Contemporary Art

Norman Rosenthal on Frank and Lorna Dunphy's Discerning Eye

By Sotheby's
The upcoming Yellow Ball: The Frank and Lorna Dunphy Collection sale will showcase works from a generation of creative minds that pushed the boundaries of contemporary art. Here, renowned art historian, writer and critic, Norman Rosenthal, looks at the important contribution to British art made by Frank and Lorna Dunphy.

I t is perhaps not that easy to be a good accountant – but it is perhaps more difficult to be artist. There is first of all the difficult question of thinking that which has never been done or said before – then how to make the thought happen physically and then putting it out into the world. That further involves surviving in the world by having made enough art “commodity” in whatever form that will allow various exchanges that will further enable the artist to survive and go on.

One of the great illusions of the world is that art is not an enterprise like any other. Commentators fondly like to imagine it taking place “in the stars” – and even if the illusion of art should indeed be that it generates itself, and the artist is little more than the vessel though which its spirit flows – the fact remains that the “pure art product”, even if executed in the proverbial artists garret, is and always has been “the beautiful imaginary illusion”.


Even Van Gogh had brother Theo in the background to keep him going. From the earliest days of the now legendary Freeze exhibitions that took place in a small warehouse in the yet far from fully developed Docklands of East London, Damien Hirst was demonstrating his talent for entrepreneurship as he persuaded the great and the good of the London art world – including I suppose myself – but more importantly, figures like Nicholas Serota, Charles Saatchi, on the ball open-minded art critics like Richard Shone, then editor of the Burlington Magazine, Anthony d’Offay the prominent and innovative gallerist at whose “shop”, off Bond Street, where Hirst was then employed behind the scenes wrapping up works of art.

That, anyway, was where I first met the young artist who subsequently was to introduce me to many of his friends who were soon to be known as the YBAs. The longer story does not need re-telling here so famous has it become. But that Hirst who soon was to demonstrate his need to think ambitiously, some might say crazily so, needed figures from financial/ art establishment who totally believed in the necessity of making these crazy dreams possible.

Port London Authority building Room 2, Freeze exhibitions, showing a Damien Hirst spot painting on the wall, various Angela Bulloch light sculptures, Mat Collishaw in doorway, 1988-89. © Abigail Lane. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018.
The Freeze exhibition at Port Authority buildings, London, with works by Damien Hirst, Angela Bulloch and Mat Collishaw, 1988-89. © Abigail Lane. All Rights Reserved, DACS/Artimage 2018.

First enter Charles Saatchi and Jay Jopling but then around 1995 the amazing, straight out of a novel – an Irish novel of course – larger than life figure of Frank Dunphy. Some generations now ago the British art scene was dominated by two extraordinary artists. As characters – as types they could hardly be more different. They were of course Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Both in their heydays from the nineteen fifties and sixties already commanded highest prices.

Moore, the more than honest establishment Yorkshire artist found himself, I have heard it said, paying more tax than any other single individual in the UK. Bacon, the champagne loving habitué of the famous Colony Room in Soho preferred to live a life dominated by spontaneous and uncontrolled cash generosity and extravagance, without which indeed his own genial work would not have been possible.

Frank Dunphy and Damien Hirst, 2008. © David Bailey.

Decades later the Colony Room, then very much rolling towards its last years – it was to close in 2008 – became very much the epicentre of YBA hard drinking along with the smarter and far more yuppie Dean Street Groucho Club next door. The YBA set plus hangers on all hung out in those early nights going from one to the other and it was it seems at the Groucho Club that Damien – thanks also to his mother by chance got introduced to Frank – an accountant but also a long-standing Soho character with lots of clients in what one might loosely call the entertainment business.

And there, the relationship between Damien and the amazing Frank was born. The ambitions of the artist grew ever more in scale and organisational complexity. Just because Frank knew the entertainment business so well – I personally love it that he had handled Coco the Clown – for me the great figurehead of Bertram Mills Circus that as a child in the late 1940s or even early 1950s I had witnessed in Olympia. Not to mention Peaches Page, the singing nude of Camberwell Palace, who on January 18th 1956 was famously dismissed after moving on stage after being frightened by a mouse!

Pharmacy Restaurant In Notting Hill Gate. Photo by Ken Towner/Evening Standard/REX/Shutterstock.
Pharmacy Restaurant In Notting Hill Gate. Photo by Ken Towner/Evening Standard/REX/Shutterstock. Ken Towner/Evening Standard/REX//Ken Towner/Evening Standard/REX/

Well, Frank had not quite arrived in London by then but he liked to tell the story. Like all great Irishmen Frank is garrulous and until late in the evening loves to tell stories. Which was a key aspect of his character that brought him affinity with the much younger Damien, who really loves story telling himself, not to mention Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman and a host of others. But Damien for him was clearly in a special class. Whilst a client of Frank’s, Damien staged the famous Pharmacy sale at Sotheby’s in October 2004, when every item from the recently closed down eponymous restaurant in Notting Hill that Damien had started up in 1997 and where every cup and saucer not to mention art works that had hung there made record prices.

Where are they all now? And then more or less one decade later – famously on the very moment of the global banking crisis of 2008 when the august American bank of Lehman Brothers literally went under to the world’s astonishment took place the mind-blowing – whatever your point of view – two day sale of seemingly countless works from the artist’s studio – under the title: Beautiful Inside My Head Forever – culminating symbolically, as though all world events had been known in advance, with the great Golden Calf sculpture.

Damien Hirst and Frank Dunphy pictured with The Golden Calf, 2008. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2018. Photograph: Martin Beddall / Alamy Stock Photo.

To quote Carol Vogel, Arts Correspondent New York Times writing from London that evening “It was as if Sotheby’s here was a little oasis far removed from the grim news of the financial world. In less than 24 hours giant tanks of dead sharks, zebras and piglets submerged in formaldehyde; glass cabinets fi lled with medical supplies, cigarette butts or diamonds; paintings and drawings of everything from dots to skulls – 223 works all by the British artist Damien Hirst – were snapped up at a brisk clip by collectors from all parts of the globe. By the sale’s end, on Tuesday afternoon, the entire auction brought a total $200.7 million…” Frank sat at the back of the sale room – whilst the artist absented himself playing pool somewhere in a London pub.

Any exposure is nerve racking for an artist – this moment must have been in a class of its own. After all, studio sales of this nature take place after an artist’s death. But then death is a key theme of Hirst’s art and it is a measure of Frank’s by now fully acquired empathy of his young friend’s creative power that he “understood” that aspect of Hirst’s work. For some of Hirst’s most ambitious art enterprises, like the diamond skull, For the Love of God, Frank encouraged his client to pursue his ideas. It is after all one thing to dream. It is another thing to realise.

Damien Hirst in front of Leviathan at his Relics exhibition, Qatar 2013. © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2018. Photograph © Prudence Cuming Associates.

Now Frank and his wife Lorna have chosen to put some of the art of that part of their lives devoted to the modern and contemporary art world “on the block” for others to enjoy. I personally love it too that I am as likely to see Frank and Lorna at the opera or at concerts of classical music – at Covent Garden, the Royal Festival Hall, Salzburg, Glyndebourne or Edinburgh as in the Groucho world. That to me speaks of the wide culture and wide inquisitive interests of this remarkable man and his partner Lorna that neither George Bernard Shaw nor James Joyce could have invented on paper, but would both surely have both loved to meet in their prophetic imaginations – and for all I know, did.

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