Between January 4th to 19th, Sotheby's hosts Roma, a selling exhibition by Julien Drach, the acclaimed French-born photographer. Complementing Stone III, the latest iteration of Sotheby's annual sale of fine marbles, hardstones and micromosaics. Roma presents a number of unusual perspectives on Rome, in beautifully-composed lyrical studies of the city's colours, ancient textures and timeworn surfaces. These are photographs that draw the viewer in with a deceptive simplicity that upon further examination, reveals delicious, hidden layers of mystery, elegance and beauty.
To explore in depth the stories and ideas behind Drach's work, we invited one of Britain's leading interior designers - and fellow Romeophile - Ashley Hicks, to join us for an afternoon's conversation about Julien's collection of work in Roma. As Drach reacts with joyous inspiration to the rich potential of Rome, so Hicks has a similar love of the city, and Italy at large fuelling his own practise. Following in the steps of his father, designer David Hicks, Ashley is famed for his striking juxtapositions of materials, textures, colours for clients worldwide. He's also a renowned photographer, capturing unique impressions of interiors ranging from Buckingham Palace to Knole House.
Together, over the course of a pleasantly relaxed conversation, the pair found a great deal of common ground in their mutual appreciation of eachother's creative achievements, their shared love of Italian architecture and design and parallels in their creative praxis. Listening and occasionally chipping in, are Sotheby's Senior Specialist in European Furniture, João Magalhaes and Sotheby's Editor, Arsalan Mohammad.
Ashley: Julien, how did this exhibition come about? I hear that you were at the Académie Française in Rome, no?
Julien: Yes, the French Academy of Arts, the Villa Medici. I did an artist residency for several weeks in the fall of 2018. It was for six weeks and I fell totally, madly in love with Rome. So, I have tried to return as much as possible. I can’t stop it, it’s such a wonderful, wonderful place. It’s crazy - the colours, the layers, it’s so inspirational, I love it. I can’t stop going back.
Ashley: Yes, Rome is extraordinary. I remember, as a child, my father very enthusiastically took us to Venice, because he thought Venice is chic. But I think he felt a little bit lost in Rome - he didn’t really know it and he didn’t know how to get around and it wasn’t chic, it was dirty and chaotic. So, we never went there together, but then, I went there with my first wife, Allegra, who was from Turin, and so was just as frightened of Rome as my father had been! And yes, that emotional hit of going to Rome for the first time is just extraordinary.
Arsalan: Ashley, do you have any specific memories of that first trip to Rome you took?
Ashley: I think it was probably going to the Piazza del Campidoglio for the first time, going up the steps and standing there, walking around the back and seeing the Forum – it was absolutely extraordinary. But anyway - Julien, can you tell us about your residency at the Villa Medici? Balthus was once the director there, wasn’t he?
Julien: Absolutely. He was director for 20 years. When he first came to the Villa Medici, he decided to change the colour of all the walls, so he got a very talented Italian artist to do it, with that kind of patina, something close to the Renaissance style. So, the artist residency I did at the Villa Medici, I fell madly in love with these walls, their colours and details.
I felt someone should take pictures of them because they were really like paintings. The Villa Medici is a beautiful place, it’s very poetic, but it’s also kind of heavy. You can feel the heaviness of all the wonderful artists who have stayed there over the years.
Ashley: Yes, it’s an amazing, amazing place. Balthus redecorated it completely, and his decorating will live forever, let’s face it! It’s a bit like Cy Twombly, in a certain way. But let’s talk about your pictures here, they are wonderful – they’re all about patina really, aren’t they? About age?
Julien: Of course, absolutely. I like the idea that through different layers, we can give the idea of the history of the city. Especially in a city like Rome. I was very emotional by the different layers of the centuries. We’re only human, but these walls stay there forever. And Ashley, with your love of mixing colours and textures as well, I’m sure you’re very sensitive to these colours in Rome.
Ashley: Oh yes, yes, they’re fantastic. So, let’s see - in this image [insert image] you’ve got a wall here with inscriptions embedded in it - an outside wall of a building, with marble inscriptions, marble tablets inserted in it.
Julien: Yes, that’s a wonderful place, just outside a church. It’s like I’m coming from a past life, or from a movie.
Ashley: I don’t know if Julien knows, but they used to put up these marble tablets everywhere which would record laws and events, or announce people being elected to various posts and so on. There are some in the Campidoglio Museum, walls and walls of them, which were official announcements, or memorials to people, or all sorts of different things. So, I think here, these ones must have been dug up from of the road and then they’ve just shoved them on the wall to decorate it, as they often did. Tragically, the vast proportion of ancient marble statues were melted down or burnt for lime, to be used in building work. Three-quarters of them probably disappeared like that, just as in the times of the Barbarians. It wasn’t until the 16th century that people started taking any interest in them, really.
Arsalan: Leading on from that image is another one which really caught my attention, again a similar wall, it’s absolutely gorgeous and I think really captures your sense of colour and drama. It looks like a painting, it’s marvellous…
Ashley: It’s also got that fantastic bit of modern wiring, the electric cable at the top left corner. That makes it, really!
Arsalan: Julien, do you have a clear idea of where to find these locations, or do you walk around and spot a situation where stone, light, architecture and textures all coalesce?
Julien: Absolutely, that’s the way it works. In the first project I did in Rome in 2018, I walked over 250 kilometres, all around the city to photograph the details of the walls. But that project was more about abstraction. Yet, I found I couldn’t do only abstract work on the walls, because it was just so beautiful all over. What is wonderful - Ashley will say the same probably - is when you take a picture, you don’t know what’s going on, you have to be very humble about it because it’s not you who is taking the picture, it’s just the scene which came to you and then you just have to take the picture because the light’s going to be perfect or something’s going to be perfect. You’re looking for something, and you don’t even know what’s going to happen.
Arsalan: There’s definitely an alchemy about it, you’re bringing all these elements together and creating something unique
Julien: Yes, we’re looking for alchemy. Ashley is, first of all, is a talented artist with many, many skills. He can mix colours, he can design, his painting is growing amazingly. So, of course, there is alchemy there too. He can do a lot of things so, yes, you’re right, I think it’s an alchemy, when you’re doing something like this in an artistic way.
João: You mentioned your previous career in cinematography. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how that influenced your eye, in your photography work?
Julien: It influenced it all, a lot. My family was in the movie business, my father was a film director, and my mother was an actress. So, I could say creativity was in my DNA. But the thing is I’m not a painter and I can’t draw. So, I try to do pictures if it they were paintings. I have immense respect for painters and so my work is between painting and cinema, as well. I don’t want to be a photographer, to be honest. I create images. I think my inspiration comes from painting mainly, and cinema, more than photography if I am to be honest. And I like mixing that.
Ashley: Tell us about the bed.
Julien: Oh, the bed! It’s in the Villa Medici and I’m not sure if it was Balthus’s bed, but I’m sure he asked to put his bed in this room. It looks like a painting, it’s very cinematographic. Not only the picture, but when you go in the room, it’s unbelievable. The set design is absolutely magnifique and the colour of the wall, the patina, as you mentioned before, in this room is absolutely outstanding.
Arsalan: I actually thought this was a painting when I first saw it.
Julien: Yes, it looks like a painting! But when I saw the print blown up to the 105 x 105cm size that we’re showing in the exhibition, it changed everything. Blowing up the images, for some of the pictures we chose for the show, makes them look like a painting. Hopefully, people will react to them as if they were a paintings which, to me, is the best compliment ever. I just worked on the composition and the frame, I’m not really a technical photographer, so I don’t make changes in post-production. I try to do a painting, from the beginning, you know?
Arsalan: I’ve got a question for you Ashley. Julien says he approaches his compositions with a painterly eye, assembling his photographs as an artist imagines a new work. I just wonder, when you are embarking on a new project, when you have a blank canvas in a design sense, what is your process? Do you form an idea of what’s wanted beforehand or is your inspiration more from the physical environment you’ll be working on?
Ashley: Well, I mean, I do a lot of different things, but if you mean designing interiors and things, then gosh, no, a lot of it is about the place where it is. And an awful lot of what I do, is really just very practical. I think of designing for people as, you know, it’s a little bit like being a medical practitioner in a way. They’ve got a problem, they’ve got a room, a house, whatever it is. And you’ve got to try and make them as happy in that place as possible, so you’ve got to try and arrange things so that the interior feels comfortable to them. Quite a lot of designers desperately try to impose their vision on something and have some sort of abstract concept of a style, they want everything to look like their style. Instead, I prefer to remove myself from it and just try and make things that work for them. But then I also like to some extent, to tell stories in some way with rooms, with the interiors, but it can sometimes be hard to get people to accept things that are going to work like that.
Julien: Right, and there is a very strong narrative in your work.
Arsalan: Ashley, you don’t only design interiors, you’re a photographer too – and a photographer of interiors, such as in your books about Buckingham Palace and so on.
Ashley: I do a lot of different things, yes. I’m a bit of a photographer with historic interiors and stuff, you know, but sometimes interiors can be a challenge. You know, if I photograph my own interiors, it’s a bit easier, because I quite like them. But if I’m photographing historic interiors… well, you know, I’ve just done a book on Knole, that great English country house, which I was lucky enough to do during lockdown, with the National Trust. All the rooms are open to the public every day of the year, but with lockdown they were empty, so we could open all the curtains, shutters and windows and go behind the glass and get fantastic pictures of beds that made Balthus’s bed here look like something from Ikea! There was a bed made by Louis XIV’s upholsterer for King James II when he was Duke of York - a surviving bit of upholstery from Louis XIV, of which there are none left in France, I think, they were all destroyed. But they are incredible. Photographing those things, it’s impossible to get a bad result.
Arsalan: How did your book on Buckingham Palace come about?
Ashley: Yes, the book on Buckingham Palace was rather more difficult, because it’s not quite as beautiful as Knole. You’re not allowed to move any furniture, which makes it very tough, especially because they have a lot of hideous modern carpets. I mean, they’re, you know, not modern modern, but they’re new. So, I was constantly trying to move things in order to have something in the foreground to block a bit of the carpet! Anyway, let’s get back to Julien’s photographs – this one - where is this Caravaggio?
Julien: It’s the Galleria Doria Pamphilj [the historic art collection housed in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj] Every time I got to Rome I make a pilgrimage there, it’s such a beautiful place.
Ashley: It’s fantastic. You know, they would give big parties there, in the 17th century, they would put a floor over the [central] courtyard, open the windows and it would become an enormous ballroom. Imagine how that must have been. Fantastic. But, also, just the genius of doing that. Very clever.
João: Doria Pamphilj has that feeling you get in Rome of empty space, of incredible grandeur. Every time I go, there is no-one there. That emptiness with incredible works of art, you feel this in Julien’s images. Like, this one you made with the ripped silk frame.
Julien: Absolutely, yes, absolutely. But it’s exactly the same thing when I do details on walls, we give them just different layers of the history of a palazzo or a city. For this example, the palazzo is absolutely amazing, it’s like uncovering layers of time.
Ashley: Absolutely, yes, it’s beautiful. It shows the layers of time and there’s a narrative element to it, you know, the fabric spilling out of the rococo frame and then that wonderful, patterned wallpaper. Beautiful wallpaper. A lovely image.
Julien: Thank you so much. I’m particularly touched that you like that one
João: Julien, the two images, I think they are in churches with the faux marble. One has a curtain, kind of a painted curtain and the other one has a real curtain with a wonderful breccia. Is that painted, or is it real marble?
Julien: It’s painted.
João:Yeah. So, are those in churches?
Julien: Absolutely, they’re in a church. I like the idea of trompe-l’oeil and I think, Ashley, in some of his beautiful frescoes, can really understand what I mean. You don’t know if it’s reality or if it’s the work of the artist, your eyes don’t know if it’s a real curtain, faux marble, real marble, or a painted curtain.
João: Moving away from the semi abstract, how do you feel with these more figural elements in your images? I love sculpture and seeing sculpture in interiors, but how does your eye go to them? How do you react to them?
Julien: I’m very attracted to them, statues and sculptures are an obsession for me when I’m in Rome. The ones we are looking at here, are at the Palazzo Altemps.
But the second one, it’s very, very strange, because I tried to photograph it in different ways - not a close up, but a wider angle. It was too ‘interior design’, but I wanted something stranger. I love the way you can’t recognise where it was taken. It could be a photograph from 30 or 40 years ago, for example. I love it when you lose the context. It’s the same thing at the Doria Pamphilj gallery, with the fabrics. You don’t know where or what it is. I like playing with that.
Ashley: Absolutely, I think this way of photographing things, is a bit like sampling, you know, it’s a bit like snatching little fragments, without allowing the pieces themselves to dominate. And, of course, it drives peoples nuts, you know, because people who are trying to tell a story in a book want to illustrate the book - they want a picture of a whole table or a whole mirror, a whole portrait, you know.
Julien: I agree.
Ashley: When I was photographing at the picture gallery in Buckingham Palace, they were furious that I cut out the top three inches of a Vermeer! It was much better without those three inches but, of course, I had to put the top three inches back in. Who cares, you know?
Julien: I am sure it was more wonderful!
Arsalan: So, when you went to photograph at places like Knole or Buckingham Palace, you didn’t go to document but to work with your subjects in a more creative way?
Ashley: Well, what I tried to do was to capture the atmosphere and give the effect that you’re actually there. If you religiously show the whole of each object, that’s not how you experience it in real life. So, what I found very gratifying when I was shooting for my Buckingham Palace book, was that all the people from the Royal Collection Trust said it’s amazing, you’ve made it sexy! Which I think was partly because I had turned off all the lights, which was the most incredibly complicated thing to because the wiring was all put in by Prince Philip in 1950 or something. But my point was just that these photographs of Julien’s, where you see a foot here or a corner or bit of drapery there, then some drapery on an antique statue, then a corner of a frame or something. Your mind looks at it and suggests what the figure that the foot would belong to or what is behind the drapery. You know, it’s like you’re moving through space and actually experiencing what it feels like to be in that space, rather than just looking at a picture of it.
Arsalan: Looking at another of Julien’s photographs and I love this one – we’re outdoors, and have this wonderful, lush canopy of trees. Where was this taken?
Julien: This one was taken from the Turkish bedroom in the Villa Medici and you can see the garden of the Villa Medici and the Villa Borghese, as well. But it looks almost like a jungle of trees. Of course, you can recognise it’s Rome, but it could be somewhere else, I think.
João: And we also have in this series, this wonderful, abstract wall. You’ve worked quite a lot of walls in this series, so I decided to include this wall in Rome in the selection. Can you talk a bit about your work on walls? You’ve also taken pictures of walls in in Paris and Berlin too, right?
Julien: Yes, I started this series in New York, actually and it’s called In-Visible, which means both invisible and also invisible. I like the idea that you can see it, but you don’t see it at the same time. Sometimes, when I’m on the street with my tripod and camera, people look at me and wonder, what are you photographing? Because they don’t see it and I like that. Ashley, I’m sure you know that feeling. It’s very, very strange to explain it to people, so sometimes, I’ll just say, come, have a look through the viewfinder and then they see.
Ashley: [laughing] Asking you ‘Why! Why?’
Julien: Yes, why? Because that’s a compliment. We try to see something that people can’t see, and then they can see. And I’m sure you’re doing exactly the same in the same way when you’re taking pictures in Buckingham Palace when people who work there tell you it’s sexy because the way you see it is not the way they see it. And then you can show it in a different way and that’s what we are doing when we are taking pictures. We’re showing in a different way, at least we try.
Arsalan: And you did some of these in Berlin, as well?
Julien: Yes, absolutely. When I photograph different cities, I try to get in the pictures the energy of that city. So, in Rome, I found so many layers, and it was a dream to work there. And so, this was the project of my residency at the Villa Medici, So, this is what I said at the beginning of our conversation, when I came back to the Villa Medici, I realised that the first time I fell in love with details of walls, it was at the Villa Medici about 15 years ago!
Arsalan: Where would you like to photograph next?
Julien: I would love to go to Palermo because I don’t know Sicily and my wife has said, please don’t go to Rome again, I want to discover something else in Italy! So I think next time, it’s going to be Palermo.
João: Palermo, there’s a lot of layers in Palermo, you will love it.
Julien: I am sure, I hope so!