DEFINING BRITISH ART: 250 YEARS OF CHRISTIE’S

In 1766, James Christie opened his own sales rooms at 83-84 Pall Mall Street. This summer, Christie’s celebrates 250 years as one of the world’s leading auction houses with Defining British Art, a very special loan exhibition 

Words: Mark Kebble

Sitting in the auction room of Christie’s South Kensington as the cast of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull, predicted to go for £3,000 upwards, is announced to the 20 or so people sitting around me (with many more tuned in via the wonders of the digital age), the urge to raise my hand is overwhelming, and as the bidding enthusiastically ratchets up a notch, I find myself mentally counting what I actually have sitting in my bank account…

‘That sense of theatre and spectacle is fun and exhilarating – it’s adrenaline territory as well,’ Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie’s UK, nods when I recount my experiences of the previous day. ‘You do get that fantastic adrenaline rush, the theatre, a Lot coming up that you just don’t know whether it’s going to fly away or you might get cheaply. That’s the fun of it and it’s important to keep that theatre going.

‘We have done a lot to try and make it as easy as possible for people to bid. Telephone bidding was the first thing, but now Christie’s LIVETM means you can participate remotely wherever you are.’

The auction house has come far since a young Scotsman, James Christie, set up a sales room in 1766 on Pall Mall. Back then his first sale on record included a pair of sheets, two pillowcases, two chamber pots and four irons. ‘There was also a coffin at an early sale,’ Rock adds, ‘from a man who recovered from a serious illness. But Christie also oversaw the first curated sales by contemporary artists. He was best friends with Gainsborough and with Reynolds. He was a man of society, understood the theatrical nature of it, and was brave, bold and prepared to take risks.’

Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie's UK

Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie’s UK

His legacy is quite something, particularly when you consider art sales by Christie’s in 2015 totalled £4.8 billion. Today, Christie’s has a global presence with 54 offices in 32 countries and 12 salesrooms around the world. It all means that Rock, who recently celebrated 25 years at Christie’s, is being kept busy since taking on the role of Chairman, UK, in preparation for the 250th anniversary celebrations.

It’s an amazing privilege to be able to look back over some of the things we have handled in the last 250 years and try to get them all in the building at the same time. People have been really generous and are lending us real treasures that are simply not seen

‘It’s an amazing privilege to be able to look back over some of the things we have handled in the last 250 years and try to get them all in the building at the same time,’ Rock enthuses. ‘When we came up with this rather mad idea I did think about how it was going to work, but people have been really generous and are lending us real treasures that are simply not seen. It will be fantastic to have this loan exhibition along with a curated sale that will be entirely complementary.’

It’s undoubtedly a huge task, but Rock doesn’t show any strain, beguiling company throughout the hour I spend with him. His dry sense of humour – describing his love of collecting as ‘a terrible inherited disease’ from his father – mixes with humility, describing the people around him as key. ‘The things I really enjoy [in the role] are the works of art and the people. Collectors are some of the most eccentric, bizarre, fabulous, intelligent people we ever come across and they are the lifeblood of the market and know more than most of us, so that’s really a treat.’

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Does he have a favourite artist? ‘I am so eclectic,’ he states. ‘I am obsessed with William Kent, but I also love surrealism. If I had to choose one thing it would probably be an antiquity, but I am obsessed with Van Dyck, Dobson and 17th century portraits of men in armour. I want to be inspired, like the thing behind you,’ he shifts my gaze to the corner of his office, ‘a modern zebra head made out of matches by a guy, amazingly, called David Mach! I respond to it straight away. If you look behind it and see how it’s made and constructed, I think it’s wonderful. Irrespective of the value I think it’s a wonderful work of art.’

The flagship location may have shifted slightly from 83-84 Pall Mall to King Street, where we sit today, and despite the global expansion Rock is no doubt as to the importance of this area to Christie’s. ‘It’s the very DNA,’ he says. ‘We sprung from here and this is where our roots are. It’s very important as a business that we understand where those roots are, as well as looking to every corner of the world. I see that as one of the fundamental aspects.’

A lot has happened here and across the world in 250 years, but for Rock art will always remain a constant: ‘It’s a fundamental expression of human brilliance, human suffering and human experience’

A lot has happened here and across the world in 250 years, but for Rock art will always remain a constant. ‘It’s a fundamental expression of human brilliance, human suffering and human experience,’ he says. ‘The one thing that is not a constant is there are huge fluctuations in fashion, tastes, and values. Looking back, it’s fascinating to see how incredibly valuable Pre-Raphaelite painters originally were, but 100 years later they were being sold for the values of frames because they were so unfashionable at that time.

So the fluctuations are very interesting, but the fundamental human reaction to works of art is in our DNA. It certainly is in mine. Who knows, though, what the digital world will do going forward. Maybe in 100 years time you will be able to have your dream digital collection without having the actual artworks…’

Thankfully that’s something technology hasn’t managed to crack just yet, so for now it’s simply a case of anyone, anywhere, getting involved with the theatre of Christie’s. The excitement is building around the 250th anniversary celebrations and I can see myself already in that auction room keen to somehow take part. Rock recounts one story of a digital bidder being successful and then getting itchy feet, blaming – bizarrely – their cat for walking across the keyboard and confirming a bid. Now, that’s got me thinking…

Defining British Art, a unique loan exhibition, will be staged from 17 June-15 July at 8 King Street SW1Y 6QT, with a specially curated Evening Sale on 30 June. For more information, visit christies.com

Christie’s 250th anniversary special loan exhibition and evening sale

Highlighting Britain’s extraordinary artistic legacy, Christie’s 250th anniversary celebrations in London will be launched with two key events titled Defining British Art: a unique loan exhibition of British art, almost all of which have been handled by Christie’s in the last 250 years, to be held from 17 June-15 July, with a specially curated evening sale on 30 June. Both events will present approximately 25 works by masters such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable, Turner, Rossetti, Waterhouse, Leighton, Spencer, Lowry, Moore, Hepworth, Freud, Bacon, Hockney, Auerbach and Hirst, among others. The loan exhibition will also embrace notable works created in England by some leading Continental European artists.

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