Duke Street St James’s is little changed in appearance since I first went to work, fifty years ago, for M. Newman Ltd at no. 43, now the bookshop of Sims Reid. The street was home to numerous private art dealers – Koetser, Leggatt, Spink amongst many others – whose places have now been taken by Rafael Valls, Derek Johns, Johnny van Haeften, Adrian Mibus. Others have come and gone – Roy Miles, Peter Nahum and my own partnership Hartnoll & Eyre at no. 39. MacConnal-Mason alone remains. The Bonbonnière, where Betts the commission agent would wait at 10 o’clock for his day’s bids, is still a café; the Chequers pub, where George Best used to drink, remains. Duke Street has always been home to these dealers, the bulwark of the trade – my current premises at no. 37 were in the 1870s the offices of the print publishers Arthur Lucas. The 18th century building at 14 Mason’s Yard, off Duke Street, has been bought by the grand Italian Old Master dealer Luca Baroni, who now owns three building in the Yard. In such hands I am confident Duke Street will remain just the same fifty years on, safe from the predatory fashion houses.
Two things have changed. First, the balance between auctioneer and dealer and second, the advent of the contemporary art dealer, most notably White Cube and Thomas Dane.
In the 1960s the auction rooms were, to all intents and purposes, trade only. At Sotheby’s the dealers sat at a green baize horseshoe-shaped table. If you, as a private client, wanted to buy a picture at Christie’s you asked Agnew’s or Leggatt’s to buy on your behalf. Now the auctioneers are the retailers, wooing the private clients in with ever more lavish hospitality, erudite catalogues and sleek young personnel. The dealer whose role it was to provide the expertise is outmanoeuvred – but is he? Left only with his eye, his taste, his knowledge and his independence, he still has the edge – or so I believe.
The creation of the White Cube exhibition space hollowed beneath the ground in Mason’s Yard, overseen by Jay Jopling in his top floor open garden, has helped the area remain centre stage. Where once Mason’s Yard was only visited for its parking and its cottage, it is now a point of pilgrimage for anyone interested in contemporary art. The money which once chased the nudes of Russell Flint now flows via the spot paintings of Damien Hirst et al into the pockets of Jopling, Gagosian and the others. Art is now entertainment, as, so often being conceptual, it cannot be bought or sold. This gives me the cue to explain why I call myself an ‘artmonger’. The epithets ‘gallerist’ and ‘curator’ are now current – the former a hideous import, the latter pompous and allowing the ‘curator’ to disguise his lack of scholarship behind his or her self-perception of creativity. As an ‘artmonger’, my clients can hold the picture, touch it, smell it if they want – Realism for real! Nevertheless, these new enthusiasts for contemporary art streaming down Duke Street are to be welcomed. It will not be long before they get seduced by what Bruce Chatwin called the ‘Grail Quest’.
For my part, the act of acquisition has been the be-all and end-all. I am a buyer not a seller. I would not go quite as far as Chatwin - The chase, the recognition of the quarry, the decision to purchase, the sacrifice and fear of financial ruin, ……… the wrapping, the journey home, the ecstasy of unwrapping the package, the object of the quest unveiled – the companion, the lover, but very shortly the bore, to be kicked out or sold off while another more desirable thing supplants itself in our affection. While I can share many of these delightful emotions, my pictures have certainly not become bores – they remain my companions. Cataloguing for this sale has evoked many piquant moments – left in Souza’s studio in his apartment in New York to choose whatever I wanted; again left in Bratby’s basement studio, sifting, only to be told I would have to buy everything or nothing; being given Rooke’s sketchbook entitled ‘Heads’ by Celia Rooke in her cottage outside Banbury; showing Barry Humphries great piles of Draper drawings in Limerston Street. Some got away – the heirs to the Dupas estate changed their minds at Orly airport. Yet as I catalogue and look at them again, each picture reminds me of why I bought it – in honesty, I can say that nearly all have matured. It has been the act of acquisition which has kept me going and in business – I am not a salesman. I allow people to find me, which is one of the reasons for this sale. Nearly all the pictures Holloway’s are selling have been in store in either London or the West Country – a big barrier to those trying to find me.
The heart of this sale is the collection of pictures by Bratby and other members of the Kitchen Sink School, perhaps more usefully known as the Beaux Arts Quartet. Here it is worth remembering that Helen Lessore, who ran the Beaux Arts Gallery, showed Bacon, Auerbach and Kossoff. Freud was the only New Realist she didn’t exhibit, but two years ago Freud, noticing a Bratby at the restorers, was heard to say he was a good painter; I should have one. The sale includes examples by Jack Smith from both his Beaux Arts period and his later work. The Bratbys have all been through my selection process, avoiding those works painted rapidly and without feeling; I know his work can be inconsistent and it has been my job to sort the good from the bad, to be the filter system performing the true role of a dealer. Middleditch, on the other hand, was consistently good, his drawing always powerful. Helen Lessore wrote of Middleditch his strength lies in his ability to get close to nature ... there is no ambiguity in these pictures, just as there are no conceits ... the forms are arrived at instinctively and the flow of lyrical feeling is spontaneous … I find four qualities in his work which appeal to me particularly: the freshness and lack of affectation in his vision, the finesse of his painting, the vigour of his drawing, and the effectiveness of his very personal style. All four qualities apply equally to Coker. It baffles me that these pictures remain so undervalued.
Over these past fifty years I have been part of the revival in the art market fortunes of the Pre- Raphaelites; I have bought and sold Lempickas for low thousands of pounds; I gave Souza his first London show for thirty years. In each and all of these markets I pioneered, only to price myself out. It is my sincere belief that the heart of this sale, the post-war New Realists – yes, the Kitchen Sink artists – will follow the trend. These pictures have been my companions, now they must be yours.
20 March 2012 11:39 AM