Week 120 Two Christies and a Graham-Stewart

Running the risk of giving too much away and thereby ruining my nocturnal parking life in the West End I am about to reveal a secret. If you arrive near Christie's at exactly 6.30 pm you can always find a parking space - a free one too, as the parking ceases to be charged at that time. The hard working art dealers have left and the evening revelers are yet to appear. This is a window of opportunity which, occasionally, I climb through. On Monday I crow-barred Esther out of the house in time to reach Christie's in time to view the forthcoming auction and settle down to hear Manfredi Della Gherardesca give forth on the subject of Italian interior decorating in the 20th century. Manfredi has been a mover and shaker in our world of Decorative Arts for as long as yours truly - that is to says decades. You could say of him that old cliche that he has forgotten more than I have ever known. The talk he gave roamed over the 20th century offering up wisdom accompanied by excellent photographs. Over the years Manfredi has acquired a magnificent beard. As a young Turk working in the Citibank art advisory department he was was lean, clean shaven and very Italian. Today he remains as svelte as ever and his Italian-ness is undimmed by years in England, but his square jaw is now buried beneath a dense coppice of beard. On our way in to the talk I spotted James Graham-Stewart, he was with a client burrowing under tables looking at carpets. I tried a bit of banter teasing him for his approach to the lecture, he raised his eyebrows - inferring that the lecture was seriously impeding his shopping. After the lecture I saw him again, descending the stairs, and he was both delighted and surprised by how excellent Manfredi's talk was. His new showroom has finally opened and I made a date to visit it later in the week.

 Manfredi about to begin. His lecture subject not hard to work out.

Manfredi about to begin. His lecture subject not hard to work out.

 

On Tuesday quite oddly and coincidentally we were back at the same place. This time we were there for the exquisite botanical watercolours by Meena Harding, the mother of my friend and client Sanjit. She is self taught but manages to capture both the spirit of Indian miniatures and the grand tradition of European scientific and amateur botanical watercolours. Many years ago at Mallett we had a selling exhibition of watercolours commissioned in the late 18th century by Lady Impey in India. She commissioned local artists trained in the Moghul style to paint and draw the local flora and fauna, but in their version of the English manner. The work produced is a perfect fusion of the cultures and a true echo of the Raj. Meena's work is similarly suffused with the same parallel influences, enhanced by a clear love of plants and gardens. We avariciously toured the room greedily deciding which to buy. But we were thwarted; she had brought many years work to the show and all the proceeds were destined for her preferred charity - Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity - and her friends and supporters leapt on the works and everything was sold within minutes. Delicious Tattinger champagne and carefully crafted canapés lubricated the process but the air was full of the appreciation of her work and it's achievements.

 Meena Harding capturing the essence of blossom.

Meena Harding capturing the essence of blossom.

 

On Wednesday we shifted gear as we tried out a new place, still in the West End but this time in Shepherds Market. Kitty Fisher is a new-ish small restaurant which merges a modern British culinary sensibility with Spanish features. For those who don't know who Kitty Fisher was - she was an 18th century courtesan whose instinct for fame made her renowned throughout Europe - even Casanova wrote of her. In addition Shepherds market is, allegedly, London's locus for 'high end' courtesans today. Consequently there is an elegant appropriateness - though I am not sure how the Spanish thing fits in? In any case the restaurant is modern but is styled with an eye on the 18th century. Our feast began with bread with onion butter. The simplicity of the description belies the wonder of this plate. Perfect bread - which for me consists of a hard crust, a meaty but soft and succulent crumb, all of which has a note of salt and yeast.  Hand in hand is an extraordinary snow white beaten fluff of butter dusted with a black residue of intense burnt onion. Each and every mouthful coupled with the the aroma of bread, butter and onion was good in a profound and life-enhancing way. After that we ate lamb chops. These were presented hot from their wood grill and coated in an oily green salty splash of heaven. We gobbled these up and ordered some more, though the kitchen had closed the chef fired up the grill again and out they came, delightful, slightly less perfect, but nonetheless highly satisfactory. This becomes a truly memorable night when you add the perfect company of Marcus and Monica Tremonto. As a team they travel the globe literally illuminating lives. Marcus is an inspired artist who does astonishing things with electricity and lights. He fashions oddly organic copper creations with LEDs and circuits. But we love them not for his artistic and professional skill and artistry, but for the fact that he can whistle up a laugh and a challenging conversation on any subject and with Monica there to focus, enhance and leaven each verbal peregrination an evening with them stays in the mind to be enjoyed and discussed for many a day after.

On Thursday afternoon I made my pilgrimage to James up in Scrubs Lane. It is not close to the Oval and at first I thought it would be a bit of a mission to get there. In the end it was actually quite easy. James Graham-Stewart has been dealing for a long time and unlike many others he has not drifted into interior decoration. He has remained and focuses on buying and selling antiques. He sticks to and dedicates himself to 'old school' antique dealing. Around the trade and abroad it is depressing how many people feel a sense of doom and gloom about the business and its future. But James is the antidote. He is located in a warehouse and he has done a deceptively basic decoration, ie there is probably more to it than it looks. In half a dozen rooms he presents a myriad and a panoply of things. He is scholarly and careful but not pompous or supercilious - he just loves the stuff, and if you want to buy it from him that would be very nice - but not essential. As a person he comes across as borderline miserable but his approach and achievement in making himself one of the foremost current dealers in British decorative arts is a joyful thing. His approach is exactly right for our time and everyone aspiring to come into the business should study his model, as it works.

As a footnote we ended the week in Somerset away from the London art world. We ate in a small village called Bishopswood ( just off the A303) at a pub called the 'The Candlelight Inn' We often do and I cannot recommend it more heartily. They won a prize as best gastro pub in Somerset last year. Amongst other delights we ate some slices of smoked venison with pears hiding below robust shaves of pecorino that I think was the most delicious thing I have eaten in a long time. This was local meat; smoked, cooked and served from the same house. This is what cooking should be.

 The venison was the star.

The venison was the star.