Michael Clarkson Rae MBE, whose family founded the Neapolitan clothing store Gutteridge & Co, died on 7 March 2016 in Naples, the city where he was born. He was 79 years old.
The service of thanksgiving for his life was at the English Church, Christ Church, in Chiaia. It was a sad, grey day.
We first met Michael Rae in the autumn of 2014 on the steps of the church where we later said goodbye to him. He was a slight, white-haired figure, elegant in a suit that said far more than just tweed. The welcome he gave us then, warm and cheerful, was repeated over the months wherever we met him.
That was the thing about Michael Rae, he never changed, whoever and wherever you were. He understood people and he cared about them.
He was a natural gentleman but, like everything in Naples, there was much more to Michael Rae than met the eye.
He had a tenacious, self-disciplined core that many don’t have to find. He was tosto, a quality that Riccardo Muti, born in Naples five years after Michael and currently music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, describes as particularly Neapolitan.
I’m not sure it’s possible to keep a successful business alive through the on-going challenges that face Naples without being ‘tosto’.
The late-in-life examples I saw of this quality included: Michael, with several freshly broken ribs, hosting guests outdoors at a freezing New Year’s Eve party that lasted several hours into 2015; Michael, and his assistant Massimo di Luca painting church railings through the sap-sucking heat of last summer; and, finally, Michael riding his motorbike through Naples right up until the end of his life to the point where the bike had to feign an injury.
Yet, despite the steel at Michael’s core and the frustrations on every corner, he remained gracious and ever-welcoming.
The Rae family’s connection with Naples began in the 1870s when British-born Michael Gutteridge, a cousin of the family’s by marriage, was encouraged to seek out southern sunshine to ward off tuberculosis. He chose to go to Naples where he set up a drapers, Gutteridge & Co.
Trade in the city boomed thanks to the increasing confidence of the British in India (1858 – 1947); the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; the expansion of the railways across Europe; and the Grand Tour popularity of Pompeii and Vesuvius.
The new business, Gutteridge & Co, did so well that help was needed. It arrived in the shape of a young cousin, Michael Rae’s grandfather, a recently qualified wool expert. He eventually took over the firm when the Gutteridge family moved on.
By the time Michael, the second of two boys, was born in 1936 the company was in the care of his father, Francis Rae, who was faced with keeping his family and the business safe through the rough decades that followed.
In 1939, the year Britain declared war on Germany, Francis Rae decided to take his wife and children back to England. They did not stay long. The family returned to Naples when Mussolini announced that all vacated properties belonging to foreigners would be appropriated by the Italian state.
But again they did not stay long. The following year, 1940, with tensions tightening, an Italian friend urged them on to a Japanese-owned ship then in the port – it turned out to be the last civilian ship to leave Naples for some time.
Haste and restrictions meant that they left with very little, the only valuables they took stuffed hastily into Michael’s teddy bear.
The war was spent in Devon where they waited for their father Francis to return from military service.
Francis Rae, too old for active duty, spent much of the war based in India where he helped run the prisoner of war (PoW) camps set up to hold Italian prisoners, some of whom returned to Naples after the war. Michael Rae used to tell of chance meetings in Naples over many years where former PoWs would reminisce with enthusiasm about their time in his father’s camps as though recalling old school days.
The post-war years in Naples were difficult. Francis Rae had to rebuild the family home and business, and plan a future for his two sons.
The oldest of the boys, Duncan, was sent to business school before he joined Gutteridge & Co while Michael, the younger and more academic of the pair, was sent to Cambridge University with a view to becoming a teacher – a career plan that was cut short by the death in 1963, of his 58-year-old father, Francis.
Michael, book-lover and history enthusiast, dropped his hope of teaching and returned to Naples to help his brother at Gutteridge & Co. He worked as head of the men’s section for many years but that changed with a jolt in 1983 when Duncan Rae, in overall charge of the business, died at the age of 48 after a short illness.
Suddenly Michael found himself at the helm of the company. He, with the help of his wife Bambi, continued to run the business until 1998 when, with no family interest in carrying it on, he sold Gutteridge & Co to the Capri Group.
The way the sale was handled, according to Michael’s son James, was typical of his father – all the company’s employees and suppliers were paid, and all commitments were honoured. This was a considerable achievement given the context.
Sale completed Michael then turned his full attention to supporting Christ Church, the church that has served the English-speaking community in Naples for over 150 years.
He gave the church and its ever-changing congregation his time, his guidance, endless lively hospitality and also, perhaps more importantly, his reputation and his connections.
Word must have got back to the Queen for in 2011 in Westminster Abbey Michael was amongst those she presented with two purses of Maundy Money.
Late last year in a cafe near the church an older Italian gentleman, who I’d never met before, asked me if I knew Michael Rae. When I said I did he smiled and put down his espresso:
“Michael Rae è …” then he paused, looking for the English word “… un pillar …”
“A pillar of the church …” I echoed nodding.
“No,” he wagged his finger at me. “No … è due … two pillars.”
He was right. Michael was at least two pillars of the church.
When I asked Bambi, Michael’s wife, what, apart from his family, Michael would be most proud of she answered instantly:
“The church’s stained glass windows.”
Michael worked relentlessly to raise funds for, and then to supervise the repair of, these stained glass windows, each given in memory of an event or a life.
Today, if you visit Naples and step into Christ Church in Chiaia you will see the windows, elegant kaleidoscopes of colour that lend warmth to the inside of the bare Victorian building.
Another elderly Italian, a long-standing member of the Christ Church congregation, said that when he remembered Michael he thought of the fun – of the parties, the plays, the Scottish dancing – all hosted by Michael and Bambi to raise money for their church.
The memory made him sad and emotional.
“Abbiamo perduto Michael.”
We’ve lost Michael – a warm and welcoming link rooted through three generations of one family to a well-established clothing store in Naples, and to the past of Christ Church and its turbulent context.
Michael Clarkson Rae MBE, with friends and family around the world, leaves two sons – James and Andrew, the first based in England and the second in New Zealand. His wife Bambi remains in Naples.
Below is a clip of the service in Westminster Abbey at which Michael Rae was presented with Maundy Money by the Queen
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018
Wonderful, Georgie … a heartfelt tribute filled with love.
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Thanks Annabel – definitely feels like a piece of the jigsaw is missing without Michael Rae here in Naples.
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Lovely piece, Georgie. It is a fine tribute to Michael.
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Thank you Nowelle! Apologies for the delay in response … I have been travelling.
I remember having tea on that beautiful balcony. A taste of what Naples once was. He sounds a delightful old boy.
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Michael Rae was a wonderful man … so generous with his beautiful views and his lovely home, and gave his time to everyone.
Brava Georgie, once again your choice of words and photos pay ample tribute to Michael and to the family’s role in their city.
Thank you Tricia.