John Rendall, 1960s man-about-town who bought a lion from Harrods and became a King’s Road celebrity – obituary

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John Rendall, left, with Anthony Bourke and Christian the lion cub in the Sophisocat furniture store in the King's Road, 1970 - Derek Cattani/Shutterstock
John Rendall, left, with Anthony Bourke and Christian the lion cub in the Sophisocat furniture store in the King's Road, 1970 - Derek Cattani/Shutterstock

John Rendall, who has died aged 76, walked into the pet department at Harrods in 1969 and, with his friend and fellow Australian Anthony Bourke, bought a lion cub which transformed his life.

In 2008 a YouTube clip showing their emotional reunion with their pet lion, after they had left him in Africa to be introduced into the wild, became an internet phenomenon, attracting more than 100 million views.

Rendall was living in London and sharing a flat with Bourke over Sophistocat, a King’s Road pine furniture store where they both worked, when he heard that it was possible to buy exotic pets at Harrods.

“A friend had been to the department at Harrods and announced, rather grandly, that she wanted a camel,” he recalled. “To which the manager very coolly replied: ‘One hump or two, madam?’”

When he and Bourke visited the store, they were astonished to discover a pair of zoo-bred sibling lion cubs, male and female, being promoted as “perfect gifts” for the person who has everything. They bought the male cub for 250 guineas (about £4,500 today) and called him Christian.

They were not allowed to take him home for the first month, but after Christian and his sibling escaped from their cage one night and wreaked havoc in the carpet department, Harrods was only too keen to be rid of him.

The two friends persuaded Sophistocat’s owner to allow Christian the run of the shop’s basement, where they installed a giant litter tray, and the lion cub lived there and in their flat for a year, growing rapidly and costing a fortune in raw meat. A local vicar let them exercise him regularly in his walled cemetery.

They joined up with a Fleet Street photographer, Derek Cattani, who had agreed to document Christian’s life in London and was able to sell feature stories to newspapers and magazines, the fees generated helping towards Christian’s dietary requirements.

John Rendall (right) drives his Mercedes cabriolet in the King's Road, with Antony Bourke and Christian the lion cub - Derek Cattani/Shutterstock
John Rendall (right) drives his Mercedes cabriolet in the King's Road, with Antony Bourke and Christian the lion cub - Derek Cattani/Shutterstock

The lion cub rapidly became the shop’s star attraction and a regular sight in Chelsea, being taken for walks along the King’s Road and to restaurants, lounging in the back of Rendall’s Mercedes cabriolet – even posing for a Biba fashion advert. “We became his pride,” Rendall recalled.

There was nothing so surprising about this at the time, Rendall told The Guardian in 2011: “An exotic animal in London was just a part of exotic, experimental London. There were so many things going on... We would see the Stones and the Beatles driving up and down King’s Road. The Stones... used to pop in and visit Christian frequently. In that milieu, we were just a couple of Aussies with a lion.”

The two friends had been planning to send Christian to the Longleat wildlife park, but their plans changed after Bill Travers and his wife Virginia McKenna visited Sophistocat to buy a desk.

The actors had recently starred in Born Free (1966) as the conservationists Joy and George Adamson, who famously specialised in returning tamed lions to the wild, and at Travers’s suggestion Rendall and Bourke decided to send Christian to Africa, where George Adamson would try to release him into the wild.

They sold Christian to the Born Free director James Hill, and the lion moved for a few months to temporary accommodation near Dorking, where efforts were made to train him for his future life by encouraging him to attack a sack filled with straw.

John Rendall and Anthony Bourke are reunited with Christian the lion in Kenya in 1971; George Adamson is to the left of the photograph - Derek Cattani/Shutterstock
John Rendall and Anthony Bourke are reunited with Christian the lion in Kenya in 1971; George Adamson is to the left of the photograph - Derek Cattani/Shutterstock

In August 1970 Christian left England, accompanied by Rendall and Bourke, for Nairobi, where they were met by Adamson: “I think he got quite a shock when he met us, straight from the King’s Road, in all our gear – flares from Granny Takes a Trip, and with hair everywhere.”

Christian was marshalled into the back of a Land Rover and the party drove to an area now known as the Kora National Park, where Adamson planned to introduce him into the wild in tandem with Boy, one of the tame beasts who had starred in Born Free.

After a tricky period when Christian had to acknowledge his “undercat” status, the two lions settled down and began to establish their territory and build a pride. Against all odds, the experiment was a success.

A year later, again accompanied by Cattani, Rendall and Bourke returned to Kenya in the hope of meeting Christian again, though they were warned that it was unlikely.

But a few days into their visit George Adamson came to tell them that Christian was outside the camp on his favourite rock: “He’s waiting for you.”

“Christian stared at us in a very intense way,” Rendall recalled. “We called him and he stood up and started to walk towards us very slowly.

“Then, as if he had become convinced it was us, he ran towards us, threw himself on to us, knocked us over, knocked George over and hugged us, like he used to, with his paws on our shoulders.

“Everyone was crying. We were crying, George was crying, even the lion was nearly crying.” The reunion party went on all night, after which Christian returned to his pride.

In 1972 Rendall and Bourke returned to Kenya to see Christian for what turned out to be the last time. Although Adamson had not seen the lion for several months he reappeared on their third day during dinner: “Christian rushed over to us, grunting with excitement. He knocked George over, jumped on the table and interrupted dinner. He tried to sit on our laps, even though he was now a 500 lb cat.

“We spent nine amazing days with him. He was much bigger and more independent, with a pride of lionesses and a batch of cubs, and we were nearly superfluous to his life. But that was the whole point of it, to return to the wild.”

Christian disappeared in 1973 when he was three and a half and was believed to have moved to the adjoining Meru National Park, where it would have been easier for him to establish his own pride.

Derek Cattani’s photographs of Christian during his time in London allowed Rendall to illustrate books on Christian and his life, beginning with A Lion Called Christian (1971), co-written with Bourke, which became a bestseller.

Bourke later returned to Australia, where he became a leading art curator and expert on aboriginal art. Rendall remained in London but kept in close touch with George Adamson.

After Adamson was murdered by Somali bandits in 1989 Rendall was involved in the establishment of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, which now does work in Kora as well as in Tanzania, where it is reintroducing the endangered black rhino.

Rendall became a trustee and active fundraiser for the trust, lectured at schools and led safaris in Africa, including to Meru National Park, where Christian is thought to have made his home.

When footage of their 1971 reunion with Christian was released on YouTube, it rekindled interest in Rendall and Bourke and their story and they reissued an updated version of their 1971 bestseller.

A sixth-generation Australian, John Grant Rendall was born on August 2 1944 in Bathurst, New South Wales, where his father owned businesses including a dry cleaners. His mother was a teacher.

Young John’s main claim to fame in Bathurst was as a schoolboy soprano, but after leaving university in the late 1960s he joined the exodus of young Australians looking for fun in swinging London.

“What a time it was, so heady and so free, so exciting,” Rendall recalled in 2011. “It was the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Vivienne Westwood and a bunch of Aussies making waves. Is it any wonder we were drawn there? Martin Sharp and Richard Neville had launched the London version of Oz magazine and people like Clive James, Jenny Kee, Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries were becoming prominent. It was the kind of creative atmosphere where, if you had an idea you could run with it, changing as you went along.”

He had known Bourke in Australia, and after meeting again in London the two became flatmates.

Rendall became a well-known Chelsea man-about-town. In the mid-1970s he and his then girlfriend Sarah Ponsonby bought a derelict Jacobean farmhouse in Wiltshire, where a visitor was reportedly surprised to see Princess Margaret’s then boyfriend Roddy Llewellyn and a group of friends running around stark naked (“We are just having a good time,” Llewellyn explained. “When the weather gets colder, it’s back to clothes.”)

Visitors included the Princess herself as well as the actress Helen Mirren, who later described the set-up as “all bongo drums and five-skin spliffs”.

John Rendall in 1978 with his first wife Liz Brewer In the garden of Bennetts Club In Battersea which was owned by their friend Roddy Llewellyn - Mike Hollist/ANL/Shutterstock
John Rendall in 1978 with his first wife Liz Brewer In the garden of Bennetts Club In Battersea which was owned by their friend Roddy Llewellyn - Mike Hollist/ANL/Shutterstock

In 1978 Rendall married the nightclub entrepreneur (and later ITV’s Ladette to Lady etiquette coach) Liz Brewer, with whom he had a daughter. He became involved in property development, worked as the social editor at Hello! magazine for 15 years, extending his friendships among the glitterati, and represented the Hyatt International group, travelling the world as their ambassador.

His passion for the creative arts led him to become a trustee of the Chelsea Theatre, situated among the tower blocks in the World’s End Estate on the King’s Road, raising large sums of money for its redevelopment and helping to make it the centre of the local community.

John Rendall at Henley Literary Festival in 2012 - Geoffrey Swaine/Shutterstock
John Rendall at Henley Literary Festival in 2012 - Geoffrey Swaine/Shutterstock

Rendall was also a patron of LionAid and was awarded an honour by the Italian government for his conservation work.

Early in the pandemic, he caught Covid-19, after which he developed long Covid.

Rendall’s marriage to Liz Brewer was dissolved, and in 1987 he married Melanie Palmer, with whom he had two sons. They survive him with his daughter from his first marriage.

John Rendall, born August 2 1944, died January 23 2022

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