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Contemporary Art

Cinematic Alchemy: Christopher Gibbs on Performance

Christopher Gibbs is an antiques dealer and collector who has been creating visionary interiors throughout an illustrious career that spans decades. An integral part of London society in the 1960s, he was approached by film director Donald Cammell to design the set for Performance – an experimental film starring Mick Jagger and James Fox. Co-directed by Nicholas Roeg and produced by Sandy Lieberson, the film still enjoys a cult following to this day. Gibbs set about creating a Bedouin-style oasis in the basement of a Notting Hill flat, and it was here that celebrated photographer Cecil Beaton visited in October 1968 to document the shoot, the set and its stars, capturing in the process the very essence of Swinging London. An exhibition of the photographs taken by Beaton will go on display at Sotheby's S|2 Gallery from 25 November – 23 December


Mariko Finch: Can you describe the experience of working on Performance?

Christopher Gibbs: Performance was the dark and dazzling fruit of a fusion of skills and talents harnessed by Donald Cammell, a close friend of several of the actors. He had never made a film before, but had Nicholas Roeg as co-director – seasoned, experienced and perhaps surprised to find himself in a creation more like an alchemical experiment; diverse skills and spirits conspiring wonderfully to keep pace with Donald's ever changing vision. Young Jagger was the catalyst, the siren Anita Pallenberg another crucial ingredient, and James Fox the true pro. A second wizard in residence was David Litvinov, connoisseur and champion of gangland, and fascinated by violence. My role was to conjure the setting of Turner's/Mick's exotic retreat – the world outside the world – where much of the drama was played out. I was blessed to have Deborah Dixon as my right hand. She was subtle, perceptive and my interface with Donald, her long-time lover, who was seeking inspiration from the work of other older masters, whose films he’d watch for an hour or two every day.

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MICK JAGGER ON THE SET OF PERFORMANCE, PHOTOGRAPHED BY CECIL BEATON, 1968. © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY'S AND SANFORD LIEBERSON.

MF: Did that change the experience of the shoot thereafter? Was he drawing on influences in the process of watching these other films?

CG: In some visionary way he seemed to make things new daily. Donald was first a painter – movie-making was a fresh endeavour. He was a profoundly sensual being, a true voluptuary, and this richly coloured the way he saw things; his vision and understanding of human relationships. He liked my vision. I'd been helping Mick with a new house and was also friends with Anita, so it made sense. 

MF: What was your brief when you first became involved in the project?

CG: It all happened quickly, and I was rushed into it by Donald: "Would you do this?" I said: "I'll try – what's in it for me?" he said: "would £500 be alright?'', and I agreed: ''Let's get on with it.'' The aesthetics was my baby; I had the wonderful Deborah and Peter Young, who was a seasoned and creative right-hand in the creation of many films previously.

MF: Where did you source the items used to create the set?

CG: I got a lot of things from Tangier. We had things made and sent over in a hurry – materials both old and new.  There was a lot of sleuthing around the film hire places, sourcing what might help knit together and work in the whole picture. The most complicated thing was making the tiled wall in the bathroom, inspired by a 16th century garden carpet in the V&A; it made the perfect backdrop to the bathtub frolics.

ANITA PALLENBERG, JAMES FOX AND MICK JAGGER ON THE SET OF PERFORMANCE, 1968. COURTESY OF THE BFI ARCHIVE.

MF: How did you go about creating the atmosphere of the basement flat? It comes across as quite an intense experience to the viewer…

CG: I'd never done anything like that before. We’d get the germ of an idea from Donald, how things might look, and you’d run with it and make it happen. The bed for example was based on the story of the Princess and the Pea; many mattresses on top of one another, and a mighty stack in multi-coloured velvets was made and trundled north from Morocco. 

MF: The North African influence comes through very strongly. What is the draw of Morocco, and how has it has influenced your work?

CG: Morocco, with its fusion of cultures from the Muslim and Jewish worlds has long been a spark for me. Donald used to come round to my Moorish Chelsea place along with Brian Jones, Anita and Mick, and I'd been helping Mick with his house in the country. I responded to their enthusiasms, learning along the way and gathering an idea of Moroccan aesthetics. Now perhaps it looks ordinary, but all those years ago it was extraordinary.

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CHRISTOPHER GIBBS AT BOND STREET GALLERY, 1985. 

MF: When did your passion for collecting and curating objects begin?

CG: Early on. Not in the cot, but in my teens, I was always buying things I couldn't afford and then having to try and sell them. Sudden spurts of enthusiasm meant begging and borrowing as I made a nest for myself in the manner I wanted. At the age of 19, I went to Jerusalem. I was working as an archaeologist, excavating Jericho and a Neolithic cemetery in the refugee camp there. Spending time in Arab Jerusalem, digesting that aesthetic, fired me with new enthusiasm on my return to London. I delighted in this fresh way of seeing things, discovering new recipes for decoration far away from the tired old English ones I’d always known. It was a bit like cooking – another realm of domestic combinations.

MF: Performance is famous for being a portrait of London in the late 60s, with gangsters and bohemians existing side-by-side. Was in an accurate portrayal?

CG: It mirrors an extraordinary slice of life, a moment when fixed things were shattered and altered. Walking down the King's Road on different occasions a year apart, sameness was suddenly utterly transformed. There was an explosion in the worlds of pop music, fashion, painting, movie-making – everything. This film reflects that moment of change. Then up turns Cecil Beaton, long-time change spotter, who looked for the essence of the moment in visual things, and saw Performance as a seminal avant-garde experiment.  

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ANITA PALLENBERG AND MICK JAGGER ON THE SET OF PERFORMANCE, OCTOBER 1968. © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE, LONDON. 

MF: How was he received on set?

CG: He was good friend of mine. I’d known him for ages and he’d met Mick in Marrakech. His antennae were forever atremble for something new, fresh, a surprise. He’d been an observer of arts, fashion, music and dance for forty years. He'd seen the lot and known all manner of stars. He had a sensibility about who was interesting, creative, daring, reckless, pushing forward frontiers – making things new. He had been part of it in Paris, New York, London, and seen it all. Our venture was something he had to know all about as soon as possible, and he sponged up these exploding essences as they occurred.

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CECIL BEATON, MICK JAGGER AND ANITA PALLENBERG ON THE SET OF PERFORMANCE, OCTOBER 1968. © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE, LONDON. 

MF: How were you connected to these people before the film?  

CG: There was a wonderful being called Robert Fraser who had a gallery in Duke Street. He introduced me to all those people. He was a player, gathering movers and shakers from around the world – Italy, France, the US…I met Mick through him, Anita through him. Keith, Donald, Deborah. He was a pied piper, and a trailblazer, one of the first of our friends to go to India. He burned the candle at both ends, and was alas, the first of our friends to contract HIV, and die in a hurry. Robert's influence on that film was undeniable; a magician tweaking the show from behind the scenes – I think he was even barred from the set by Donald!

MF: Was Beaton's presence a seal of approval for the project?

CG: Absolutely. We welcomed the old master, knowing that he needed to be part of what we were up to. We enjoyed his presence, his encouragement, his swift understanding of what we were trying to achieve. 

 

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