Telling Tales Part 3

This is the last extract of Telling Tales for the time being. Be patient and wait, for what will in time follow, to read more.

In the meantime here are a few sound bites.

Richard Wilson‘s oil piece (20.50) and the stir it caused, particularly when visitors dipped their curious fingers in the oil, or worse, their clothes. According to Wilson, when Charles first saw it in Matt’s Gallery in 1987 he was like a child jumping up and down with excitement saying ‘it’s amazing, it’s amazing!’

But it was Dee West, the local dry cleaners, who were tasked with removing the horrible stains, something of a bonanza for them.

Richard Wilson 20:50

Sister Wendy – (C) BBC – Randall Wright

There were TheEye‘s days out with Sister Mary Wendy and, best of all, installing the notorious shark. A story worthy of its own stand-alone book – suffice it to say no one had a clue what to do with it when it arrived at Boundary Road languishing in a huge crate in rather a sorry state, decomposing and smelly.

The notorious shark beautifully installed after a hairy start.

Glamorous visitors, including David Bowie (Wednesday, February 27th 1985 according to the diary entry, at 12 o’clock to be precise!), Bianca Jagger who came several times with a rather sulky teenage daughter, Jade, who had just been expelled from her posh girl’s boarding school, and many more who came to marvel at the extraordinary space architect Max Gordon had created and, of course, the changing regularly exhibitions.

TheEye has all the diaries from 1985 until 1994, which list meticulously who came and who they brought with them. There are some advantages to being a hoarder and these large Settegiorni customised diaries, which Julia ordered, have accompanied TheEye to different homes. Of course, many dealers hoped to introduce their clients to the remarkable art the gallery was hanging at the time or to flip through the Art Of Our Times catalogues to find something that caught their fancy. The favourite question was always ‘What is their most recent purchase?’, or more often, ‘What are they buying next?’ As if we had a crystal ball or (more unlikely) that Charles or Doris would discuss this with us. They probably didn’t know themselves. They would go, maybe once a month, to New York on Concorde for art shopping sprees in SoHo. The legendary gallerist, Leo Castelli, was one of their most trusted mentors. But no more about him and other iconic dealers or “gallerists” as they now prefer to be referred to.

Talking to people I knew from those days they all agree it was, without doubt, a different era for the art world and a different culture. But some things never change and this is a quote from 1973: ‘International businessmen (or women) are looking for a secure means of investment and an easy way of transporting their riches around the world and are investing in art as never before…high prices are good. They are also dangerous.’ And the final quote, which I love, refers to the art crowd as ‘the good, the bad and the pretentious.’  Tut, tut…who would say a thing like that (well if you are patient you will find out?)

One U.S. dealer swears this is a true story. A wealthy couple in Chicago, I believe, bought a painting by a well-known artist for their newly decorated dining room intending to hang it above the fireplace. Alack alas, they found it was falling down too low and, being an enterprising pair, what did they do? They cut the bottom a few inches and no one noticed or commented on their act of artistic vandalism.

Georg Baselitz
Arrivare con cenere, 2019
Oil on canvas

One of the advantages of the entry phone system by the gate was being able, from the reception desk, to see who was about to come in. It took a couple of minutes to enter and then a somewhat treacherous and often slippery walk down to the door of the gallery. At weekends, we hired guards and the main one, John, was a Father Christmas lookalike, with white hair and a white beard. He played on this feature chatting and gossiping with visitors much to our annoyance. We would often hear him giving an embellished account of the private life of the Saatchis.

Behind reception was a small walk-in cupboard where we left our coats and general ‘stuff’. One day I was working at my desk when the entry buzzer beeped and I saw to my horror a couple I really didn’t want to see. Instant decision, as I hadn’t time to dash to the kitchen at the other end of the gallery to put the shopping I had just done in my lunch break at the local Italian Deli (which included some quite ripe cheese) in the fridge. I bolted into the cupboard with all my bags and heard them ask, through the closed door, if I were around and their regrets at hearing I was not in the gallery. I paid for my anti-social deception by having to stay increasingly claustrophobic and smelly thanks to the cheese, as they took a leisurely stroll around the six galleries.

Another horror moment that I clearly recall was the day a pigeon managed to fly into the vast space through a crack in the glass ceiling.

We had constant cracks and leaks in the glass roof.

It was like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. I was on my own when I heard a loud flapping noise and realised there was a large, frightened pigeon flying around, desperate to get out as it kept hitting the glass roof swooping down and up, totally disorientated.

Who was more terrified? Me or the pigeon? I phoned our caretaker, Scott, who was at work in his office in the East End. He suggested I call the RSPCA, the council and the fire brigade. Alas for me, a pigeon and a hysterical woman were low on their emergency agendas. I had to wait for Scott to come and somehow shoo the traumatised flying rat out into the sky.


There were regular ups and downs, but I will end with the opening of our show NY ART NOW in 1987 featuring what were at the time young American artists, unknown in the UK. They included Jeff Koons and we spent days assembling his Hoover installation, the Jim Bean decanter train and various other sculptures including vacuum cleaners, basketballs in tanks and a bronze vest with an aqualung. All now worth $millions.

The New Jeff Koons 1981. Duratran and fluorescent lightbox


NY ART NOW with Jeff Koons plexiglass  RABBIT on the cover.

The cover of the exhibition catalogue and probably the star turn was RABBIT, a plexiglass bunny.

LEAD PARTS 1986. Wood, formica, rubber masks, digital clocks, rubber garden hose in plastic dispenser.

The team of technicians were all artists working for our picture handlers, MOMART. They seemed unusually resentful. I think they considered it galling to be doing all the assembling of baseballs, hoovers and so on with poor artist instructions, knowing how much they (the artists and their NY dealers) were being paid, when they were struggling.

Also in the show was another young American artist: the Israeli-born Haim Steinbach who did various installations, including one using a shelf with various coloured alarm clocks. When it was unpacked, the horror of horrors, we were missing one clock. We reported this catastrophe to Steinbach’s gallery and decided rather than waiting for it to be delivered as the show was about to open, I should go and buy another locally. The missing clock was sky blue. An easy mission you would think?

I remember telephoning all the obvious shops. Alarm clocks were no problem. They had them in white, black, red…but not blue. I went to Golders Green, where there was a large Argos store. If anyone would have a sky blue alarm clock, it would be Argos. But no, they didn’t, and I returned with a similar clock in a different colour. I thought I was going to be in deep trouble for not fulfilling my task, but of course, no one, not even the artist really cared, as long as it was a colour. Oh, those were the days.

I hope you have enjoyed these brief extracts? TheEye will be returning to more eye-like topics very soon.

It’s hard to believe, but it was exactly a year ago to the day she was on her way to Mexico.

It seems like a lifetime, but the end of Lockdown is in sight – yippee!!!

Keep well, keep optimistic and keep going.


  1. Love you stories Jan. So looking forward to many books!

  2. What wonderful background stories to that exciting crazy time in the art world. So happy you kept those diaries and can’t wait to read more. Sure that was the only time an Argos store was graced by your presence!

  3. Felicity Osborne March 13, 2021 at 5:06 pm

    What a marvellous energetic time in the art world and what fun it must’ve been for you to be at the heart of it. I well remember seeing the hoover, the basketball & the shark tank on show – they made such a big impression – and we returned many times to visit Richard Wilson’s reflecting oil tank . You make me so nostalgic for those heady days.

  4. It must have been incredibly exciting for you to have been so intimately involved in the very early days in what became such an exciting and pivotal development in the art world.

  5. What fun to hear the stories again. What a great space that was for showing art and hiding in a cupboard!

    • Clare M Ferguson March 17, 2021 at 7:33 am

      Thank you so much Jan for these delightful and engaging snippets into a former life . I have so enjoyed your stories. Hoarding your diaries has surely paid off since you bring the events of the somewhat crazy art world to life. But as I ponder the idea that someone would pay $70m for a digital piece of artwork I think that the world of art and collecting remains pretty mad and unpredictable

  6. What a wonderful series for all of us who were there and knew you at the front desk and watched the changing exhibitions as the best education in town… but will not have known the background stories until revealed by The attentive Eye.

  7. That was wonderful,and looking forward to much more.

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