Nene Tuason-Quimson’s art collection is up for auction 2
The lady has met many international personalities, from celebrities to politicians to popes. Photo courtesy of Leon Gallery

Inside the private world of society grande dame Nene Tuason-Quimson

On the occasion of her personal art collection coming up for auction this March, we remember one of Manila’s last great society doyennes
Augusto Marcelino Reyes Gonzalez III | Feb 20 2022

A remarkable 20 artworks from the collection of society doyenne Nene Tuason-Quimson are coming up for auction this first weekend of March, and the treasures will impress both serious collectors and social scene watchers. 

Among the highlights of the selection—for surely there are plenty more not included in the forthcoming sale—is a portrait of a Valentino-wearing Quimson painted by noted artist and society darling Betsy Westendorp; a resplendent harvest scene by National Artist Fernando Amorsolo; a stunning linear work by the wild man Lee Aguinaldo; and a very important Juan Luna called “Odalisca,” a watercolor done during the artist’s Rome period which famously produced his career-defining “Spoliarium” and the memorable “La Muerte de Cleopatra”—this second one drew major attention when it was exhibited in the National Museum of Singapore in 2017, the first time it was shown in public since its last recorded exhibition in 1887. 

Betsy Westendorp
Portrait of Doña Nene Quimson in Valentino by Betsy Westendorp (b. 1927). Signed and dated 1991 (lower left) oil on canvas 64" x 48" (163 cm x 122 cm)

The “Odalisca” used to hang in the living room of the owner’s very well appointed Ascot home, and while the Westendorp portrait, say those who know Quimson, “captures her very well,” the Luna embodies the life of privilege and beauty that was Quimson’s birthright. 


Born to affluence 

Quimson was born in pre-war Manila when the city was a vibrant second to Shanghai in terms of modernity, progress, and glamour. When everyone was well-dressed and social gatherings were frequent—parties thrown by the famous ladies from the country’s rich clans like Angela Calvo Olgado–Zobel, Victoria Ledesma Lopez–Araneta, and the young Madrigal–Paterno sisters. It was a world of affluence, tradition, elegance, refinement, principles, and manners.

Juan Luna (1875 - 1899) Odalisca (Odalisque)
Odalisca (Odalisque) by Juan Luna (1875 - 1899). Signed and dated Roma 1982 (lower right) watercolor on paper 25 1/2" x 36 1/2" (65 cm x 93 cm)

Nene was the daughter of Pindong Tuason and Margarita Locsin Del Rosario of the industrialist family that spawned the PHINMA conglomerate. Pindong was an entrepreneur extraordinaire, an excellent lawyer–businessman who inherited the legendary Tuason nose for business. Nene and her three siblings Lita, Boy, and Boling grew up in the prewar residence of their parents on Santol Street in Santa Mesa, on land that had long belonged to the very old Tuason clan. 

Nene Tuason-Quimson
She was always impeccably put together, whether she’s wearing house clothes or in a party.

The Tuason–del Rosario house was in the 1930s Modern style that could have been designed by Juan Nakpil or Pablo Antonio. In 1959, however, Pindong Tuason would transfer his family to the postwar La Vista development in Quezon city, on land that was also ancestral Tuason. It was a modern residence that had sloping gardens and pleasant views of the Marikina valley where, yes, there was also ancestral Tuason land.

Nene was educated at the exclusive St. Scholastica’s College which was run by Belgian and German Benedictine nuns. After high school, Nene and sister Boling were taken by their parents abroad for 18 months; eight of which were spent in New York City for their father’s eye operation and recovery. In 1953, fresh out of high school and at only 17 years old, Nene married her beau John, or Juan Tuason Quimson, who was ten years older.

With Pope Benedict XVI.
With Pope Benedict XVI.

After the 1986 People Power, then President Corazon Aquino appointed Nene’s husband Ambassador to the Court of Saint James in London—an appropriate and laudable decision, as social position, high education, and personal elegance were qualities valued by the conservative British establishment. John was a perfect choice for the Philippine Ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, he died two and a half years into his tenure. He and Nene were together for 35 years.

With Bill Gates who, like Quimson, is a bridge player.
With Bill Gates who, like Quimson, is a bridge player.

After his passing in 1988, with all her children grown and already with their own families, Nene, now a widow and an empty-nester, decided she would just enjoy life, spend more time with friends and travel. This was the time she set up bases in Chelsea, London, Ascot, New York, and Boca Raton. Those early widowhood years saw Nene constantly on the move, which would be her way of life for the next thirty years.  


House and garden 

Nene was a lady who took pride in her homes and gardens. She was “house proud” and had high standards regarding domestic upkeep. She had a loyal core staff whom she deployed wherever needed. What was interesting was as she deployed her local staff abroad, she employed her foreign staff in Manila.           

With Yasser Arafat.
With Yasser Arafat.

A Tuason granddaughter once comically described the Tuason way of life as “Popeye y comer, comer y Popeye!”—meaning “Smoke and eat, eat and smoke!” or “Tobacco and food, food and tobacco!” (Popeye is, of course, Popeye the Sailor Man, the 1929 cartoon character perennially smoking a pipe and eating a can of spinach). Nene went much further than her Tuason elders, though, and laid her tables not only with wonderful food but also beautiful chinaware, glassware, silverware, and linens. She said she liked to cook, which largely meant she liked to supervise the cooking. Her lunch and dinner tables were invariably formal and set in the English style, with layered chinaware and an array of silverware and glassware per place setting.  

Betsy Westendorp (b. 1927) Untitled
Untitled by Betsy Westendorp (b. 1927). Signed and dated 1986 (lower right) oil on canvas 81 1/2" x 131" (207 cm x 333 cm)

Like her father Pindong, who liked to take his Wack–Wack golf buddies (who were mostly his family and Tuason–Legarda–Prieto–Valdes relatives) to travel everywhere, the equally generous and gallant Nene took her friends, relatives, and family on several trips for company and fun. 

Golf was an inherited passion. “My siblings and I practically grew up on a golf course, as my parents were always playing it,” she once recalled. During their younger years (1960s–70s), John and Nene used to play golf everyday at the MGC Manila Golf Club with Chito Madrigal and friends. They would play in the daytime and come evening there were wonderful dinners given by various members of the group. Nene played golf for 43 years, beginning at age 10 all the way up to age 53. The secret behind her slim figure was brisk walking seven miles a day on and off the golf course. 

Fernando Amorsolo (1892 - 1972) Mango Gatherers
Mango Gatherers by Fernando Amorsolo (1892 - 1972). Signed and dated 1970 (lower right) oil on canvas 33 1/2" x 48" (85 cm x 122 cm)

Bridge (or Contract Bridge), a trick–taking card game of skill, risk, and luck, was another inherited passion from her parents. They were avid bridge players and their Philippine Bridge Club was headquartered at the family’s JMT building. “My husband played it for 23 years but I did not play due to my other commitments,” said Nene. Time came, however, when she began to take the game seriously. Her bridge team participated in the Pacific Open and Beijing Olympics followed by the first International Mind Sports Game tournament. “Bridge, for me, is a kind of therapy,” she said. “Isn’t it well–known that those who play bridge seldom get Alzheimer’s disease?”  

Lee Aguinaldo (1933 - 2007) Brown Circulation No. 2
Brown Circulation No. 2. by Lee Aguinaldo (1933 - 2007). Signed and dated July 14, 1975 (verso) aquatec (acrylic) 24" x 24" (61 cm x 61 cm)

The game took Nene everywhere. At a tournament of the Philippine Bridge Club in Medina, Seattle, she was introduced by her good friend, an English Lord, to Bill Gates who was then a newbie at the game. She was hoping the 2012 Olympics in London would have a Bridge tournament and that she would be invited to represent the Philippines. 

Nene’s principal philanthropy was the UK Filipina Women’s Association – United Kingdom, the charitable organization that she established with London–based Filipina friends in 1988. “It was the knowledge that there was no Philippine women’s organization in the UK and that it was time there was one,” she said when asked why she founded the group whose aim was to raise funds for the education of underprivileged but deserving children in the Philippines. “And of course, to uplift the image of the Filipino woman,” she added.

At that time, Filipina women in the UK were disparaged. There was little regard for Filipina professionals. As wife of the Philippine Ambassador, Nene sought to uplift the reputation and improve the general perception of all Filipina women in the United Kingdom. She is also a donor to the Asian Cultural Council in New York. Not known to many, she supported many Filipino musical scholars quietly for many years, among them the gifted pianist Hiyas Hila.

Benedicto Cabrera (b. 1942) Portrait of a Man with Dog
Portrait of a Man with Dog by Benedicto Cabrera (b. 1942). Signed and dated 1987 (lower right) pastel on paper 39" x 27" (99 cm x 69 cm)

From a distance

“She was heaven and earth, fire and rain, yin and yang,” said Nene’s eldest daughter Wito of the society figure. “At times, she was hard to figure out, hard to get on with. At other times she was a joy to be with and super fun, discoing with us as teenagers in Regine’s.” Nene gave birth to her at the very young age of 18, and she described her mother as larger than life, despite her rather tiny frame. “Although she professed to be black and white in her beliefs, she herself was a multi-coloured rainbow—in personality, in fashion, in her choice of varied friends and in her many interests.” 

“There was a certain formality to her, a certain distance,” said John Quimson, Nene’s son. “One could not be a ‘cozy friend’ with her, she just wasn’t the kind. Even we kids couldn’t approach her out of the blue… there was a certain way that that had to be done. I guess she belonged to that conservative generation. You know, the perfect manners and distance and all.”  

John recalled how always well–groomed and well–dressed Nene was, whether at home or in parties. “Life at home with Mom was organized. Breakfast was a casual affair with everything on the table or on the long cabinet at the side and pretty much ‘serve yourself.’” Lunch and dinner were formal, dressy occasions. “You know, all those plates and glasses and cutlery and staff to move everything. That was how we lived everyday with Mom,” John added. “However, despite all the formalities,  we kids knew she loved all of us unconditionally.” 

Nene passed away late last year. She was among the very last of the patrician grandes dames of Manila. With her resources and style, she belonged to the same league as the fabulous society figures that counted the likes of lawyer–businesswoman Chito Madrigal, the swanlike sylph Meldy Ongsiako–Cojuangco, and the impossibly chic Baby Araneta–Fores. She was a generous giver and had many charities but in true patrician fashion kept them mostly to herself. Nene possessed fantastic taste and great style, and these are reflected in the things she possessed—refined, beautiful works of excellence—a select gathering from which are coming up for bids on the first Saturday of March, a month when the world celebrates fantastic women like Nene Quimson. 

[The Asian Cultural Council Auction 2022 is on March 5 at 2PM. For more information and to see the offerings, visit Leon Gallery online.