Hidden in the top London galleries is a special room furnished with the trappings of exclusivity. It may be just a thin wall that partitions this from the general hanging area, but it is only the big, big spender with a thick wallet that is ushered inside, protected from the embarrassment of parting with millions in public. Andrew Solomon is granted a privileged glimpse of the private viewing rooms.
If you make a habit of announcing, in rooms crowded with aesthetes of moderate income, that you are unwilling to part with seven million pounds but have no objection to parting with six million five, you will in all probability make people hate you. The expenditure of vast quantities of money requires privacy or it becomes vulgar, and the galleries of London, ever watchful for vulgarity, know this only too well. They provide privacy in rooms distinguished by their remove from that part of the gallery witnessed by the general public. Since such privacy easily assumes the trappings of exclusivity, many galleries have shrouded what transpired in these select quarters with the brilliant mystery of freemasonry. Each such viewing room has its own history, appearance, and traditions, in keeping with the surprisingly various attitudes of the galleries themselves. I visited those at Wildenstein, Agnew’s, Waddington and The Lefevre Gallery.
Norton Simon, the great American collector, once said, “When I buy at Wildenstein, I pay top price; but I pay for a top picture, and when I am ready to sell it on, I receive an even higher price back.” Wildenstein was founded in 1875 in Paris, and has remained in the family ever since; Nathan Wildenstein begat Georges; Georges begat Daniel; and Daniel begat Guy and Alec, who run the company today under Daniel’s watchful eye. The Wildenstein Foundation in Paris is a major research foundation, and the New York gallery is one of the most important in New York. The London gallery is, in the words of Jane, Lady Abdy, “the sleeping princess of the gallery world.” Wildenstein is known for buying paintings and then holding on to them, to sell them only after 30 years if it takes 30 years for the world to appreciate their splendours. It is a gallery that is above fashion and above self-promotion of any kind. When you enter Wildenstein, you enter a finer world in which beauty is granted all the dignity becoming to it, in which grandeur is only the fitting backdrop to the jewel-like assortment of paintings.
The recently-appointed director of Wildenstein London, David Ellis-Jones, is in perfect keeping with the tenor of the gallery. Soft-spoken, intelligent, discreet, eminently gentlemanly but with a streak of well-informed liberalism, he has brought to the gallery an optimistic generosity of spirit. “Wildenstein is as much about buying as about selling,” he offers. “It is about finding the most remarkable works of art, bringing them together here, and showing them to our clients. We use these private rooms to show pictures to anyone who comes in and asks.” It is true that it takes a certain wherewithal to brush past the Boucher tapestries that hang in the entrance foyer, past the efficient woman at her desk and the high-ceilinged rooms with their exquisite mouldings, and to say, in a suitably moderated voice, “I wanted to look at the Fragonards.” But anyone who does so, and who seems to be serious, will be shown upstairs, or given an appointment. “We hold paintings, but we don’t hide them; they go into loan exhibitions, and we hang them; we very much want people to see them.”
Having asked to see the Fragonards in stock, the hopeful viewer would be shown to one of four private rooms, each one grand and slightly faded, large but unpretentious, full of pleasant light and soft chairs and pale-coloured or right-coloured fabric. Here he might sit while the works in question were shown on the large velvet-covered viewing benches. Wildenstein has an extremely broad range of work, so that while a client in one room gazed at work of the fourteenth century, someone in another might be viewing Impressionist pictures, and someone else might be considering work done last week. “I am very eager to broaden our range,” says David Ellis-Jones. “We are slowly inching our way up to the present, and are showing work that is more irregular and more daring. I do not want to injure the spirit of this gallery, and it is perhaps an inappropriate setting for the most exaggerated work of the avant-garde, but we do want to show very good work of every period, including our own. Our shows of modern work have been well received in the past, and I hope we will do more and more of them in the years to come.”
Part of what is so striking about Wildenstein is that there is so much taste exercised there. Many galleries guarantee to show only the best work of the best artists, and certainly it is true that their directors have well-trained eyes, able to identify strong composition and fine brush-work, and to tell whether or now a picture is right. But to find paintings that, in addition to being impeccable, have about them a particular loveliness, a vibrant humourous energy, a stormy magnificence, or an incandescent simplicity is a very different skill. A collector who bought only at Wildenstein would have not simply a quantity of good works of art, but a collection that made sense as a collection. Wildenstein has both variety and coherence, which is, perhaps, the best thing one can say of a gallery. Furthermore, it recognises the implicit dignity of the work it shows. “The pace of the auction houses shows a lack of respect for the works of art. Here we don’t work in terms of short-term profits or annual turnover. This gallery is the centre of the way of life of all the people connected with it. What the gallery produces is the possibility of continuing to run the gallery.” David Ellis-Jones explains all this with the smile of someone who can imagine few more pleasing possibilities.
Agnew’s has maintained a family line even longer than Wildenstein. Founded in 1817 by Thomas Agnew, the current managing director, Julian Agnew, is six generations down. Ten members of the family serve as directors of the company. The building which is now Agnew’s was originally a stable, and converted into a gallery in 1876. The upstairs gallery, where the major exhibitions are usually held, served as sleeping quarters for the grooms and stable boys. The rooms downstairs were where the horses were, and the private viewing rooms were actually stables for prize horses in their day. Horses apparently revel in natural light, and so too do old-master paintings; the inner sanctum here has a glass roof (with some supplementary electric lights for horribly overcast days), and the colours of the old masters show at their very best.
The inner sanctum at Agnew’s is the best fun of the lot; it’s like something out of The Wizard of Oz. The aforementioned ceiling diffuses the light into a really very large room, three of whose walls are hung with heavy dark-red velvet curtains. Three odd-looking chairs stand in a line with their backs to the back wall, and in front of them, on an elaborately carved wooden stand, is a crystal ashtray which visitors are “strongly discouraged from using,” according to Christopher Kingzett, the most recent of the family to take his place as a director of Agnew’s. Against the wall, opposite the three chairs, there is a large velvet-covered viewing bench, on which paintings as requested by a client are shown. But at the touch of a button, the heavy velvet curtains that on first glance seemed to be a wall-covering draw aside to reveal a painting. Two more buttons only need to be touched for the curtains to slide back on the side walls of the room, and two more paintings will be revealed in all their glory.
These paintings in most instances dwarf whatever may have been on the viewing bench. “At any point in time, the three most important paintings at Agnew’s are behind these curtains,” explains Christopher Kingzett. “They are, of course, three of the most expensive paintings at Agnew’s. It is not at all unusual for our regular clients to come in and say, ‘Let’s see what’s on behind the curtains in the private viewing room’.” David Ellis-Jones makes a great point of disliking the exclusivity that seems to cling to galleries; Christopher Kingzett accepts it. “I’m fascinated by very rich people,” he says, “and both rich people and institutions like to feel that they’ve discovered something that isn’t on view to the general public. We don’t want our very best paintings hanging in the front of the gallery for insurance reasons anyway, so this works out quite well for us. I don’t think it’s really a matter of snobbery; or if it is, it’s only a matter of accommodating other people’s snobberies, and not of exercising any of our own. Of course anyone who wants to have a look at what’s on offer can have one; they just ask at the front of the gallery. And we always hope that they will; I think Agnew’s has always been noted for its patience with and interest in small collectors, even in people who can’t afford to buy right now.”
Agnew’s sells a great deal to museums, which is “slow but very satisfying,” says Christopher Kingzett. “You always have to wait for weeks while things are approved by committees and money is voted to departments, but then the piece goes on public view, and it’s shown where it belongs. We get some pretty raw characters in here, but most of our buyers are well-informed, and most of them appreciate the work they’re buying.” Like Wildenstein, Agnew’s takes relatively little work in on consignment. “If we really like a picture, we feel it’s worth our while to buy it. If we don’t really like it, we don’t want to sell it,” Kingzett explains.
Much of the market for a gallery like Agnew’s is in buying back pictures. “Someone who buys from us is likely to want to sell to us. We are always taking on pictures that were sold here some years ago; many pictures we have sold over and over again. Furthermore, we provide a guarantee on our pictures. Anything we have sold that proves to be inauthentic or misattributed we will buy back at the price paid for it, even if the reattribution is a matter of an advance in scholarship and not a matter of our own folly.”
Agnew’s has almost as broad a range as Wildenstein, but it misses out on Impressionists. “When they were cheap, we though they were bad, and now they’re out of our range,” says Christopher Kingzett. But in addition to the old masters, there is a considerable amount of contemporary work. Like most of the work at Wildenstein, it is painted in a spirit not too far from that of the old masters, and tends to be figurative. “At one point we had a show of terrific work, a man who painted all kinds of sex with his girlfriend, a sort of sexual marathon; but it just offended too many people. Our clients are traditionalists, and so am I, and I think that’s fine. We sell a lot of drawing-room pictures in this gallery, some of them very good ones, but we also sell major paintings, important works of art.”
“I know,” says Leslie Waddington, director of Waddington, “that is is the fashion for art galleries to be exclusive organisations, like little private clubs. But I do not agree with this. I think art galleries should be as open as possible, that they should be not so much like clubs as like supermarkets. The future of art is in supermarkets. That is why I am based in a gallery that looks like a Volvo showroom. For an inner sanctum, I have my office, and some little white rooms in the basement. Anyone who wants to go and sit in one of these small white rooms is most welcome to sit there. My office is open territory. I think people are secretive only when they are inefficient, or when there’s something wrong, something that they’re hiding. I have nothing to hide. Nothing. So I keep no secrets. I have a gallery that is in no way exclusive. And I think I’m right to do this. It has made me a very very rich man.”
Leslie Waddington is in many eyes the most important figure in the contemporary art market in London. His gallery shows almost all of the major figures of modern and contemporary art. In with a stock of Picassos are works by safe artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein), works by generally acclaimed figures (Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Barry Flanagan, Julian Schnabel and David Salle), and work by important artists just achieving international recognition (Michael Heizer, Patrick Heron, Donald Sultan and many, many others).
“I take on new artists all the time, but they are new only to me. They are artists who are already partly established, often artists who are showing at Pace or Mary Boone in New York, or who are in the Whitney Biennial. I don’t take on artists straight out of art school. And why should I? Everyone loves virgins, but I think virgins are ignorant. I want people with some experience and some maturity, who know what they’re doing.” His selection of these artists is very strong indeed, and though he corresponds with Clement Greenberg, one of the elder statesmen of modern art criticism, he reads little new criticism of the artists he shows. Nonetheless, he seems to get to the heart of the toughest theoretical work. “It’s all really very comprehensible, but critics don’t like to say what they mean, they like to mystify. I have no patience with mysteries. No patience with mysterious critics, and none with people who mystify art with these inner sanctums.”
Leslie Waddington has slowly taken over most of Cork Street; he now has numbers 2, 4, 5A, 11, 31, and 34 Cork Street. “There’s so much to show!” he says. “Do I like most of what we show? Of course I don’t like most of what we show. I like some of what we show. It’s all very good art, but no one who thinks could possibly like most of what we show. We show too many good things for that. Our clients are amazingly varied. I must say that I really don’t care about our clients at all. No, that’s untrue. I like some things about them. I like the life-style of collectors of contemporary art. I like their clothes. I like their parties. When they think, I like their minds. When they don’t think, I don’t. My pleasure is in buying work and seeing work, and in knowing those of the artists who are wonderful people. If the clients are wonderful, so much the better. For us, it’s always good if they get divorced a lot or die, because then they want to sell off their paintings, and we can buy them back. That suits us very well.”
And then Leslie Waddington becomes more serious. “Some of our clients are very knowledgeable, and some of them are totally ignorant, but if they like the paintings, I’m glad that they have them. You shouldn’t need to pass a test to buy a painting. The fact that they buy a lot of paintings does not improve them as people; accumulation does not give taste, but what does it matter? What makes me sad is to sell to people who are not changed by their paintings. Those are the people on whom art is wasted. I wish those people didn’t buy from us. But then this is a business, and I will sell to anyone with enough money.”
Leslie Waddington presses a button on his intercom. “Mark, Mark,” he calls into the little white box. “How much was our turnover last year?” Mark delivers an astonishing figure of nearly 30 million pounds. Leslie Waddington rubs his hands with glee. “I think it was more, even more. What about this year?” Mark volunteers an even higher figure. Leslie Waddington cuts him off. “Sixty million!” he says. “I’m sure of it, at least 50, probably 60. I love paintings. I love them. And I love money also. Today in my work I get both, I get them at once.”
“I am very difficult. I’m incredibly difficult. But I’m not charmless, not at all,” he says with the flat manner that accompanies the statement of a fact, the tone most people reserve for comments on the weather. He has no fear of exaggeration, or of self-aggrandisement. After every extravagant statement he made — only a small proportion of them, sadly, can be fitted into this article — he would say, “Go ahead, you can quote me on this.” And then once, after a rather eloquent speech about some artists whose work he does not admire, whose work, indeed, it would be difficult to admire after hearing so lucid a dismissal, he paused. “No,” he said. “Don’t quote me. What I’ve said to you is not kind, and they are decent people with a great deal of talent. There’s no reason to say these things.” Leslie Waddington is self-obsessed and boastful, but he is also generous, and he catches the resonance of his own insights; that is, perhaps, why he can run a gallery in which visual wisdom and intellectual triumph are so exquisitely wed. A mind so quick and an intelligence so profound as his need no sanctum to celebrate them.
Alex Reid and Lefevre — known as The Lefevre Gallery — has many of the most important Impressionist pictures to shift hands in Britain. But if Wildenstein is the gentleman’s gallery, Agnew’s the museum’s, and Waddington the intellectual’s, then Lefevre is the ultimate grand bourgeois gallery, an art collector’s equivalent to the Connaught Hotel. Everything about the Lefevre Gallery is safe, impeccable, faultless, and presented with that slight blend of condescension and obsequiousness that is the hallmark of the world’s best service institutions. Leslie Waddington refuses to have an antechamber cloaked in mystery; David Ellis-Jones demystifies his at every opportunity; Christopher Kingzett accepts that it is a slightly ridiculous part of the trade; but Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran, two of the directors of the Lefevre Gallery, absolutely revel in theirs. “We are very selective about whom we invite into this room,” Martin Summers assures me, gesturing at the sunlit but claustrophobic chamber in which price-breaking work by Van Gogh is sold. “Very,” confirms Desmond Corcoran, lest I have missed the significance of this assurance.
“We have important works of art which people want to buy,” I was told at Agnew’s, “and we’re a bit mean about giving out a drink, I’m afraid, or something to eat, but then if people want to eat, drink and be merry they can always go right down the road — we’re not in the entertaining business, really, and I don’t think anyone would come into Agnew’s and buy a picture more readily because we gave them a glass of champagne or a piece of ham.” Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran hold fast to their Connaught line. “Selling a picture is a delicate business. Our clients are very important people, and they want to be treated like important people. We give a luncheon every day for clients. When someone important comes in, we invite them through to this room, and give them a drink, and make them comfortable. No one wants to spend millions of pounds if the spending isn’t fun. They buy as much for the excitement of spending their money with us as for what they are buying,” says Martin Summers.
Upstairs from the viewing room, there are several rooms of pompous magnificence for use when the most special room downstairs is full, and upstairs from these there is the dining-room in which the legendary lunches take place. It looks like one of the less distinguished but more restrained efforts of Sibyl Colefax might look after 30 years of rather occasional Hoovering. Here, one is given to understand, meals are given to the mightiest of the mighty, who may then bumble downstairs to buy a picture.
In all fairness it must be said that the work shown at Lefevre is magnificent. Their Corot show last spring was perhaps the best exhibition staged in a private gallery this year. But the work is always safe, and it is always sold safely. There are no works at Lefevre which seem to take risks. Everything is top-notch, but in my opinion the selection is devoid of charm, whimsy, and personality, and there is no sense that a painting at Lefevre will have any distinguishing feature other than that of being the best of its sort. Most of the work at Lefevre — and it is the only such gallery described here — is taken in on consignment, which again reduces risk, and which again casts Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran in the role of middlemen, purveyors of a service who have not committed themselves to a picture with the enormous investment made by the directors of Agnew’s, or by Leslie Waddington, or by the brothers Wildenstein. “Once we set a price for a painting, we do not alter it,” says Christopher Kingzett at Agnew’s. “It’s bad form in the art market to quote on price to one man and a higher price to another because he comes a week after something absurd happens in the sale rooms.” Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran are above such issues of form. “If a painting does very well at auction, and we have a similar one, then of course we raise our price in keeping with the market. We’re here to run a business, to make a profit.”
Christopher Kingzett and David Ellis-Jones would suggest that one makes a profit because one is esteemed in the business and functions within its traditions; Leslie Waddington makes one because he sticks by his artists and recognises their genius. Martin Summers and Desmond Corcoran make a profit by raising their prices and serving big lunches. “Most of our buyers make it their business to be informed before they buy from us,” says Christopher Kingzett. “We sell to people who care about their art,” says David Ellis-Jones. “They learn, or they don’t, but they do like the paintings,” says Leslie Waddington. “We are always trying to educate our buyers,” says Martin Summers, “because they are so often people with no eye, with no ability to see how good a painting is.” There are tales of people who began simply at Lefevre — one who ordered by phone a Monet he had spotted in the window from a taxi, another who wandered in off the street and bought his first painting ever, a Pissarro, and then formed one of the world’s great collections — but they are the exception rather than the rule. And at this gallery above all, that is both peculiar and sad. Artists who prided themselves on membership in the Royal Academy, or who painted society portraits, or who were patronised by the kings of great nations and the princes of warring states might well have been delighted by the notion that a view of their paintings was a nearly divine right — but think what the founders of the salon des refusés might have said upon learning that their paintings were on view only for those few who saw them sequestered in a tiny room and through the slight haze of a good lunch with plenty of fine wine.