Inside the Art Market: Tastemakers

“Geoffrey operated from modest premises perched on a corner of Pimlico Road.  No one in London, however, had more original stock. His items were unearthed whilst scouring Britain in a Rover, and his beady eye missed nothing.”

Terence Stamp, reminiscing about the legendary English decorator Geoffrey Bennison

Some years ago, when I was working at Sotheby’s in New York, I was asked to interview the English actor Terence Stamp.  He was a client of the house, and a few items from his collection of Chinese furniture were coming up for sale.  In advance he thoughtfully sent me an inscribed copy of his autobiography, Stamp Album, along with its two sequels, Coming Attractions and Double Feature.  He was a natural writer with a gift for simple, vivid sentences; and a couple of phone calls confirmed his genuine warmth and eloquence.  And so we soon met in the paneled dining room of a New York private club to talk about collecting.

Immediately he stood out: a leonine figure in elegant English clothes.  He seemed a man both modest and very much at ease; and while his acting fortunes had gone up and down over the years, he had taken time away to wander in India and generally pursue many diverse interests.  When we met his career had just been jump-started with the role of aging transsexual Bernadette in the low-budget runaway hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.  Suddenly Terence Stamp was again, in Hollywood parlance, a hot commodity.

As we spoke it became clear that one person above all had influenced him as a collector: Geoffrey Bennison.  “Bennison taught me to allow my eye to draw on whatever there was in a piece.  He also taught me a great deal about texture and materials. All my things have had to earn their keep. I have never believed in having things in the attic to bring down as the seasons change.”

These two kindred spirits had met in the 1960s, when Stamp was but twenty-three and had just made his brilliant film debut in Billy Budd. At the time he was living in a flat at 119a Mount Street with his girlfriend, the willowy Jean Shrimpton. Stamp had grown up in the East End of London, the son of a tugboat captain; and yet here he was, a film idol and man about town in swinging London.  Hence he wanted the sort of apartment that would confirm his new stature, one with color and punch but also classical restraint. Stamp had been introduced to Bennison by his manager (“he’s the man for you… he has a wonderful eye… you’ll learn from him.”). Soon they were hitting the auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s with Jean Shrimpton, and in due course Bennison conjured up the Mount Street flat to perfection for his new client.

But Stamp’s dream flat lay elsewhere in Mayfair, in the exclusive and clubby Albany, tucked alongside the Royal Academy off Piccadilly. As Bennison’s favorite period was Georgian/Louis XIV, the grand proportions of Albany provided the perfect complement for the master’s decorating flair. Summing up Bennison’s brilliant theatrical achievement with the Albany flat, Stamp said:  “I guess it amused Geoffrey to temper the style of this ‘rough trade from Bow’ so that I could confidently enter the homes of the great and noble, and that they could enter mine without looking down their noses.”

Rereading these words recently I thought of how brilliantly they sum up the entire rationale of the art market from a collector’s point of view: to convey style, taste, poise, self-confidence.

It is remarkable to what extent these qualities seem to define collecting itself nowadays.  This is perhaps why in daily life, and seemingly from all directions—the shelter magazines, lifestyle books, auction catalogues, even the movies and television—we are bombarded with images of interiors.  In them we glimpse furniture, decorations, paintings and assorted objets d’art all meant to show off someone’s taste, be it good or bad.

The never-ending fascination for these images is simple: we love seeing how other people live, what they own, how they arrange their possessions, what sort of style and personality they have.  The lavish, densely-colored photographic spreads one encounters in, say, Architectural Digest or The World of Interiors are often breathtaking, but for very different reasons.  The former may show the Los Angeles residence of a film star, with the sleekest interiors imaginable, all done up by a renowned designer.  The latter, on the other hand, is more editorially inclined to show a crumbling manor house in the Cotswolds with musty but romantic furnishings and knick-knacks artfully, if randomly, arrayed.  In both cases one’s response would probably be the same: what fascinating taste!

As I think about how the art world has grown and developed in the past two decades, one theme seems to stand out: the eminence of tastemakers in defining how to collect.

One has only to look at the many auction catalogues of recent years, notably ones for single-owner collections of paintings and furniture removed from someone’s house, to see this “designer impact” on the art market, and on art collecting itself.  Even auctions featuring items removed from the chaotic attics and dirty basements of grand English country houses can poetically stir people’s imagination.  One immediately wonders: Where did these pieces come from? How did they look in their original setting? What is the family’s history, and what other great houses did they own? Even the grainy black-and-white period photographs of interiors that often illustrate these charming sale catalogues can seem magical and mesmerizing for the almost haunting long-ago atmosphere they convey.

Usually the most flamboyant, over-the-top auction catalogues in this “tastemaker” genre are those for collections formed by the world’s most prominent decorators and antique dealers.  In recent years one that comes to mind with particular dash is the sale that took place at Sotheby’s in March 1999 for the collection of the French decorator Alberto Pinto.  The room shots in the catalogue depicting the designer’s Paris residence were almost surreal for their dense, dizzying opulence. It is worth noting that the entire collection was transported from Paris to New York for the actual sale, as the ultimate buyers for the collection were understood to be mainly American.  Sotheby’s had done the same the year before for the sale of the vast, magisterial and also mundane collection of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, shipped entirely from their mansion in the Bois de Boulogne to New York for American consumption.

These stunning “famous decorator” sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s have become increasingly common on the yearly auction calendar, as have “famous dealer” sales, which often are presented with similar panache and pictorial extravagance.  Indeed, the action houses have become enthralled with design and decoration as the new focus of art collecting.  Hence sales like “Living With Art” at Christie’s or “Designer Showhouse” at Sotheby’s are meant to illustrate how art collecting can best be viewed through the eyes of leading designers and tastemakers.

Thus it seems very much part of a growing trend worldwide to view the art market not so much as being about art as being about lifestyle. One auction sale that in recent years dramatically summed up this trend took place at Sotheby’s in London. It included many dazzling items from the shop on Pimlico Road (“the Rialto of the antiquaires,” as the catalogue noted) of Christopher Hodsoll, who was described in the glowing preface to the catalogue as “esteemed decorator, textile entrepreneur, daring and creative dealer.” As if one word said it all, the title of the sale was simply: Style.

Interestingly, Christopher Hodsoll was a protégé of Geoffrey Bennison, which brings us back to Terence Stamp. As if to cite an example of how Bennison so profoundly inspired him as a collector, notably in terms of how beauty and function can define one’s collecting habits, Stamp tells the story of the two unfinished armchairs in his Albany residence.

“Geoffrey Bennison always thought he would find me a tapestry for them, but nothing happened. So for seven years I sat looking at these unfinished armchairs. And then I met Silvana Mangano, the great Italian actress and the most refined woman that ever lived. She used to come and have tea with me and she would sit in one of the armchairs. One day she offered to needlepoint it for me. And I said, ‘But there are two.’

“She graciously replied that it was all right and that she would needlepoint both chairs. It took her five years, but they are just beautiful, each one done in slightly different colours.”

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Terence Stamp in his Albany set, c. 1964. Photo Credit: Terry O’Neill)