"You can tell the Brits," a man said at Saturday night's reception at the Octagon. "Look at that one, you can just tell he's a lord."
"Scotch on the rocks," the likely lord was saying to a bartender. He stared into the ice-filled glass offered him and grimaced in a peculiarly British way, his whole face turning into one big crunched-up eyebrow. He then fished out one ice cube and handed it to the startled bartender, who clutched the melting ice as the Brit retreated with his Scotch.
They are everywhere, the British lenders, here for the extended festivities surrounding the National Gallery of Art's "Treasure Houses of Britain," with their double-vented jackets, tweed skirts, cheeks eternally rosy and comments like, "How very-very-kind of you."
On Saturday a good number of them showed up at the Octagon for one more round of hors d'oeuvres, this time in honor of the American Institute of Architects exhibit of drawings "The Architect and the British Country House: 1620-1920." Henry Ford II, former CEO of the Ford Motor Co., which is underwriting "Treasure Houses," was there to greet them in his capacity as vice chairman of Sotheby's Holdings Inc., which provided what is called "seed money" for a "Treasure Houses" series to be shown on public television.
"I'm standing there and getting turned around and people are saying hello and I don't know who they are," Henry Ford II said of parties like the one he was in the middle of attending. As he spoke, he was turned around and people were saying hello to him and asking for a picture and just one more, please.
Asked about the financial support for the "Treasure Houses" exhibit from the company that bears his family name, he said, "From our standpoint, there's a lot of things going on in Washington and we don't have much of a presence here. This was a way to have a presence, even if only for a few months, and we think it will be very effective."
"Having a presence" is the supreme goal of organizations supporting "Treasure Houses" and such satellite events as the AIA show. Ford, Sotheby's, the people who want you to visit Britain, the people who want you to stay in their hotels in Britain, the people who want to fly you to Britain -- they're all here to be noticed, which is why you'll see women dressed up in British Caledonian kilts at National Gallery parties and part of the reason Sotheby's paid for the Saturday night reception, although not everyone wants to come out and say it.
"That's not our prime motivation," said Sotheby's CEO Michael Ainslie, former head of this country's National Trust for Historic Preservation. "These owners are our clients. This is a cultural celebration and we view ourselves in a broad context as a cultural institution."
AIA Foundation President Mary Means, however, had no problem admitting that what she wanted was attention.
"One reason to do something like this is we need to restore the Octagon," she said about the building built in 1799 and used by President Madison as a temporary residence after the British set fire to the White House during the War of 1812. AIA, which owns the Octagon, must raise $1 million for further restoration, so several months ago Means called Ainslie, with whom she worked at the National Trust, and suggested he give a party in the building where the treaty ending the War of 1812 was signed.
"It's still the operating treaty between Britain and the United States," she said.
One would assume the Treasure Houses of Britain Treaty, which has not been officially signed but has certainly been celebrated, will now supersede it.
"The beams of his house are buckling because of all the luggage," is how Lady Victoria Leatham described the effect of her stay with host Maurice Tobin, former chairman of the National Theatre.
Leatham, who lives at Burghley House, lent the National Gallery the 18th-century silver wine cooler that's as large as a small car and that she polishes with a toothbrush when it gets tarnished.
"When you have a party for 400, where else are you going to cool the champagne?" she said, laughing. "It serves two functions -- it's so large, when it's filled with ice it also cools the room when you have a lot of people. But then you have to empty it the next day. It doesn't have a plug. We have to get out the children's buckets." .