to the HRR, I did not pursue the medal. Thanks to the determination and generosity which accompanied Peter’s devotion to the Regatta and its traditions, it now resides at the headquarters.

    • It is still not quite correct. It is “Counsel”, not “Council” or “Councel”. P.S. It is still a great article!

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