Summer's Hottest Party Isn't the Royal Ascot Anymore

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Jonathan Player for The New York Times
Celebrities like Jade Jagger willingly posed for photographers as they arrived at the Serpentine Gallery's Summer Party on Wednesday.


Summer's Hottest Party Isn't the Royal Ascot Anymore

Published: June 20, 2004

BEAUTIFUL women wearing caftans, saris and glittering jewelry; exotic-looking men sprawled on scatter cushions or low divans; gauze and silks and a hundred or so brightly colored parasols fringed with mirrored disks, fluttering in the breeze as the sky turned pink and the sun set over an elegant pavilion. Last Wednesday guests could be forgiven, after a cocktail or two, for imagining themselves in a tale of "The Arabian Nights." Or at least at a very upscale Indian wedding. But actually they were in a London park.

Although the pavilion, in Kensington Gardens, was decked out in Indian finery, it used to be that most English of institutions, a tearoom. Now it is home to the Serpentine Gallery, and Wednesday was one of the big nights of the London social season — the gallery's lavish Summer Party, an event so pivotal that some people factor the date into their vacation plans. It was here that Diana, Princess of Wales, appeared radiant in a little black dress the night Prince Charles went on television to confess his adultery, and generated media attention the world over.

While the daily newspapers still devote pages to the frocks and hats at Royal Ascot during the same week, the Serpentine's party is the more alluring fixture for the socially connected. Some guests who go to both arrive from Ascot not so much fresh as flushed with their winnings and a day spent drinking Champagne.

Named after the vast waterway that snakes its way through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the gallery is one of the world's smallest public spaces for the display of contemporary art, but under its totally focused director, Julia Peyton-Jones, one of the most ambitious.

"We're working on the American model," Ms. Peyton-Jones said, looking cool as a cucumber despite the balmy evening. She meant that since the Serpentine receives only 25 percent of its annual budget from public agencies like the Arts Council England and Westminster, the local government authority, it must raise the rest (more than $3.5 million) through schmoozing.

That is not always easy in a country that, thanks in part to the generous state funding that characterized life between 1945 and the advent of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, has less of a culture of giving than America.

The British give less to good causes. So much so, that when they talk about fund-raising events, they often playfully adopt an American accent and say, "It's for charidy!"

But if anyone can break through this reluctance, it is Ms. Peyton-Jones, who has a steely determination and what has been described as a rare ability to charm billionaires out of the odd million here and there.

As well as art exhibits — Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread have shown at the Serpentine — the gallery has commissioned a series of temporary architectural pavilions. Last year's was by the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer; next year's is by the Rotterdam-based practice MVRDV.

Though small, the gallery attracts more than half a million visitors a year, all with free entry — on every night but tonight, when benefactors pay the almost unheard-of (in London, that is) sum of $1,500 for a ticket.

This year, the partygoers included Jade Jagger, Sir Paul Smith, Elle Macpherson, and Jude Law and his new girlfriend, Sienna Miller. Katie Holmes, in town for the filming of the latest Batman movie, looked radiant, despite complaining about hay fever. Elton John's partner, David Furnish, arrived on the arms of Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys and the fashion guru Susannah Constantine.

"It's my first time here," Mr. Tennant said. "I tend to go to shows, but not openings, if you know what I mean," he explained, before being dragged off by Geordie Greig, editor in chief of Tatler. Mr. Greig had asked Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran fame to take a series of celebrity mug shots for his magazine, and he spent the evening shamelessly importuning his victims, who patiently lined up outside the specially erected tent.