Christopher Gibbs, an aesthete and a man of wealth and taste, was as essential to the Rolling Stones’ early look and aura as Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry were to their sound
In every grouping, there is always a mysterious character lurking in the shadows of those whom we feel are essential. These are figures who remain quiet, still, and yet, become influential to individuals who have position and power. Christopher Gibbs (1938-2018), an Englishman as well as an aesthete, dandy, antiques dealer, and lover of Morocco, was one of these figures for the Rolling Stones. Gibbs, who died on July 28, in Tangiers, Morocco, became one of the sources for the band’s sense of adventure and exotica, a shaper of their look and a role model for Mick Jagger in particular.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richard are very much the Rolling Stones, but then again without individuals like Ian Stewart, Anita Pallenberg, Marianne Faithfull, Andrew Loog Oldham, art dealer Robert Fraser and Christopher Gibbs, there may not have been the Stones we know and love.
Alternatively, we can look at the Stones as two different bands. There’s the 1960s Rolling Stones, and then after that decade some other force or vibe took over the group, and they became something else. One can argue that one decade of the Stones is better than the other, but clearly, there was a divide, or a separation of the band with Brian Jones, and one without the Blonde bombshell. We know the importance of the American blues on the group, but I would argue that Christopher Gibbs was just as much as an influence as Muddy Waters to the band.
Gibbs was a permanent presence in the Stones social circle. He was an antiques dealer by trade/passion and the fifth son of Sir Geoffrey Cokayne (yes, that’s correct) Gibbs and his wife Helen Margret Leslie CBE. The family, beside their wealth, were all in the business of making business, and Christopher’s business was to influence the fashion of British men in the ‘Swinging London’ years. The first to wear flared trousers in 1961, better known as ‘bell-bottoms,’ he was the editor of the shopping guide in the magazine Men in Vogue.
Mick Jagger always had the inspiration to be someone more than he is, which was a man born in Dartford, Kent, England. Modestly raised in the middle class with a passion for being of another class, Jagger felt that Gibbs was his entranceway to a life that the singer dreamed about but couldn’t achieve until he met a sponsor to the world of being a proper Englishman. What I find shocking is not Mick Jagger becoming a knight, but the fact that Keith Richards never recognized this desire from his partner-in-crime. For Keith to be upset is similar to Claude Rains expressing shock by the doings of Bogart in Casablanca. “I’m shocked that this is happening here!”
Still, and especially in the rock n’ roll world, one needs a role model to base one’s life on. Keith chose an outlaw against society; Mick chose a high-class Englishman, Christopher Gibbs. Both are false but, still, a listener or fan needs the fantasy or the belief in the brand. Gibbs, I suspect, couldn’t have cared less. His true elegance was not of snobbery but the quality of life.
Gibbs had an interest in antiques because he felt the beauty of the past. I wonder if Christopher thought he was from another era or century. He did purchase the property Davington Priory in Kent, built in 1153, and he inherited the Manor House at Clifton Hampden, Oxfordshire, which was made for his family in the 1840s. His other passion was Morocco. Paul Bowles re-discovered Moroccan culture for the adventuresome figures of the counterculture, but Gibbs’ appreciation of Morocco was that of someone from another part of the world who admired an ancient and beautiful culture—a wholly different world or landscape steeped in history and tradition. Even though rock ‘n’ roll was a new item in the 20th century, it had a need to look at other symbolic imagery to base its roots, or to distance it from mainstream culture. Gibbs represented a dandified way of looking at the past, while still living in the present.
The counterculture of London at the time of the 1960s was open to new experiences, especially for those who suffered or lived through the London Blitz. A black and white world surrounded the Rolling Stones at the start of their career, and it took a man like Andrew Loog Oldham, who was influenced by the movies, as well as style to bring them onto another planet. Likewise, Christopher Gibbs is a rarefied figure who didn’t court the press, but his fingerprints were on a culture that changed magnificently, and in that sense, he was an invisible member of the Rolling Stones.
I have always been fascinated with those who are not in the band themselves but worked around the group. For example, I find a lot of the managers in the 1960s to be even more interesting than the artists themselves. Oldham, Brian Epstein, Simon Napier-Bell, Col. Tom Parker, and so forth, are usually the fellows with the vision, even though they didn’t write the songs. What they did do was place their artists in a world where they not only functioned but were influenced by others. The gay culture of the 1960s was a massive presence in London; without that culture, I don’t think there would have been the Beatles or the Stones as we know of them today.
Christopher Gibbs is not the sole influence, but for someone like Jagger, he was a leading bright light that led to a better world. Gibbs showed Jagger a pathway to remove himself from the class he was born into and then to follow that pathway into another world that’s refined and sexual and where only attractive people—either in the physical or mental sense—are allowed.
It’s interesting to note that Gibbs created the set decoration for the home of Turner (Jagger’s fictional role) in the film Performance. James Fox plays the role of the gangster on the run who hides out in Turner’s home, going from a violent gangster world into refinement and sensuality. One wonders if Jagger could identify more with James Fox’s character than with his own role as Turner, which was reportedly based on fellow bandmate Brian Jones. Nevertheless, Gibbs contribution to the Nicholas Roeg/Donald Cammell film is significant. He gave it the look of counterculture decadence, with a sense of upper class knowledge of antiques and fabric. It was a refined landscape that the real Mick Jagger wanted to know more about. For the film viewer, the hyper-beautiful surroundings of Turner’s home may have been the ultimate self-portrait by Christopher Gibbs.
Uncut trailer for the film Performance (1970)
The truth is, there is the record, there’s the show, but the background noise is just as impressive as what is on the Stones’ early albums. What Gibbs did for the Stones was give them an empty but well-built and designed canvas that became a springboard for their song ideas and physical appearance. Robert Fraser and Gibbs were partners-in-crime in that they were men of wealth and taste, and knew how to present aestheticism as a way of life.
Especially for the lads from Dartford, Kent, England, known as Mick and Keith.
Tosh Berman is a writer, poet, and publisher of TamTam Books.