Storied businessman and collector Frank Cohen sat down with Jane Morris to discuss growing up in Manchester, investing in art early, and his love for the modern British movement.
F rank Cohen and his wife Cherryl are among Britain’s best-known art collectors. By the mid-2000s, the tabloids had dubbed him “the Saatchi of the North” – a reference to his working-class, Jewish, Manchester roots and his burgeoning collection of international contemporary art. Exhibitions at Initial Access in Wolverhampton from 2007–12 and the Dairy Art Centre from 2013–14 in London cemented his reputation for collecting the hottest artists from America, China, India and beyond. His two children, Georgina and Adam, now specialise in contemporary art in London and New York for leading art gallery Gagosian. But, he tells Sotheby’s, his enduring love is for modern British figurative art and artists – “outsiders” like Edward Burra and L. S. Lowry – who give a unique insight into the human condition.
What was Manchester like in the late 1960s when you were starting out?
I grew up in Cheetham Hill which was a very Jewish area then. If you wanted to work – and I was hungry to work – you would start on the markets. You don’t have markets like that now: then people used to buy everything, crockery, bedding, knives and forks. I started selling wallpaper when I was 17, and very quickly I was doing seven markets a week. The area was full of all sorts of characters. There was a chip shop on Bury Old Road called Lapidus’s that was a local landmark. It used to stay open late at night, and it seemed like everyone, the older lads who would gamble, working men, would congregate. It was like a club. I got to know some of the greatest characters that ever lived on the face of the earth there.
That “slice of life” permeates a lot of the artists you now most connect to: Paula Rego, Stuart Pearson Wright, Edward Burra…
I like Burra because he’s a great character. And he was really looking at people. He went to Morocco, he went to New York, he went to Harlem in the 1930s and 40s, he went to Spain and was horrified by the Spanish Civil War, he was there. He saw all these different people and the way he thinks about them is very deep. He hated the destruction of the land. He hated war and the people killing the world. If he was still living, he would be shouting about global warming. One of the works by Burra I’ve got is Picking a Quarrall. It shows how he hated people chopping chunks out of the mountainside for construction. Paula Rego’s work is also very intense. It comes out of the period when Portugal was under a Fascist government.
How did you first get into collecting?
Well, I always liked collecting. When I was a kid, I collected cigarette cards. You used to get little cards in packets of cigarettes to entice you, cards with cricketers and footballers, and all the kids at school used to collect them. And if you had 50, you had the set. And you were ahead of the game. It is just like NFTs now. Once you’ve got a set and no one else can have them, well you can stick them on the blockchain. And you’re the new kid on the block. It’s quite funny really.
After cigarette cards, it was coins. That started because I went to the cinema one day, and there was a Victorian penny in the change, which I sold for half-a-crown to a numismatist. That led to me collecting very rare British pattern coins.
So how did the passion for art start?
In my twenties, I opened my first shop, a decorating shop in the centre of Manchester, and a guy came in and asked if I was looking for any staff because he knew a girl who was looking for a summer job. And there she was: Cherryl. Her father, Jack Garson, was a glass and furniture manufacturer, and he sold objet d’arts and limited-edition prints. He used to say, you should buy one of these signed prints by Lowry, they are a good investment. I think they were about 15 quid at the time. Every time I picked her up, I bought another print.
When did you take the plunge and buy an original?
When I’d had enough of the prints! The first thing I bought was a little postcard-sized painting called My Family. I don’t have it anymore, but I do have some sensational Lowrys. There’s one I love more than anything else called The Grey Sea. It’s unbelievable in the flesh. It is not what most people think of when they think of Lowry – though, in fact, he had a huge oeuvre and painted still lives, landscapes and seascapes as well as figures. I’m lending it to the Manchester Art Gallery and they are going to put it in a room of its own, so people can immerse themselves in it. In its tranquillity.
Why did you like Lowry so much?
I really understood his work because it was about working-class life. It wasn’t abstract, it was figurative and I could see things I recognised in it. It takes a bit longer to understand abstract art when you are first starting out as a collector.
I also got to know Lowry. I went to his house with Cherryl, and we took one of his paintings to show him, which he hadn’t seen for a long time. He would let me sit and talk for hours.
He was a very unusual man, he was a loner, beholden to no one. His way of painting wasn’t part of a school or a movement, a bit like Burra or Dubuffet. He had a settee that must have been 100 years old, and an unlit fire and a desk and he would sit there and paint. Lowry was another great observer of people. You used to see things that looked like his paintings in Manchester: after the war, there were so many people with disabilities, on crutches, people begging, people going to funerals. Life in the raw.
So Lowry kickstarted the rest of the collection?
Yes, then I started to investigate other artists, and that’s how I got into William Roberts, David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach and Burra. This is around the time my business was growing, I went from small shops to a chain of about 50, out-of-town “sheds” – big DIY supermarkets.
Most people probably think of you as a collector of contemporary art. How did that come about?
I started to buy contemporary art in the late 1970s or early 1980s, from Lesley Waddington’s gallery in Cork Street. People like Jim Dine and Mimmo Paladino, and older artists such as Dubuffet and Miró among others. I still have some of these to this day. Waddington was a fantastic dealer and a very good friend. I hadn’t sold my business then so I didn’t have lots of money, so he used to say “pay me when you can” – sometimes I would pay over a year or two. It was thanks to Lesley that I got into contemporary art collecting.
I missed the very early days of the YBAs, in the late 80s and early 90s, because I was working night and day, building the business. I did buy a Damien Hirst spot painting in the mid-90s, but I didn’t start collecting artists like Tracey Emin until later.
I really started collecting cutting-edge art in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the art world went global. I was going to all the East End galleries, I went to China and India, buying people like Jagannath Panda, Bharti Kher, Zeng Fanzhi, Ai Weiwei, Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami. I think I went a bit mad, to be honest.
“I would say don’t listen to galleries and art advisers at the beginning. You’ve got to find time, you’ve got to learn to look yourself, you’ve got to be your own person to start with.”
Why did you decide to show your collection in a warehouse space in Wolverhampton?
Well, I was really enjoying myself. I had all this art and I had sold the business, but I needed to be occupied. And I thought why not mount some public shows. I wanted to do it first in Manchester because it’s my hometown, but it got mired in bureaucracy. As it happened, I stored my collection with an art handler in Wolverhampton because it was a lot less expensive than London. So I thought, right let’s do it there. And from 2007 to 2012, we mounted 10 terrific shows. And then the Dairy Art Centre in Bloomsbury came later. I also showed my modern British collection at the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s home, Chatsworth House, and I had a series of shows with Fortnum & Mason called Fortnum’s X Frank.
But I’m mainly collecting for myself these days. For my own personal satisfaction. It’s not really for doing exhibitions all over the world.
When did you come back to your first love, modern British art?
I never really left it. By 2010, I was buying more and more Auerbachs, Leon Kossoff and Barbara Hepworth. And artists like Alan Davie, John Bellany and John Hoyland. So was David Bowie, and so was Damien Hirst. Damien has a huge collection of them. It’s a certain mentality. Maybe it’s an English mentality.
You have some surprises in your collection – such as KAWS, for example?
I collect KAWS [Brian Donnelly], George Condo and Peter Saul and there are connections between all three of them. KAWS’ work has really emerged at a time of populism and the culture that preceded it. Maybe that’s why he’s so polarising as an artist. He comes at it from street art, US megacities and Japanese popular culture. He’s an appropriator like Condo, though Condo does it through the lens of art history – artists like De Kooning and Picasso. They both have their own visual language that’s completely recognisable as theirs. And both of them don’t seem to be able to stop producing, they have to do it. That’s the very essence of what it is to be an artist, at least that’s what I imagine.
Brian Donnelly also collects Peter Saul, like I do. I don’t know if he collects Condo, but it wouldn’t surprise me. KAWS is an enthusiast, that’s what attracts me to him. Peter Saul is more overtly political, despite the bright, brash colours. The paintings are always dealing with protest, and after protest there’s always a need to rebuild.
What advice would you give a younger collector starting out?
I would say don’t listen to galleries and art advisers at the beginning. You’ve got to find time, you’ve got to learn to look yourself, you’ve got to be your own person to start with. You’ve got to go around the museums, you’ve got to look at the art, you’ve got to read the journals. The more you see, the more knowledge you’ve got.
And then you’ve got to say to yourself, what do I want it for? It is easy for me now because I know I like figurative art. There’s no point in buying something if you don’t like it. You’re going to have a few mistakes and changes of mind. Once you have developed your taste, you can talk to the galleries and advisers. You can do what you want because you’ve got more knowledge.