A rags to roubles fairy tale: Writer and ambassador's wife Nouneh Sarkissian on her journey from Soviet Armenia to Chelsea
I am sitting in a sumptuous drawing room overlooking the Thames, enjoying watermelon slices and cherries from a silver salver. My hostess, Nouneh Sarkissian, 62, is the wife of Armenia’s ambassador to Britain.
She also has one of the world’s largest collections of David Linley furniture and numbers the designer himself – the Queen’s nephew – among her closest friends. A journalist by background, she is now a successful children’s author (Linley hosted the launch party for her latest book, The Magic Buttons, at his flagship store last December). But there is nothing showy about Nouneh.
Her exquisite furniture collection – bespoke Linley tables, chairs and bookshelves, alongside art deco treasures, antiques, rare pieces of Japanese art and old masters – is referred to with quiet appreciation.
Nouneh can’t tell me exactly how many Linley pieces there are, but they seem to be everywhere, blending in seamlessly in this immaculate Chelsea town house. ‘We met David at the wedding of Armenian friends in Beirut in 1995 and have been close to him and [his wife] Serena ever since. We like his style. If I buy a set of Russian Imperial chairs, he will build a table to match. We don’t consider our Linley collection to be furniture. We see each item as a work of art that will be passed down to future generations,’ she says.
Nouneh’s husband Armen – an astrophysicist and former prime minister of Armenia – is now serving his third stint as Armenian ambassador in the UK. As well as being a prominent diplomat and politician, he is one of Armenia’s most esteemed scientists and professors, and was, therefore, in a perfect position to broker oil and energy deals with the West when his country gained economic freedom from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Hence his wealth, and the seven-storey house at one of London’s best addresses (he’s also one of the creators of the cultishly popular tile-matching video game Tetris, which may have helped, too).
But Nouneh is too erudite and polite to talk about money. She and Armen met at school in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia (then communist, and a part of the Soviet Union since 1922), when she was 14 and he was 15.
In contrast to their current gilded existence, they grew up in the austerity of the Soviet regime – a life Nouneh remembers as repressive, but also secure and nurturing of creative talent.
‘My father was a journalist and my mother a teacher, so we were part of the intelligentsia. There were no classes in our society back then, just layers, and we were the second layer, after the nomenklatura – politicians and dignitaries who were allowed to travel and had access to foreign goods.
Nouneh as a toddler with her mother and aged 16 in communist Armenia
'We weren’t rich but we were educated, with enough money to feed and clothe ourselves. I never felt deprived. It wasn’t a bad childhood and I knew no different.’
Nouneh does, however, recall some sinister moments. ‘There was always a sense that we were being watched,’ she recalls. ‘My mother would say to us, “Be careful. Don’t tell jokes. The walls have ears.”
'And you felt it from a young age. It is something I will never forget. The fear was everywhere – that’s how the regime lasted so long.
Armen with Nouneh in 1996
Armen was wowed by her father’s book collection and asked to borrow a volume of poetry, ‘which was against the rules, as my father hated loaning his books’. Fearing her father’s wrath if the tome was not returned, Nouneh tracked down Armen at school to retrieve it, ‘and this was how our friendship started,’ she explains.
'I don’t regret sacrificing my own ambitions for the wellbeing of my family,' says Nouneh
They went together to Yerevan State University – Armen to study physics and Nouneh languages. Upon graduating, Armen was offered a position at Cambridge University. ‘He was invited 13 times by different universities before the communists allowed it.’
By the time he arrived in the UK in 1984, he and Nouneh were married with two sons, Vartan, now 36, and Hayk, 32. ‘Wives were not allowed to go abroad with Soviet scientists. We were kept behind as hostages. It was right after Hayk’s birth, so that was difficult. Moscow only allowed me to visit him for one month in April 1985.
Nouneh with her English bulldog Kolo
'I was 30 and when I arrived in London [en route to Cambridge] it was the first time I had ever been abroad. Before that, I had only travelled around the Soviet Union to places like Siberia, which are beautiful but, of course, all any of us wanted was to see London and Paris.
Nouneh with husband Armen, sons Hayk (left) and Vartan, Vartan’s wife Michael Rae and grandchildren Savannah and Armen
Nouneh points proudly to a framed photo of Armen bowing to the Queen when she gave her blessing to his most recent appointment in 1998. ‘She said, “Armen, you are the champion of all ambassadors. This is the third time you have come back to us.” I admire Her Majesty so much. She is such a gracious soul and so intelligent.’
Nouneh and Armen are also friends with Prince Charles: they gave him a private tour when he visited Armenia in 2013. ‘The prince and my husband share a passion for preserving heritage,’ explains Nouneh. ‘Armenia has some of the earliest Christian churches and our basilicas and sacred monuments have been beautifully preserved. Charles loved it.’
The Sarkissians have their own charity, Yerevan My Love, which restores ‘dilapidated and destroyed late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings’ and repurposes them as music, community and sports centres where disadvantaged children can develop their talents.
The charity has held events at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, as well as in Yerevan. ‘The Prince has supported all of these and our charity has partnered his Prince’s Trust project at Dumfries House [a Palladian mansion in Ayrshire, which was restored for the community].’
Nouneh admits that she has forfeited some of her potential to support Armen’s career, but she clearly relishes family life and feels any sacrifices she’s made have been worth it. ‘I adore being a grandmother. My younger son Hayk is still single. I keep saying to him, “Hurry up! I want more grandchildren while I am still young.”
'My book - the fairy tale - developed on its own,' says Nouneh, 'which is the magic of writing'
'When I push too much, he says, ‘You find me a woman then. I have just three conditions: she must be beautiful, clever and kind,”’ she smiles wryly.
‘At least they live close to me. What I did to my mother by moving away!’ Her idea of a perfect Sunday is the family coming together at their house in Surrey.
‘I think I did sacrifice my own ambitions for the wellbeing of my family,’ she says. ‘But I never regret it. I have two beautiful children who are mentally strong and ambitious [Vartan runs his own cyber-security company and Hayk works with his father].
'If my life was ever frustrating, I tried not to show it. I was like “happy face”’ – she assumes an exaggerated smile that brings to mind the grinning emoji – ‘because this was what everyone needed from me…Happy Mum. Sad face never works.
'It’s difficult to find the right balance in a relationship. Armen is strong and I’m strong. That could have been a clash, but I let him be our leader and he appreciates me for it. He always says he couldn’t have done any of it without me.’