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Smooth Seas at 'Great Age' : Benefit: A prince and princess added to the glamour of a night at the San Diego Museum of Art.

March 12, 1992|DAVID NELSON

SAN DIEGO — Yes, Prince Michael and Princess Michael charmed the haute couture socks off the crowd last Friday at the San Diego Museum of Art.

And yes, the "Great Age of Sail" exhibit of paintings and artifacts from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, is undeniably soul-stirring, even to stolid landlubbers.

And yes, "It's Greenwich Time," the gala that opened the showing was not merely grand, but actually rather magnificent.

But, even so, the best part was the revelation of the ever-so-mundane chain of events that--perfectly timed to correspond with the America's Cup races--led to San Diego's opportunity to show these masterworks by Joseph Mallord William Turner, William Hogarth, John Singleton Copley, Joshua Reynolds and others.

Joseph Hibben, a former president of SDMA and the low-key arts patron credited with bringing to fruition the Soviet Arts Festival held here several years ago, said a certain degree of expediency on the part of the Greenwich museum led to the local exhibit.

"We asked for this exhibit three different years, and the Maritime Museum said 'no' each time," said Hibben, adding that a change of mood came about rather suddenly. "Museum officials told me, 'We've been wanting to refurbish this museum for the longest time. It hasn't been repainted in 100 years, and we were wondering what to do with the paintings in the meanwhile.' "

The answer, of course, was to ship the best of the lot to San Diego, the first American venue to show the collection of artifacts and often dramatic paintings of sea battles, triumphs and tragedies, and of players in historic scenes. Major underwriting for the exhibit was provided by Hibben and his wife, Ingrid, and by Alice and Richard Cramer, Walter Fitch III and Lois and Donald Roon and the Roon Foundation. Following the local show, the collection will travel to museums in Norfolk, Va., and Salem, Mass.

Since the Greenwich institution, like so many cultural repositories in Great Britain, enjoys the patronage of the royal family, royal representation was deemed necessary at the opening. The duty fell to Prince Michael of Kent (first cousin to Queen Elizabeth and, born on the Fourth of July, 1942, godson of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt), and to Princess Michael, born in Germany and raised partly in Sydney, Australia, which explained her not-quite-veddy British accent.

"I think it's cute that Prince Mike and Princess Mike have the same name," purred one guest. "That way you don't forget." The explanation for the names lies, of course, in the arcane rules by which British royalty conducts itself; upon marrying into the House of Windsor, it became necessary for the princess to become known by her husband's name, much as American women used to be styled Mrs. John Smith rather than Jane Smith.

The crowd of 420 prominent San Diegans, if not lacking in savoir faire , exhibited to a degree the American uncertainty of correct deportment in the presence of royalty. The prince and princess seemed both aware and sportingly dismissive of the acute anxiety they caused.

Princess Michael, making an entrance to politely nervous applause, bobbed and smiled to the guests in a sort of shorthand body language that, quite clearly, meant, "Relax." The prince, with his neatly clipped beard, looked strikingly like the crowned Georges and Edwards who are his ancestors; after explaining that his family has "rather strong naval connections," he expressed himself pleased to declare "The Great Age of Sail" exhibit officially open. At that moment, however, it was the royalty that was looked over, while the artworks were overlooked.

The cocktail reception, something of a marathon at two hours and given in the rotunda and the Asian gallery, honored the royals with such canapes as Cheddar cheese puffs and cucumber rounds spread with salmon mousse; the tiny squares of goat cheese pizza, on the other hand, took an apolitical stance that at most pledged fealty to the domain of hors d'oeuvres.

The scene glittered, reflecting closets and vaults emptied of the best gowns and jewels and making obvious the sincerity behind the frequently heard comment, "I've been looking forward to this one for months." The jewels worn by the princess glittered the most historically, however. The immense pearls in her necklace (large enough to have given the average oyster severe indigestion), formerly graced noble throats in Czarist Russia, where her grandfather was the last Austro-Hungarian ambassador to the Court of St. Petersburg. Her tiara, long in Prince Michael's family, once crowned Queen Victoria and was paved with the last, if by no means modestly sized, diamonds to be dug from the fabled Golconda Mine in India.

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