Richard Burton

Richard Burton

20/11/1938 - 6/1/2008

Richard Burton, one of the last gentleman racing drivers, was a handsome, impeccably dressed boulevardier of the old school. Burton married often and was a fount of knowledge on the art of making love.

<font size="2" face="Tahoma">The elder brother of the Transglobe explorer Charlie Burton, Richard Burton shared a love of danger with his sibling, whether in the backgammon room of the Clermont Club rubbing shoulders with Lord Lucan and Jimmy Goldsmith, or on the motor racing track with his friends Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt and Chris Amon.

Richard Edmund Clerke Burton was born on November 20 1938, the son of a Royal Navy commander and a direct descendant of Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Educated at Wellington, Burton then spent his National Service as a naval rating on fishery protection patrols in the Arctic. To relieve the monotony he volunteered for one of the toughest peacetime challenges the Navy can offer - membership of one of the gun-carriage teams at the Royal Tournament. Ideas of a career in hairdressing or fashion design subsequently came to nothing, though he did have a stab at selling cosmetics for Revlon.

One evening he was at a Mayfair gambling party which was raided by the police (gaming was still illegal), and the next morning he appeared in court still wearing his evening clothes. This occasioned a photograph in the Daily Sketch, and his irate mother packed him off to Germany. Given the task of hawking the Encyclopaedia Britannica round the bemused citizenry of Bad Hirschfeld and the nearby US armed forces - Elvis Presley among them - he managed to sell but one set.

Back in London, Burton went into advertising, working for Hobson Bates and Pritchard Wood; but a fascination with speed culminated in his taking a racing driver's course and acquiring a Lotus 22. On his first outing at Goodwood in 1964 he finished a promising third. Two months later, now ready for his first international contest, he swaggered into the French Grand Prix with his F3 car atop a Galway Blazers Fox Hounds transporter. His digs for the meeting were a luxurious yacht moored on the Seine at Rouen.

By now showing great promise, Burton acquired a Brabham, and at Rheims in 1967 he distinguished himself by moving up 21 places, from 27th to sixth, in the course of a single lap. But a fine spray of fuel from a faulty filler-cap had been slowly covering his body during the race and, arriving finally at the exhaust, exploded in a fireball. The prompt actions of Jackie Stewart in arranging an airlift certainly saved his life, for Burton suffered 65 per cent burns and looked, as he insouciantly recalled, "like a burst sausage on a barbecue".

Nine months later Burton was back behind the wheel, but after five races he retired, nauseated by the smell of petrol. A spell in motor racing management was followed by some property development; meanwhile (suited by Douglas Hayward, shirted by Budd, and shod by Mr Cleverley) he had become a fixture on the 1970s international social circuit, dancing at Tramp and Annabel's in London and at New Jimmy's and Castel's in Paris, and gambling at the Clermont Club.

Burton gained a pilot's licence in 10 days, played cricket for the Grand Prix XI against the Prince of Wales at Brands Hatch, and modelled clothes for French Vogue. By now married to Marie Dolores, daughter of Robert Kahn-Sriber, one of France's richest men, his career was momentarily becalmed by a generous allowance and a wife who required his constant presence. Soon bored by this existence he began printing a private-circulation magazine for people who rented private jets.

This led quickly to the discovery that printing in Switzerland was cheaper and of higher quality, and before long Burton had won contracts from Sotheby's and Christie's to produce their sale catalogues. His contacts in the Communist-leaning Swiss printing trade paid dividends: a move by the cantonal parliament to expel auction houses such as Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips from Geneva was thwarted by Burton encouraging his new-found friends to abstain on the vote.

This had the benefit of pushing more and more business Burton's way and, already established in Geneva, he now opened an office in New York. In London he acquired an assistant named Sarah Ferguson through his motor-racing friend Paddy McNally, then Sarah's boyfriend. She was to stay on the payroll for the next four years, during which time she met and married the Duke of York.

At one stage, and for about a year, Burton's company was run from Room 301 at Buckingham Palace. Only when the company's name and its swish new abode appeared inadvertently in the telephone directory was there a moment of concern, but this passed when the Press failed to pick it up.

Burton moved into book-publishing, producing in all half a dozen works, including a fine art textbook on the Impressionists and a graceful volume on the Palace of Westminster, an enterprise in which the Duchess of York played a key role.

He also acquired the rights to a unique art-reproduction technique which could replicate not only paintings on canvas but also the artist's original brush-strokes. Finding a factory in Florence which could copy the original frames, he collected a portfolio of masterpieces which had rarely been seen - starting with a Van Gogh, a Monet and a Marquet borrowed from his father-in-law's private collection. Ten more examples came from the Pushkin and Hermitage museums in Russia.

The potential market for these little known masterpieces was colossal; but the launch party at Mortimer's in New York, for interim investors prior to a Nasdaq launch, came on the day of the stock market crash of October 19 1987. At a stroke, Burton's empire was destroyed.

Taking with him his expensive prototype reproductions, his favourite Ferrari and his four Jack Russells, he opened a gallery in Los Angeles, where he soon counted among his customers the actors Dudley Moore and Louis Jourdan. The latter, initially sniffy at the idea of hanging reproductions in his home, eventually sold his entire art collection and furnished the walls solely with Burton's pictures, chortling at the inability of guests to distinguish them from the originals. Later Burton moved the gallery to Palm Springs, where he was able to perform a similar service for the wives of Frank Sinatra and Roger Moore.

Eventually Burton returned to Europe, living in Paris and in Sussex. In 2002 he had the distressing experience of having his 59-year-old brother, the Transglobe explorer Charlie Burton, die in his arms. His own health suffered as a result of his motor racing accident, but he had no regrets, and contentedly made a new home in Wiltshire with his devoted wife Martine.

Richard Burton, who died on January 6, married first, in 1966 (dissolved 1970), Susan Black; secondly, in 1971 (dissolved 1976), Ariane Desouches; thirdly, in 1978 (dissolved 1986), Marie Dolores Ortiz-Echague; fourthly, in 1988 (dissolved that year), Hanna Schumacher; and finally, in 2002, Martine Grandclement, who survives him with their son. A son from his first marriage predeceased him.


Daily Telegraph

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