Under the Influence: Smith & Foulkes

April 13, 2016 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The shared passions behind a winning creative partnership.

Ever since they started directing, Nexus duo Smith & Foulkes have been trying to work out why they do things the way they do; where their instinctive answers to each creative question come from. When we asked them to be part of this series they realised it’s tricky identifying your influences as a double act. When there are two of you it’s not a purely personal journey. But when they listed their individual inspirations they found that half are identical to each other’s and half wildly different. “That’s a pretty good average for any successful partnership,” they suggest. “It’s probably why we can still put up with each other.” Here’s a few that they could agree on.


Silent Comedy

Adam Foulkes: “Ever since watching Harold Lloyd hanging from a big clock on the side of a skyscraper in his opening titles I was hooked. The construction of the visual gags in Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films are fantastic. The choreography and structure is complex and sophisticated but feels effortless. There's also a real charm to it. In the current climate of ‘the story being king’ it’s great to watch character being fully explored.”

Alan Smith: “There is such an art to the choreography and comic timing of the action scenes that has never really been bettered. With no dialogue to tell the story every look and gesture is critical. We took a lot from the era of silent movies for our short This Way Up. It is really a simple character study where we examined the relationship between a father and son by putting them in ever more demanding situations. We liked the idea that they almost found themselves in a silent comedy because of their own self-imposed respect for the deceased and because of the breakdown in their ability to communicate with each other as father and son.

“We are always looking at choreography as an art form, although we’re more likely to be found watching 1970s ITV wrestling than hanging out at Sadler’s Wells. We love the instinctive interplay of great comedy double acts like Morecambe & Wise, the inventive staging of Busby Berkeley, or the unexpected patterns of human movement discovered in Koyaanisqatsi. A great example is the amazingly crafted REM Imitation of Life promo directed by Hammer & Tongs. A real ‘wish I’d done that’ moment.”


Hayao Miyazaki / Michael Dudok de Wit

“I get a bit lost watching Miyazaki’s Spirited Away but it really doesn’t matter. It has a magical, surreal atmosphere to it that is completely engaging and unique to Miyakazi. It is also beautifully animated.

“Another animation director who gets mentioned a lot at S&F HQ is Michael Dudok De Wit. He manages to convey so much character and emotion with a beautiful, sparse style. It just goes to show that even with all the technology at your fingertips often simple is best.”

Alan: “Dudok de Wit creates the most evocative atmospheres from the simplest of settings. He captures the most powerful emotions from the merest of gestures. He allows you to appreciate what isn’t there as much as what is. And every time we refer to his work as we discuss a pitch with a client it is met with universal acclaim. Then we lose the job. The curse of Dudok de Wit! But we’ll keep trying…

“As fellow devotees of the dialogue-less cinematic tradition, we can’t wait for his feature The Red Turtle. The last time we saw an animated feature film so artfully portray the human condition in epically atmospheric landscapes was the first half of Wall-E. Second half… not so much.”


Abstract Expressionism vs The Simpsons

Adam: “At college we spent our days making experimental animation and our evenings talking about how great The Simpsons was. It wasn’t just the visual gags and wordplay that we loved but also the moments of real emotion, usually between Homer and Bart. We quickly realised that to actually engage an audience it helps to have characters you could root for and identify with, so we started to move away from doing solely abstract work.”

Alan: “When I was at college my tiny mind was blown wide open by the freeform visual riffing of film-makers like Robert Breer, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and Oskar Fischinger. The limitations of graphic design and photography were left for dust as I watched these masters endlessly play with abstract patterns cut in perfect harmony with equally inventive scores. Who knew the choreography of shapes and colours could be so liberating? They also showed me how a Director could embrace a whole range of visual techniques, and how you could employ any or all of them to tell your story.

“But when I first met Adam it wasn’t these titans’ work that fired our collective imagination. It was the Simpsons. I guess at heart we just love a bit of silliness. But what was really great about it was how it evolved from a fairly hit-or-miss slapstick kids TV show into one of the greatest commentaries on the absurdities of modern life. I would spend a year making a visually elaborate film about the perils of gambling dependency then Homer comes along and sums up the whole debate with one killer line. And it was funny. It really taught us the importance of writing, character development and storyboarding to get our ideas across.”


Britishness (whatever that is)

Adam: “Martin Parr’s photography has always resonated with us, especially his curated Boring Postcards books, and we are endlessly fascinated by the idea of Britishness. Jeremy Deller’s Folk Archive exhibition covered a vast selection of contemporary popular British culture, providing an opportunity for the whole community to have their work shown in an art gallery. Not only drawing and painting but pursuits and pastimes, everything from cheese rolling and gurning to pipe smoking and wrestling, all in one exhibition. A huge celebration of Britishness.”

Alan: “We might not know exactly what it is but we know it’s there, in practically everything we do.
Maybe because we’re a couple of small town boys from the deepest darkest provinces. It’s in the richness of our history and culture, the naffness of Crap Towns, the wonder and variety of our landscape, and the astute tomfoolery of the Pythons. Our characters and stories are somehow unconsciously imbued with the peculiarities of how us Brits do things and how we interact with the wider world.”


Small…..Far Away…..

Alan: “Not just a seminal Father Ted moment but more an enjoyment in the illogical disparity of scale. When I was a kid I always entered the ‘creating a miniature garden in a potting tray’ competition at the annual village fete. It was the highlight of the year, the one all the local kids desperately wanted to win (see above). Or maybe it was just me. Anyway, we didn’t have the Internet back then. One year I pulled out all the stops, water features, stepping stones, gazebo, it was a one foot by two foot Kew Gardens. I came third. But it was the start of an appreciation of the surreal comic potential of making big things small and small things big.

“This could be the visual spectacle of Busby Berkeley’s human typewriter. The architectural oddness of Oldenberg’s site specific sculptures. The historical tradition of giant hot dogs, enormous tomatoes and other American roadside attractions. The pompous majesty of the Spinal Tap tiny Stonehenge scene. Or the guy who rides his own backyard rollercoaster while precariously strapped into a car seat. It has provided many a fun visual solution in our work as we searched for a more inventive way to transition from scene to scene.”

In Defense of the Rep

April 6, 2016 / Features

By Andrew Swepson

Let's address some misconceptions about new business in production.

I like to see myself as a level-headed and reasonable kind of person. However, I can literally hear my friends and loved ones crashing to the floor as they pass out in fits of laughter at this news. It’s true to say that little surprises me, especially in this business. As my mother would say I get aerated at all the wrong things. However, sometimes I do get annoyed at things that I’m very passionate about. At these times I feel the need to shout very loudly or at least moan at the same mates who are now picking themselves up off the floor.

So, I should elaborate as to why I find myself writing this piece and attempting to raise awareness of a subject that vexes me. Not that long ago an article featured on The Beak Street Bugle presenting a very distinct view of the production company Rep. It had me ranting at my computer screen and reaching for my quill.

To set the scene the APA had gathered a panel, which included a number of agency people alongside independent PR and press writers. One of the topics up for discussion was how can production companies project their marketing message more efficiently and successfully in 2016.

It wasn’t the broadest of panels with most notably no representative from production being present. However, the questions posed were considered and deserved discussion.

Up for debate was the role of the Rep. Somewhat clichéd views of marauding Reps, harassing all with over zealous calls, were bantered about. Advice was offered, which was rather patronising and painted an outdated picture of the role.

I’m sure that the advice offered was done so with no malice intended. However, it dawned on me that this image was not one that I identified with or indeed applied to others that I knew. This image of the Rep was not helpful to the role itself or to those who employ such people.

I’ve always regarded the position as important. It holds a privileged position and it saddens me that it’s not held in the esteem that it could or should be. The role is an intrinsic part of the industry and always has been.

It wasn’t just me though who felt this way and it caused a similar reaction in many others. It was now clear that we needed to provoke a change in people’s perception for the better. It should be more reflective of today’s evolved New Business Associate in a changing media landscape.

For starters people have very distinct view of what characteristics Reps have and what their supposed methods are. I’ve been at this game for over 20 years and in that time I’ve met every possible variant. So, I’m well aware of the need to address the issues that face us.

I moved on some years ago from the purely sales arena. But I’m very proud of being trained as a sales person and have passed on my knowledge to many over the years. It’s on this basis that I want to re-affirm its important role and hopefully help to redefine it for the future.

The Beak Street Bugle has asked me to pose questions to a number of sales people relating to these issues. Those selected are individuals that I feel are amongst the best in the industry, pushing the boundaries and re-defining the image of the production New Business Representative.

Andrew Swepson: The very word Rep conjures up such a negative image. Do you think we need to change the name and if so what would be a suitable alternative?

Ali Lindsay, Dark Energy: Yes, I agree the connotations sometimes conjured up are not reflective of what we actually do as the role is so multifaceted. Personally for me it’s not about the need to change the job title, but the need to change people’s opinions of what experienced Reps / Heads of Sales / EPs / Heads of Talent (whatever you want to call us) actually can do for you.

Ellie Botwood, BOT Inc: I think people in the industry are always going to use the term “Rep”. I have never called myself a Director’s Representative because of these negative connotations, but it hasn’t made any difference. I don’t think it’s the name that is the issue. I think it’s the association that goes with it.

I can’t tell you how many agency people have said being a Rep must be so much fun and have no idea just what the job entails. It’s the production companies’ responsibility to hire people who understand what the nature of the job is about, and not that it’s one big party. God, if only!


Andrew: Is there still a job for the in-house Rep or do you think that the growing number of independent sales and press people is the way forward?

Pippa Bhatt, Madam: My experience shows that the widening yet shrinking market will offer a place for both. The independent new business person offers opportunities for those SMEs that are rapidly growing in our industry. The behemoths will remain and need the role just as much to satiate the need of the directors they employ and the overheads their shape and size creates. We can live together!

Ellie: London still has a long way to go adapting to this new model, which has been so successful in the US. First and foremost, it is much more cost effective to have part-time experienced reps that work across more than one client as opposed to a full-time in-house rep. However, as a freelancer you are much more “disposable” if you don’t deliver within a certain amount of time. And that’s just not realistic. The beauty of having an in-house rep is that they are an integral part of that company and work solely for you. The main issue I personally have with this type of model is managing client expectations in the time frame.


Andrew: How do you define yourself within your company and amongst your peers?

Ali: As someone that helps production companies to be relevant and competitive in today’s climate and who enables the growth of both individual directing talent and the company through creativity and established contacts.


Andrew: Agencies are very adept at telling us how to go about contacting them. However, as we all know those contacted rarely respond or engage with our emails, invitations or calls. How are you addressing this issue?

Pippa: I don’t cold call and I don’t take a lack of response as a no. I have a network that I call upon, who give me leads and names to follow up on. I feel very strongly that the offering has to be about the non-sell. Creating environments for my clients on agency and production company side to connect in a mutually interesting situation. I do believe in pillars and having all of them working – emails, calls, newsletters, website, social media, PR, opinion pieces, face-to-face meetings, events.

Ellie: By thinking outside of the box. Long gone are the days of lunches and even meetings are few and far between without being cancelled last minute. Some up-and-coming production companies are trying new and engaging ways to interact with agencies. I’ve always found that self-generated work or events does eventually lead to work. There is such strong competition in this oversaturated market, doing something original and different does make people stand up and take notice.


Andrew: Are we creating a problem for ourselves? With 202 production companies on FileFX all contacting the same people are we creating white noise with all our newsletters, emails, calls and meetings?

Pippa: Yes, and there really should be a better way. The difficulty for us is that agencies are time poor and highly risk averse and it’s because they are on high alert at losing clients with a huge shift in how clients engage them. Our biggest barrier is agencies using the same directors and companies over and over again. All advertising is looking the same.


Andrew: There has been a multitude of Agencies and indeed Post Houses creating their own production offering. How do you compete in this over populated market and remain at its forefront?

Ali: I think we’d be kidding ourselves to think we can put a stop to in-house agency production companies, and quite honestly on the flip side for us to say production companies can’t also offer creative services – which we’re being pulled into more frequently working with PR and brand design companies etc.

It is a free market after all, so I’m not sure we can tell agencies and post houses what they can and can’t do, just like we wouldn’t want them to tell us how to run our business. What will be will be I guess. Maybe we’ll all end up working in-house! Who knows, we might also get pensions!

So, on the whole I’d say in this current crazy market we need to be able to maximize any benefits we see fit from this scenario, even if this means loaning out on occasion…yes I said that. Because work generates work and I believe we need to utilise the possibilities for developing directors where necessary sometimes.

However, we do also need to be very mindful to not undersell our skilled production talent, knowledge and services at enforced cut-down prices and kill off production companies in the process.

It’s tricky and I’m not entirely sure where the middle ground is with this. But in a dog-eat-dog world I guess we’ll do what we need to do to provide a service and get work made and on screen, so long as it’s of creative benefit to a particular director and ultimately as “Reps” that’s still our call to say yes or no to.


Andrew: We’ve all met that clichéd sales person, who falsely thinks that attending every party and event defines their role. What advice would you give to your younger self, or indeed them, to change that rationale?

Pippa: Research, research, research. Knowledge is everything working in tandem with a spoonful of charm. Get to know your client and your client’s client. Get an amazing CRM tool in place and fill it out religiously!

Ali: I’d say have fun meeting people from all parts of the industry who you can learn from and enjoy extending your network as it can be one of the best things about the role getting to meet so many interesting and inspiring people.

However, beware of thinking you constantly need to be out and be seen at every industry event going. Pick and choose carefully and never feel the need to be part of a crowd. At those industry events more often than not it’s your individual ability to represent yourself, your company and your talent, think clearly and remain focused that will help you in the long run.


Andrew: In America ‘Reps’ earn a very good wage, are highly respected and seen as key links in the production process. The business model is different there of course, but what do you do to encourage a more positive view of your role in the UK to advertising agencies and peers?

Pippa: I try my very best to do my role with as much integrity and care as I can.

Andrew: What changes would you like to see to improve the image of the job role in the UK? Maybe we should be considered for the various judging juries (we have years of experience reading scripts that are then crafted into final films).

Pippa: Yes, I like this idea. Really we should be on the public floor much more often – in industry rags, invited as guests and speakers to industry events, celebrated in the same way as any other industry exec. If you’re connected, up-and-coming, an influencer then we should be on a stage. IPA Women of Tomorrow has the agencies covered and WACL. We need a bigger stage for us or for other stages to open up to us.

Andrew Swepson is a PR and Marketing Consultant who runs Menagerie PR.

ARTWORKS London: The Secret Life of the Pencil

April 5, 2016 / Arts and Culture

By Alex Reeves

An exploration of the most basic creative tool.

Dougal Wilson's pencil


As anyone who has ever had the pleasure of visiting the Keswick Pencil Museum will agree, pencils don’t get the credit they’re due. The Secret Life of the Pencil is a photographic project that grants them their deserved respect.

Each photograph in the exhibition by Alex Hammond and Mike Tinney explores the pencil of a notable creative talent in stunning detail, revealing every knife stroke, scratch and tooth mark made in the process.

Recognising the pencil as a common denominator across almost every creative discipline, Alex and Mike have found a unique way to celebrate this fundamental tool. With the digitisation of the creative method, the feeling of lead on paper is becoming more rare every day, so maybe it's a good time for appreciation.

Michele Burke's Pencil


The series of images was made in aid of Children in Crisis, a UK-based charity helping children who are suffering the effects of conflict & civil war, granting protection, education and freedom from discrimination. The proceeds from the book and exhibitions will go towards these efforts.

Having been exhibited throughout much of 2015 the pencils have now landed in the offices of Glassworks London as the eighth private exhibition of their ARTWORKS initiative. Sir Paul Smith, David Bailey and Stephen Fry are just some of the many remarkable creative talents whose pencils have been catalogued, but to keep the exhibition relevant to the advertising professionals filing through Glassworks’ doors Blink director Dougal Wilson added his own stylus to the exhibition to be auctioned off as a special edition framed print.


Anish Kapoor's pencil


The intense detail displayed in the collection makes each piece feel intimate, as if you’re looking down at these people working from some CCTV control room.

And they’re a beautiful set of photographs. Symmetrical, colourful and minimalist, they’re exactly the kind of piece that would look at home on the kitchen wall of a sleek urban apartment.

It’s incredible how varied the collection is. These lauded visual professionals aren’t buying multipacks of HBs from Rymans, apparently, and if they are then they’re subjecting them to a beating. Also, very few of them seem to know about pencil sharpeners, choosing to do things the old-fashioned way with a knife. Maybe that is how people work, but it’s convenient that a knife-sharpened pencil has more interesting contours, making for more distinctive photographs. Alex and Mike are familiar with the concept of artistic licence.

Cynicism aside, they’re a gorgeous set of pictures for a great cause and you can go and see them if you're lucky enough to be in the Glassworks London office between now and August 2016.

The Collector - Helly Nahmad Gallery, Frieze Masters

November 30, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

The Nahmads - more interesting than your family.

The Collector - Helly Nahmad Gallery

Frieze Masters

Regents Park


There was really only one stand worth a visit in the whole of this travelling circus called Frieze and Frieze Masters in October, amongst the spray-tans, Armani suits and Hindmarch handbags, and that was the Helly Nahmad Gallery’s offering called The Collector. This was thinking outside conventional gallery precepts, in that it was more like a film set or a piece of theatre. Visitors could walk around this ‘apartment’ from Paris 1968, peer into the sitting room, a study, the bedroom and the small kitchen, with the sink piled up with dirty dishes and marvel at the attention to detail, even down to cinema ticket stubs, receipts, overflowing ashtrays, with Gitanes butts, naturellement, and piles of Paris Match, Le Monde and L’Oeil, the French arty mag. There were stacks of period newspapers, catalogues from auction houses and exhibitions on the floor and tables, postcards, photographs and political posters pinned to the wall, monographs, catalogues raisonnés, art books and vinyl records packed into bookshelves.

On the two small televisions looped black and white Truffaut and Godard films were playing, interspersed with shots of Brigitte Bardot, newsreel clips from the Paris student riots of ‘68 and the Tour de France, with Miles Davis hauntingly mixed with Les Swingle Singers, and the soundtrack from Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

We were told the apartment belonged to an obsessive and imaginary collector. As Helly Nahmad said in his introduction, “Our Collector is a complex character with a completely unique [sic] personality. A passionate, brilliant, eccentric and humble man. Living in post-war Milan and then Paris, he lives and breathes art.”

The man who breathed life into the installation was production designer Robin Brown, who was responsible for a cute Bonnie and Clyde period commercial for Entenmann's cakes. In amongst this deep-litter disarray were hanging paintings by Picasso, Miró, Morandi, Cy Twombly, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Magritte and Dali. On a bedside table, there were three striding Giacometti figures, as casual as you like.

The Nahmad family descended from a prosperous banker, Hillel, from Aleppo, Syria, where he lived until just after the second World War. Following anti-Jewish violence in 1947, he moved to Beirut, and when the situation there became difficult, he took his three sons, Joseph, Ezra and David, to Milan in the early 1960s. All three brothers ended up making a fortune from art. With the emergence of the Red Brigade in the 1970s, Milan was perceived as too dangerous, and the family moved again. Joseph and Ezra headed for Monaco, and David to New York.

Today, their art inventory takes up 15,000 square feet of a duty-free building next to Geneva’s international airport. It is estimated that the warehouse in 2007 contained between 4,500 and 5,000 works of art, worth between $3-4 billion at the time, according to Forbes, including 300 Picasso’s, worth some $900 million. According to Christopher Burge, Christie’s New York chairman, they have sold more works of art than anybody alive. They have bought and sold art on a massive scale over the years, including Morandi’s Natura Morta and a Picasso portrait of his second wife, Jacqueline Roque, for $2.6m, which they sold in 2007 for $30.6m. Other auction purchases for their collection include Picasso’s portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, La Dormeuse au Miroir for $5.5m in 1990, Monet’s Le Palais Contarini for $4.2m in 1996 and Les Canotiers à Argenteuil for $9m in 1998, now valued at $40 million. To cap it all, they paid $60 million at Sotheby’s in 2008 for Kazimir Malevich’s 1916 Suprematist Composition. Léger’s Still Life went to the Nahmad family for $7.9m, while Kandinsky’s Study for Improvisation 3 was sold to them for $16.9 million at Christie’s in 2008.

Helly’s cousin, son of David, also called Helly, (confused?) operated the Helly Nahmad Gallery out of the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and in April this year, in connection with his leadership role in the operation of a high-stakes illegal sports gambling business and money laundering, he was sentenced in a Manhattan federal court to one year and one day; as if he didn’t have enough money. He is now $6.4 million lighter, as that was the extent of his fine, and all his right, title, and interest in Carnaval à Nice by Raoul Dufy, went to the United States, as the painting was involved in a scam to con a British model, who wanted to ‘lose’ some earnings in the Bahamas.

He and professional poker player Illya Trincher, who was also fined $6.4 million, operated a nationwide illegal gambling business in New York City and Los Angeles that catered primarily to multi-millionaire and billionaire clients, including Russian gang bosses and Hollywood film stars, like Leonardo DiCaprio. As part of this business, the organization ran a high-stakes, illegal sportsbook that utilized several online gambling websites operating illegally in the United States, which made millions of dollars of sports bets each year. Nahmad was the primary source of financing for the illegal gambling business, and he was entitled to a substantial share of its profits.

The Nahmad family story would itself make a terrific film, a cross between Catch Me If You Can and Citizen Kane, maybe starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Helly, with Christopher Walken as his father? At least one set has already been designed.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Masterpiece 2014 London at the Chelsea Royal Hospital

September 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Sadly art is now all about money, as this event proved conclusively.

This is the fifth year of Masterpiece, otherwise known as the ‘Unaffordable Art Fair.’ The opening night saw a large sparkle of guests, dealers, jeunesse dorée, hangers-on, collectors, art lovers and euro-trash milling about.

They hung around the curtains from whence poor, harassed girls emerged carrying salvers of canapés. They only made it a few yards before the gannets pounced and devoured the lot.

Could the popularity of this event be down to the fact that it trumpets the fact that it has become the premier antiques and art fair in the UK, or could it be the enormous amount of Ruinart Champagne on tap? A bit of both, one suspects. Certainly, they invite la crème de la crème from around the world, selling clocks and watches, jewellery, porcelain, furniture, antiquarian books, sculpture, paintings, prints, photographs, maps and folk art.

Amongst all these recherché objects is a perfectly ordinary Maserati, which one can see in their showroom in the Old Brompton Road, so why has it been elevated to the status of ‘art’? It’s a car! Now a Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic could be labeled ‘art’, but not a Quattroporte, which is simply Italian for four-door saloon.

If you want to buy a Lowry for £200,000 or a scaled-down cast of Rodin’s The Kiss, for quite a few hundred thousand, this is the place for you. Last November, a 3-foot-high ‘lifetime’ cast of The Kiss sold at Christie’s New York for more than $6m, more than four times its lower estimate; although the current record paid for a Rodin bronze is $19m, for a 6-foot Eve.

This fair is all about money. And class, although, there was a stack of very expensive bling on view, as well. The main sponsor was, after all, RBS Wealth Management, which underlines the notion that art is now all about money. In true fat-cattery fashion, there is even an obnoxious, high-gloss supplement called How to Spend It, published by the FT, telling their readership what to invest in, and nothing about the quality or integrity of the ‘art’. Once it was claret, then classic cars, now paintings and sculpture.

Rob and Nick Carter are young masters of creating digital images from Old Masters. Previously, they took Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder’s Vase With Flowers in a Window and somehow three-dimensionalised it. For Masterpiece they produced a version of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, using a digitalised background, with day turning imperceptibly into night, into which they have placed a breathing, twitching model; unfortunately, this enhanced being has lost the innocent charm of the original, and resembles more an airbrushed Playmate, or a Vargas painting.

More successful is Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s own masterpiece. Created from the remains of mummified animals, which have been cast in solid sterling silver, it creates a silhouette portrait of the artists on the blank wall behind when illuminated from the front.

If one wanted something a little older, then a visit to Ariadne Galleries from New York would have revealed a Head of a Cycladic Idol, a beautifully simple Greek stone carving dated c.2500 BC from the Cycladic Islands in the Aegean, selling for many millions.

Both Henry Moore and Constantin Brâncuși were strongly influenced by Cycladic sculpture, and although not seen at Masterpiece, a Brâncuși head will still attract some of the highest prices of any sculptor, too rich even for this fair.

Rolls Royce car-dealers used to respond to the question, ‘How much is it, then?’ with a snotty ‘If you have to ask, you can’t afford it, sir’, which is why presumably many pieces were labelled POA, or maybe because many stall-holders were prepared to do a deal.

Robert Young was very much in evidence, with his stylish stand selling folk art, which ranged from painted peasant furniture, trade signs and treen to George Smart fabric collages and old, Welsh oak Windsor chairs. As one of the world experts on this difficult-to-categorise genre, he recently advised Tate Britain on their widely-acclaimed British Folk Art exhibition, reviewed in the June edition of this paper.

Sladmore had not one, but two, stands this year, one focussing on Nic Fiddian Green and his ubiquitous horse’s heads, bending down to drink, and the other devoted to such modern sculptors as Rembrandt Bugatti, who had a delightful Flamingo on view.

If Masterpiece regards itself as part of the ‘Season’, it has to stand alongside the RA Summer Show and Henley Royal Regatta. Adrian Sassoon had for sale an astonishing work of madness by Giovanni Corvaja, a hat, hand-crafted entirely from 160km of gold wire. The headpiece, priced at £350,000, took over 2,500 hours to make, with each of the 5 million hand-hammered gold wires being drawn through a diamond. That would certainly have turned heads at Royal Ascot.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


The Years of La Dolce Vita

May 20, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant luxuriates in the black and white world of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Years of La Dolce Vita
Estorick Collection
39a Canonbury Square,
 N1 2AN

Until 29 June 2014
Admission £5 

Over at the V&A they have a somewhat unglamorous show called The Glamour
 of Italian Fashion, but if it’s real fascino you are after, then the Estorick has it in spades, and you can luxuriate in the black and white world of celebrity culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

Paparazzo was originally the name of a character in Fellini’s 1960 seminal film La Dolce Vita, played by Walter Santesso, who focused on the hedonists, partygoers 
and sybarites in Rome at that time.
The man who inspired the character
 was actually an amalgam of photo-journalists, including Marcello Geppetti.

In real life, as opposed to reel life, the film stars, attracted by the relative inexpensiveness of Cinecittà were seen
 to be out and about the Eternal City, frequenting the restaurants, bars and night clubs of the exclusive Via Veneto and Tre Scalini in the Piazza Navona. Rino Barillari and Felice Qinto were fellow snappers, and there exists an uncredited photo of Rino being thumped by an American actor Mickey Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield’s husband, while top-model Vatussa Vitta smacks him with her purse. So the paparazzi being ‘papped.’

Geppeti had better luck when he shot Franco Nero smacking poor, old Rino again at the Trevi Fountain, scene of the most famous scene in La Dolce Vita, in which Anita Ekberg cavorts in a black velvet dress with no visible means of support. The Swedish bombshell made her home in Rome after the success of the Fellini film, and became fodder for the Italian press,
 and there is a photo of her driving her Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster in Rome in 1962 taken by Geppeti. She also attacked a couple of paparazzi, including Geppeti, firstly with a bow and arrow and then unladylike fists.

During this period, European actors like Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon and Sophia Lauren mixed with big Hollywood stars, like John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Liz Taylor and were all in Rome, in full public view, to be snapped at will
 in what became known as ‘an open-air film-set’. Taylor and Richard Burton were famously snapped by Gepetti having a snog on a boat in Ischia off 
the Amalfi Coast, where the scenes on Cleopatra’s barge were shot.

There were other candid photos of Elizabeth Taylor sunbathing and swimming, taken by a ‘proper’ celebrity portrait photographer, Bert Stern. Arturo Zavattini worked 
as a cameraman for many great Italian directors including Vittorio De Sica, 
and produced some fascinating behind-the-scenes photographs on the set of La Dolce Vita, with Fellini’s full co-operation and consent.

There is, of course, an unsavoury side to this fascination with fame, which, ironically, is central to the theme of La Dolce Vita, and spawned 
a whole industry of stalking, intrusion and invasion of celebs’ privacy. Not a 
lot has changed in the last 50 years, 
and some would argue that it has got a lot worse, culminating in the death of Princess Diana, after being hounded
 by the paps.

Some people court the attention, including Lady Di herself in her early years, and then cannot control the monster they have created, and 
there are rakes of magazines devoted 
to this unhealthy obsession. For all our ‘guilty pleasure’ we take in them, there is, however, a certain schadenfreude coursing through our veins when the biter gets bit. The name of Max Clifford springs
to mind, perhaps accompanied by the headline 'Gotcha!


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Martino Gamper & Haim Steinbach

April 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant reviews a pair of art exhibitions in disguise as IKEA product displays, or is it the other way around?

Martino Gamper: design is a state of mind &
Haim Steinbach: once again the world is flat
Serpentine Galleries
Until 21 April 2014
Admission free

Back in the late 1980s, posters advertising the V&A used the coy slogan ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. The new Sackler Gallery has a ‘caff ’ called The Magazine, in deference to the old gunpowder store from the Napoleonic Wars, to which it is attached. You can get away with anything, it seems, if you chant the mantra ‘traditional meets the modern’, a bit like parking a Lamborghini Veneno in the courtyard of a Palladian villa in Veneto.

So here we have a wannabe rural villa in the neoclassical style in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park with one of those cheap stackable plastic chairs you find in pub gardens parked alongside. But, let’s venture inside. This is an exhibition, curated by Gamper, about shelving - mostly shelving with objects on them.

Some shelves have no objects on them and they are none the worse for that; designs by Alvar Aalto, Franco Albini and Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis Group, and Gamper’s own, could easily be stand-alone pieces, although Vico Magistretti’s beechwood Nuvola Rossa contains objects selected and curated by Andrew Stafford, including indicators from an Austin A30, some string found at Brick Lane market in 1985 and a door release switch found amongst the demolished ruins of James Turrell’s 1999 Cornwall eclipse inspired installation, The Elliptic Eclipse. And so on. Wire whisks, wooden spoons, Ron Arad’s ping-pong paddle, a heater knob from a Peugeot 205, a cigar mould, a bell-shaped knitting needle gauge, yellow packing foam and, on an off-the-shelf IKEA shelving unit, a display bristling with tools.

There were über-trendy, goth attendants at every turn, as it would have been only too easy to trouser a bicycle light bracket found in London in the late 1990s or a zinc die-cast model of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow my tendency to purloin, liberate or simply steal an object was dampened by a lack of desire to own virtually any of them, apart from a few books and records collected by Simon Prosser to fill Dieter Rams’s natural anodised aluminium, powder-coated, pre-treated, mild steel 606 Universal Shelving System. A collection of bricks adorning Andrea Branzi’s laminated wood, ash wood, and crystal Gritti Bookcase was collected by Maki Suzaki from Carl Andre’s assistant in New York and brought back in his luggage, instead of the 36kg of reference books he had purchased at Strand Book Store on Broadway. Without a trace of irony, he states in the catalogue, ‘ This is why to me, they are not bricks, but books I have not read yet.’

I entered another, smaller gallery and liked quite a few of the objects on display, even to the point of pocketing one, but I then realised I had wandered into the shop.

Across the bridge that spans the short distance between the two galleries is, according to their web-site, ‘a theatre that interweaves history, art and adventure’. In the original gallery, and running concurrently with Gamper’s show, Haim Steinbach was displaying, amongst other things, objects on shelves. Also utilising everyday objects, Steinbach’s interest is in the fundamental practise of collecting by exploring the placing of objects on shelves. Déjà-vu, or what?

He abandoned Minimalist painting in the seventies, some pleasing examples of which are on display, and started to create works using linoleum. He also invited the public to lend their salt and pepper shakers to be displayed within his installation of modular building systems, i.e, shelves. Somewhat portentously, his participatory gesture reactivated the salt and pepper shakers within a new context and made the connection between the private and public sphere. He had also borrowed some perfectly nice Victorian doll’s houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood and displayed them high up in the gallery, out of reach, and almost out of sight. With a last glance at an Ajax cleaning can on a wood and plastic shelf, and a kitsch Little Orphan Annie plaster figurine atop another shelf made of Spiderman masks, I left and felt I had shortened my own shelf-life by a couple of hours.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Two exhibitions side by side: Castiglione and Gifted

December 3, 2013 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

From Genoese tantrums to offensive royal gifts.

The Queen's Gallery

Until 16 March 2014

I completely mis-read the invitation to the press viewing at the Queen’s Gallery as Castiglione: Lost Genius and Gifted. It transpired that there were two exhibitions, side by side, the first featuring the extraordinarily talented, but relatively unknown, Genoese painter Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione; he was born in 1604, making him a contemporary of Anthony van Dyck, who also worked in Genoa, the French painter, Nicholas Poussin, and Rembrandt van Rijn. If Caravaggio was a bit of a bad boy, Castiglione must be regarded as Giacchino the Lad, forever getting into punch-ups and rows with his patrons, at one time throwing a hissy fit and slashing a painting commissioned by the Doge of the Republic of Genoa Giovanni Battista Lomellini to shreds. This was not a good diplomatic move, either in terms of his career, or making friends and influencing people. He subsequently fled his home town for, first of all, Rome, then Florence, Naples, Venice and Mantua. He was, in effect, una gazza ladra, borrowing styles and compositions from other painters, and in the case of his Study of Heads, he clearly ‘liberated’ two figures from Rembrandt’s Ecco Homo. He soon, however, developed not only his own style, but some innovative techniques, from painting in oil paints on paper to monotypes.

The large oil drawings are the colour of sanguine, a reddish-brown pastel favoured by Renaissance painters a hundred year earlier, but the effect has a fluidity and fuzziness achieved when the oil soaks into the unprimed paper, which he would apply spontaneously and directly without drawing first. These are some of the most striking images in the exhibition, including Circe with the companions of Odysseus transformed into animals and Omnia vanitas, but his etchings, particularly his large and small Oriental heads, have a dark, brooding quality, which mark him out as great exponent of the medium, although still not a patch on his Dutch contemporary Rembrandt. As well as facing a dozen lawsuits and shooting a fellow artist during an improvised theatrical event, he is said to have been in brawls, beaten up people and even attempted to throw his own sister off a roof. He suffered badly from gout, which may account for appalling temper, and he died intestate.  

The second exhibition features works on paper by the one hundred Royal Academicians, and given, or rather gifted, to HM The Queen during her Diamond Jubilee year, with the standard ranging from the inspired to the downright dreadful. At the top end, Humphrey Ocean’s Birds of Ngong is a simple, pared-down and charming gouache, while David Remfry once again demonstrates his ability to capture movement in Dancers, Havana. Ken Howard looks as though he may have simply delved into his unsold daubs in his plan-chest and come up with Florentine Farmhousedating from 1959. Lord Foster, still annoyingly referred to as Sir Norman, has the most feeble of drawings - School in Sierra Leone, 2009 - which stands out as being the worst work on paper in the entire two exhibitions, which is quite an achievement in itself.

Runner-up to his lordship is Tracey Emin, who has on offer a monoprint entitled HRH Royal Britania (sic); her appointment as Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy Schools brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s famous quote about quitting song-writing: ‘Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.’ Tom Phillips also must have ferreted about in his drawers to come up with a handily apposite Sixteen Appearances of the Union Jack from 1974, while David Hockney is one the few artists to do something specifically for Her Majesty Jubilee, a vivid iPad birthday card.

Some works have a tenuous connection to The Queen, the inclusion of Olwyn Bowey’s charcoal and watercolour drawing of a West Sussex pony, Susie (2007), being justified because she hoped that it would appeal to Her Majesty’s interest in horses. Grayson Perry may have given the excellent Reith Lectures this year on the subject of art, the first entitled ‘Democracy Has Bad Taste’, but his own royal offering is a piss-poor drawing of a motorcyle that he sent the motorbike builder to be custom-made for him. It is ‘the equivalent of the Queen’s glass carriage’, he adds spuriously. It is a mystery how the bike ever got made.

So, gifted? Well, not on the strength of what’s on show from the RA, whereas the exhibition Castiglione could have the descriptor ‘Extremely Gifted'.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.