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.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life

July 22, 2013 / Arts and Culture


An art exhibition with a strong, yeasty flavour.

Tate Britain

Until 20 October 2013

Admission £15


Both Marmite and Lowry have polarised Britain. Even the curators at the press view were more than a touch tentative, acknowledging there was a great divide between the devotees and the cynics, but hoping that this exhibition would persuade the doubters that there was more to Lowry than scores of little hunched figures on their way to work at the mill or scores of little hunched figures on their way home again. Or scores of little hunched figures at a football match, or a fairground, or a cricket match, or on a boating lake. Hundreds of them. Painting after painting, full of little hunched people, against a grim backdrop of mills, chimney stacks belching out smoke and flat skies. Lowry’s reputation has suffered over the years, particularly in his homeland, although he did have some critical success in France.

The organisers have included a number of French works by Pissarro, Utrillo, Seurat and his tutor at Manchester School of Art, Adolphe Valette, whose paintings of urban life at night have a whiff of Atkinson Grimshaw, but without the spark. There is even van Gogh’s oil of the outskirts of Paris, painted the year before Lowry was born, which is a puzzling inclusion. By showing his attempts alongside these others only serves to highlight the fact that he was simply not a very good painter. There, I’ve said it. He is not a naïve painter, as he had formal training; it is not outsider art, as he was in the mainstream world of galleries and museums; he is not a folk artist. What is he? The merchandise in the shop at Tate Britain says it all - Lowry placemats, Lowry coasters, Lowry tea trays (rectangular or circular), Lowry mugs, Lowry tote bags, Lowry cufflinks and Lowry silk ties are all part and parcel of this, and most other ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions these days, but the inclusion of a ‘Lowry’ flat cap at £28, is either a postmodern ironic statement or just downright patronising. The chasm that has opened up between those for and against Lowry is nothing to do with elitism or snobbery, or a north-south divide, or working class versus the middle class. It is to do with quality, and, frankly, he just doesn’t cut the mustard.

One thing that stands out about his subjects in this exhibition, is that he never gets close up and personal, and his people are mostly little dots in the landscape, as he never actually engages with his subject, painting poverty, suffering and everyday life in Manchester from a distance. This is a shame, as some of his portraits have a rawness and wit about them, redolent of Bernard Buffet. One painting, however, 6, should have a dynamic evoking the tough world of construction in the city, and yet, we are offered another distant view of a few dark figures with ladders, wheelbarrows and shovels. Compare this feeble attempt to three paintings exhibited at the RA a few months ago by George Bellows, in which the American depicted slices of urban realism in his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, full of drama, dynanism and life. One painting from 1946 entitled Snow in Manchester is a rare example of a genuinely atmospheric composition, as is his Industrial Landscape, Wigan from 1925 in the gallery called Ruined Landscapes. Alongside is a quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, who described ‘the lunar landscape of slag heaps’ and ‘a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.’ Apart from these few successful portrayals of urban life, which includes the slightly quirky A Protest March from 1959, Lowry is pretty much destined to remain as placemat art, under the dinner plates of the British nation.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

George Bellows: Modern American Life

May 3, 2013 / Arts and Culture


A vital depiction of real American experience from George Bellows.

George Wesley Bellows (1882–1925).

Riverfront No.1, 1915.

Oil on canvas, 45 3/8 x 63 1/8 in. (115.3 x 160.3 cm).

Royal Academy - Sackler Gallery

Until 9 June 2013

Admission: £10


George Bellows was a product of the so-called Ashcan School run by Robert Henri who "wanted paint to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse-shit and snow, that froze on Broadway in the winter."

There are few American painters that have captured the feel of snow better than Bellows, other than Andrew Wyeth, seventy-five years later. Bellows’ Snow Dumpers is a masterful painting, full of drama and dynamism, with the helmeted workers backing horse-drawn wagons up to the East River’s edge to unload their shovelled snow, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with a steam tug chugging past. The same tug reappears in some of his other work, including The Bridge, Blackwell’s Island and Splinter Beach, and then again in Riverfront, No. 1, 1914, which was in the Washington and New York exhibitions, but, sadly, not in the London one.

This slice of urban realism is typical of Bellows’ work, as are his views of Penn Station being excavated, both at night and in the snow, and a bustling composite view of New York painted in 1911. His most celebrated painting is probably Forty-two Kids, painted four years earlier, and shows, well, 42 kids, mostly naked, standing, lying or diving off a dilapidated wooden pier in the Hudson East River. Twenty years before that, Thomas Eakins painted The Swimming Hole, which displays, in a more stilted way, his fellow students swimming and diving off a rock in an idyllic river setting.

Whereas Eakins used photography to capture the various poses, Bellows sketched mainly from life. Both the British artist Henry Tuke and the German Impressionist Max Liebermann, had earlier painted young boys cavorting about in the water, although the former’s motives may have been more prurient than artistic. Bellows’ energetic boxing scenes are full of punch, literally, as well as beautifully observed spectators around the ring, and the most famous of these is Stag of Sharkey’s, depicting a prize fight at Tom Sharkey’s Athletic Club, across the way from his studio in the Lower East Side. There is true homage to the old masters, Velazquez and Franz Hals, in his use of paint in his portraiture, as well as nods towards Manet and Whistler, and even Sickert. His seascapes have a great understanding of the way waves swirl, eddy and crash against rocks, as well as the calm and reflections off water. Although he was not in the Great War, he took it as the subject of five monumental paintings, four of which are included in the RA show, along with some truly horrific lithographs. These are stark, brutal images that drive home the futility and cruelty of war like a stake through the heart. He went to live  in a house in Woodstock, in upstate New York , with his wife and two daughters, a great success, both critically and financially, even more famous than his fellow student Edward Hopper.

He continued to paint until his untimely death from a ruptured appendix aged just forty-two, but his later portraits had acquired a stiffness, and his landscapes, like The Picnic and The White Horse, became very busy, with too many focal points, as though he was trying to cram everything onto the canvas at once. This is a balanced and well-curated exhibition which may come as a welcome diversion from the hordes flocking to the Manet downstairs.


Footnote: It is a puzzling thing that, exactly 20 years ago, the Royal Academy staged an exhibition entitled American Art in the 20th Century, featuring Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993. In the lead-up to the current show, the RA have been extolling the skills of this artist, stating that he was considered one of the greatest artists in America . . .  and he chronicled America’s pursuits and passions like no artist before or since.  Yet, neither in the 1993 exhibition, nor in its catalogue, does he feature at all, and only warrants one mention. ‘In terms of artistic rank, a Kenneth Hayes Miller, a Reginald Marsh, a George Bellows, were no more than visual journalists, reporters with the brush. They illustrated rather than shaped our times.’ Curious.


Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.


Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite

January 21, 2013 / Arts and Culture


DG bravely delves into Brian Sewell's second autobiography.

Outsider II: Always Almost: Never Quite

By Brian Sewell

Quartet Books
ISBN: 978 0 7043 7291 7 RRP £25. 284pp. Illustrated


Well, I’ll be buggered. About ten years ago, when I was Chairman of Chelsea Arts Club, I wrote to Brian Sewell, offering him an honorary membership. He replied promptly and effusively but declined, saying that he was not a very clubbable person. I wrote back regretfully saying that, in view of his vituperative criticisms, there were a number of painters in the Club, including Peter Blake and Ken Howard, who would love to club him - to death.

As an art critic, he has been reviled and hated in equal measure by artists, gallery owners, editors, fellow critics and Royal Academicians, particularly Royal Academicians. In fact, in 1994, thirty-five art world ‘worthies’ wrote to the editor of the Evening Standard demanding that he be fired. One of the signatories, Sarah Kent, ‘the silly woman who was the despised arts editor of Time Out,’ gets it right between the eyes, literally - Sewell wanted to bequeath her his eyes, ‘who is not blind but cannot see.’ Sandy Nairne doesn’t fare much better - ‘servile lackey of the Tate . . . now the unctuous Director of the National Portrait Gallery.’ The music critic Norman Lebrecht, also gets the full treatment: ‘Never was a favourite so puffed up with amour-propre, so arrogant and so thick-skinned; never was a man so loathed by those with whom he worked and sought to oversee.’

He found Emma Soames ‘as sexually attractive as a saucepan of boiled socks.’ All delicious, snobby stuff, and if said with his plummy, dowager voice, described by one commentator as ‘making the Queen sound common’, all the better for it. Having worked at Christies for nine years, he finally asked for a department of his own from Sir Alec Martin, ‘a vile, arrogant and ignorant old martinet’, but his chances were scuppered by the Hon Patrick Lindsay, whose ‘blindness and obstruction’ led to his resignation. He was then told ‘we’ve got one homosexual on the board; we don’t need another.’

His promiscuity is eye-watering in its detail and numerousness, from being gang-banged in Chelsea Barracks, or the Royal Military Police barracks, or shagging anyone who came along on the tow-path by Hammersmith Bridge and ducking down to avoid being picked out by the searchlight on the river police boat, to observing pretty Bruce Chetwyn alternately fellating two other pretty boys in a New York steam room.

Central to the book is the unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as a Russian spy, and how Sewell tried to hide his one- time tutor and mentor at the Courtauld from the press. It seems that loyalty to one’s friend was more important than loyalty to one’s country. In the first volume of his autobiography, he states that an early ambition was to become a priest. In the light of what has been revealed in the Catholic church in recent years, he may well have been better off.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

Is Advertising Bad for Society?

August 6, 2012 / Arts and Culture

By Rory Sutherland

One leading economist thinks so, so we asked advertising guru Rory Sutherland to consider the proposition.

In How Much is Enough?, the radical economic thinker and renowned biographer of John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, (writing with Edward Skidelsky) offers the view that the modern obsession of government policy with economic growth is wrong. The Skidelskys argue that economic growth should not be an end in itself and instead we, and governments, should focus on increasing happiness. That is through identifying what makes one or society as a whole happier and focusing on that, rather than on growth and consumption.

Some of the ills of the current system are laid at the door of advertising, with growth relying on consumer demand driven by making people unhappy with their current lot and/or made to feel that the route to happiness is buying more stuff we don’t need. Advertising is identified as the engine by which that is created.

So we asked renowned advertising thinker, Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, to consider those arguments and tell Beak Street Bugle readers what he thinks of them.

Says Rory Sutherland: Although I would place myself to the right of the Skidelskys politically, and don't agree with many of their prescriptions, or, indeed, their insane upper-middle-class horror at the act of watching television, I agree with the central tenet of this book.

At least I agree with their central point that the single-minded pursuit of economic growth, to the exclusion of any other measure, is at best senseless and at worst dangerous.

I might even take their argument a little further and say that the single-minded, direct pursuit of any numerical measure, though it may be valuable for a time, will lead to harmful effects. Goodhart's Law (Google it) broadly states "any metric which becomes a target loses its value as a metric." Even if you don't believe we should switch to some other, broader based set of measures (such as "Gross National Happiness"), I don't think it's difficult to make a case that the obsession with GDP, which was conceived as a necessary measure to track the rise from desolation of extremely poor countries immediately after WW2, has probably had its day.

There is a secondary suggestion in the book - which is that, following the assumption of J. M. Keynes, prosperous countries should, at some undefined point, abandon their greed and acquisitiveness and, content with everything they need to meet their physical needs, give themselves over to a life dedicated to the higher pleasures rather than a base preoccupation with consumption.

Unexpectedly, given this assertion, I would recommend that people in marketing and advertising read the book. Not for masochistic reasons, or for the purpose of "knowing thine enemy", as you might expect, but because it might well make you better at your job. If nothing else, the discussion of what constitutes "the really important things in life" it may provide advertising planners with a few useful philosophical concepts which will make a welcome replacement for Maslow's overused "Hierarchy of Needs", which by now has become the tritest PowerPoint triangle in the account planning repertoire. 

And although the book contains a brief, predictable attack on advertising - along with the proposal that the practice should effectively be taxed - it will also come as quite a welcome and pleasant surprise to many people in marketing (though I'm sure the authors weren't expecting this) to read that other people, in this case two distinguished academics, also experience the same frustration marketers do in their daily working lives: quite simply in being oppressed by an autistic approach to business and economics which defines success or progress purely in financial and numerical terms without any reference to human psychology at all; effectively banishing any non-financial measures from consideration and ascribing to the finance function the ownership of the only information that matters.

I am reading this just as commentators have been plunged into gloom by a 0.7% fall in GDP. The fact that this fall was partly the result of a Diamond Jubilee holiday, which perhaps brought considerable happiness to millions of people, is not seen as a valid excuse. The fact that people may prefer a day of leisure with their friends to another 0.3% on GDP is no defence. The fall is simply evidence of failure. You don't have to be a philosopher to see that this is silly. In fact anyone other than an economist would be slightly sickened by it.

The economic models which dominate business thinking today (think of the shareholder value movement, for instance) are similarly hostile to human values - and hence to marketing and to brands - since they foster a dehumanised approach to business which is blind to any consideration of values, ethics, common purpose or what Adam Smith might have called "moral sentiments". The Skidelskys' distaste with the complete monopolisation of business and economic thinking by a single, and woefully simplistic model is probably shared, at least unconsciously, by almost anyone working in our field.

Should businesses really simply maximise shareholder value while remaining within the law - and consider nothing else? Are brands unaffected by their owner's basic decency? Is it a coincidence that so many of Britain's enduring businesses were created by Quakers, a tiny group in numerical terms whose motivation for starting businesses was as much high-minded as it was self-interested? Who would you rather buy a car from: someone who loves EBITDA or someone who loves cars?

In fact it is a pity that the Skidelskys did not think to talk to anyone in the advertising industry before they wrote this book. It might have made for an interesting extra chapter.

Account planners, who will be particularly well disposed to many of the conclusions in this book, will be interested in the authors' debate about the ultimate "goods" in life. And, interestingly, they will recognise in this list of "ultimate goods" what we in advertising call "Higher Order Benefits". The strategies for Coke, for Dove, for Persil, are among very few pieces of communication people are exposed to today which could be considered to have some philosophical content at their heart. "Friendship", "Respect" and "Personality" would be at the heart of those three brands' philosophies. Interestingly these three qualities are among the fundamental values the Skidelskys see as necessary for "The Good Life".

The few pages that cover advertising in this book are what you would expect. There is the usual (and, at some level, obviously true) assertion that advertising creates new wants. There are also a few claims that are obviously wrong. For instance the claim that you do not need advertising to sell things that people need. Most advertising is for products in categories that people need. I get the impression that the Skidelskys spend a bit too much time reading the FT's "How to Spend It" and not quite enough time watching the ad breaks in "Take me Out" on ITV3.

I would counter that almost all the advertising that ad agencies produce is for variants of things which people can't do without, or would be very reluctant to forgo. Broadband. Washing machines. Food. Drink (alcoholic and not). Detergents. Holidays. The Skidelskys say you don't need clever advertising to sell essentials - but it is usually the luxury goods category (just open a copy of Vogue), which creates the dullest advertising of all. No agencies are employed to create this kind of thing.

Indeed the advertising industry, if it knew what was good for it, would favour a rather egalitarian society. We don't want an underclass, because they buy commodities on price; but nor do we much like the very rich, since they have odd spending patterns, buying Veblen goods which do not require advertising, since the high price is the advertising.

So I don't give the Skidelskys high marks for their criticism of advertising, which is in any case borrowed from Nicky Kaldor. I would also suggest that much of their horror of consumption is slightly elitist. I don't think the authors could confidently walk into a median UK household and tell the occupants what they should do without. Certainly there are stupid rich people who spend their money on trivia. But perhaps 30-40% of the UK population have already decided to work less and enjoy life more - through early retirement or through working part-time - it's just that most of them aren't using their new-found leisure to go to the opera - a bloody expensive luxury good, if ever there was one - they are bringing up children or playing golf.

They also fail to notice the elephant in the three-room semi - which is that most of our discretionary expenditure pales into insignificance alongside the rising cost of housing, and the monstrous mortgage debt burden under which many people live, and will have to live in future.

But, to give them their due, they do spot the inner contradictions in their proposal. They candidly doubt that any markedly better society can be created without religion. I'm not sure I agree, but it is at least a bold admission. The other thing they spot (which many other distinguished preachers of egalitarianism do not) is that status comes in forms other than the material. When you have a peerage and a professorship (or are employed by the King of Macedon, in the case of Aristotle) it is a bit easier to preach against material forms of status than when material status is the only kind you have.

And, like Keynes, they also spot that consumer capitalism does have a valuable role to play as a damage-limitation exercise. Better for people to compete to own nice cars than to fight each other to the death. It's worth acknowledging the value of capitalism in this regard - that the alternatives may be far worse: if Sir Martin Sorrell had been born in Soviet Russia, not Britain, perhaps he wouldn't have ended up running WPP - but he'd be running the secret police.

Should you agree with everything this book says? No. Should you read it? Definitely, yes.