Why I Took The Photo

A television program featured Ivor Spencer’s butler-in-training school in London and piqued my curiosity. After writing Spencer I was permitted to photograph a behind-the-scenes look. What to wear? I wondered.

How I Took The Photo

Each day was a different exercise about being a manservant. The school enrolled women, though none were signed up when I attended the 10-week course. I used a manual Nikon F camera with assorted lenses, 20mm to135mm, and a handheld Luna Pro light meter, shooting TRI-X black-and-white film.

What I Like About The Photo

Who walks around with a glass on his head, then serves champagne? The purpose: to walk erect and learn balance. I like Spencer’s expression and the students’ serious attitude. Spencer was stern, gentle and witty. Every day was a Monty Python moment.

And One More Thing

In turn of the century murder mysteries, the butler always did it.

Wilson Jerman did it for 45 years as the White House butler for Eisenhower in 1957 until 1993, and then with the Obama administration from 2003 through 2012. Jerman died of COVID-19 in 2020. He was 91.

The butler today in private homes does more than choosing stemware or planning parties. He manages multiple households and orchestrates a busy travel schedule for his employer. He or she is a manager extraordinaire with etiquette and intuitive knowledge in how to get things done.

In the mania of the television worlds of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs-Downstairs,” we watched the servants of the manor interact with their masters and each other. Buttling showed us a discretionary profession with decorum and humor.

In 1983 I observed Ivor Spencer’s School for Butler Administration and Personal Assistants in Dulwich, South London for 10 days. Ivor Spencer (1924-2009) was the personification of the professional butler; though he never worked as one, his experiences in the catering and hotel business gave him insights of what the well-heeled needed to administer their estates.

As a professional Toastmaster (emcee) for the Royals at charitable events for 20 years, Spencer understood the importance of having charm, respect and providing good service, but never being servile. He started a school for future butlers at a time (1980s) when there were few professional butlers in the country and no learning opportunities. He trained men and women to be the modern Jeeves, the butler character in P.G. Wodehouse’s humor books of the 1920s. “He wanted to revitalize the English butler’s traditional chores and address the needs of today’s modern home and busy executive,” said his obituary.

Don’t be pompous, stuffy men servants. Learn administration and negotiating, he told students.

Classes were small, held in a hotel conference room in the village of Crystal Palace outside of London. I donned my Sunday best, maintaining a straight posture and straight face to observe six butlers-in-training from Wales, Norway, United Kingdom, the United States and the Philippines.

Twice weekly, with eight-hour days, he introduced a lesson and hypothesized what a butler might face.

Student Ian Barber, a young David Niven lookalike, had the natural graces of a butler. Barber was surprised they met in a room with peeling wallpaper rather than some elegant manor house. But early on Barber realized that Ivor Spencer was really the school. It didn’t matter where Spencer held court.

Except for the few props that Spencer brought to class, the students were left to their own imagination. Role-playing was a key ingredient. Each student would role-play the butler as another played a drunken guest, a maître d’ or anyone who might come along the master’s path, either in business or as a houseguest. Spencer stressed that a butler is creative, always one step ahead and always prepared for the unexpected.

Classes were a cross between being a soap opera and Marine boot camp. Spencer wrote the scripts. He taught his students the role of the butler, engaging them into the act—getting the best dinner table by subtly tipping the maître; ironing the newspaper to get rid of creases and remove any ink residue; serving breakfast in bed or setting the table.

Trainees met top people in the trades: the head valet of hotels, clothiers, tailors, cobblers, food purveyors and other experts in the world of good taste.

Ivor Spencer pioneered the Butler School 40 years ago. His legacy lives on in such schools today—The International Butler Academy, the British Butler Institute in London, among others.

Always a manservant, Spencer now serves The Almighty.

Mark Chester’s photographs from his forthcoming book, The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape, Photographs of New Americans is on display at the Centerville Library September through October. Contact www.markchesterphotography.com.

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