“One of the benefits of retirement is that you still have the energy to go to another career. When I came out of diplomatic service, I decided I wanted to do two things: charitable work and art. I am lucky to be able to do both. Now as chairman of Asia House, here I am again,” said Sir Peter Wakefield.
His most recent visit to Tokyo was unusually rushed, and called upon deep reserves of energy. He has lived here twice, for three years in the 1960s at the British Embassy and three more in the ’70s. In his career, though, originally his sphere was the Middle East rather than East Asia.
Wakefield was of the age to enter the army after his graduation from Oxford University. After the end of the war he entered military government service in Eritrea.
A diplomat since 1949, he spent one year in the Middle East Center for Arab Studies. A succession of appropriate postings followed, in Amman, Nicosia and Cairo. Some years later he returned as consul general and counselor in Banghazi, Libya, and in 1975 his first ambassadorship was to Lebanon.
Contrary to the evidence, Wakefield describes himself as “not a very serious person.” Specifically, as an art collector, he said, “my attention gets grabbed by anything that I consider beautiful.” His pottery collections include pieces of 18th century English, Spanish and early Iranian work. From Japan he took away Mashiko pottery, especially Hamada items, and examples of Chinese and Japanese porcelain. He said: “After being in Japan, my eyes would never be the same again. You look at things in a different way.”
He realized his ambitions for his postdiplomatic life by serving for 10 years as director of the National Art Collections Fund. He is an art management consultant, and chairman of the Richmond Theater Trust and the Heritage Co-ordination Group. Complementarily, as a hobby of his own, he restores ruins.
“In Spain,” he said, “I found two old water mills and cottages, which I bought and spent years restoring, and developing the hillside around them. I hoped to surround myself with my friends there in many of the houses.” Eight years ago, he undertook the directorship of the U.K. Trust for Museum Exhibitions.
Seven years ago, he accepted the chairmanship of Asia House. He said, “The idea of Asia House began in my front room. It is very simple. We wanted to correct the dangerous imbalance of there being in Europe not so much knowledge of Asia, its history, cultures and economies, as there is the other way around. We formed a foundation.”
The organization aims at promoting appreciation and understanding of Asian countries, and fostering closer communication between the peoples of Asia and Europe. It works closely with resident Asian communities. It set itself up on two fronts: one business, the other cultural.
“On the business side we earn our money by bringing together Asian decision makers in carefully collated corporate programs. On the cultural side, we arrange concerts, arts exhibitions, martial arts exhibitions, performances. We have educational programs, lectures, visits to museums, historic houses and private collections, and special tours to Asia.”
From Wakefield’s front room, “the next step,” he said, “was to have our own house. We found a handsome property with a very fine Adams reception room in Mayfair, London. When it is fully developed, it will have extensive facilities.”
The enterprise that Wakefield initiated and is heading involves him in meetings almost every week, as well as the occasional dash to Tokyo and back. He oversees “three or four big events a year. We did a show on Chinese imperial porcelain, and one on contemporary Pakistani arts. We want to do a contemporary arts show from Asia every two years.”
Programming on this scale calls for detailed advance planning. “We want to choose a different curator for each program,” Wakefield said. “We have many distinguished persons on our International Advisory Council, and experts on our committees. We intend to have a committee in each Asian country. Asia House aims to become one of Europe’s leading institutions dedicated to the deepening of understanding of the cultures and economic and social trends of the countries of Asia.”