Q&A: Nicky Wire

Lyricist/bass player with Manic Street Preachers

The Manic Street Preachers formed  in 1986 as a post-punk quartet with a repertoire soaked in cultural and political references. In February 1995, lyricist  and guitarist Richey Edwards disappeared and, in November 2008, was officially presumed dead. Hailing from a small Welsh town but harbouring huge global ambition, the band decided to continue as a trio, perhaps hoping Edwards would return one day. His old school friend Nicky Wire, who played bass, took  over lyric-writing duties. Three months after Edwards disappeared, Wire wrote  ‘A Design For Life’, one of the great  angst anthems of the Nineties. The band’s most recent album, Futurology, was a commercial and critical hit. 

It’s 20 years since the Manics released The Holy Bible, a darkly personal and political album that spat on the cosy laddishness of Brit pop. Where does it fit into today’s music landscape?

It’s completely other. I don’t think there’s any sign of the public wanting anything other than comfort or moments of rapture from music these days. But when we announced The Holy Bible tour, 20,000 tickets were sold in nine minutes. The album has sold around 10,000 copies a year since its release, so there’s always a new generation discovering it, much as we did with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.

The Holy Bible was released in the same month as Definitely Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine Oasis visiting Belsen or Dachau on their days off as you did – or to respond with a song such as ‘Mausoleum’, which includes the chilling lyric: ‘No birds, no birds/The sky is swollen black’.

I wrote the original lyric ideas in my hotel room after walking around Belsen. I was struck by the lack of creatures and the silence. There’s greenery and trees, but  it seemed to me even nature couldn’t face touching that horror. The first time we went to Japan, we visited the museum  in Hiroshima. We’ve always faced up to universal truths as much as is humanly possible and it’s been a good thing for us, because truth’s about the only thing that has kept the band going.

Just six months after The Holy Bible was released, Richey went missing. Does his absence heighten the emotion of revisiting the album?

Of course, but making The Holy Bible was the period when we felt most free as a band – although, when we started to play it live and Richey was clearly starting  to deteriorate mentally and physically,  it did become harder.

The album’s themes include genocide  and anorexia, and everyone from Lenin  to Pol Pot is name-checked. Is it the most intellectual album ever made?

I think it is, actually. I wrote about 25 per cent of the lyrics and Richey wrote the rest. He was devouring all the culture he could and was really on fast-forward. It’s mind-blowing to think what he could have done in a digital world. As it was, he never had a mobile phone or a computer – he just wrote on an old portable typewriter.

The Manics were – and still are – angry about injustice, but you were never just dour blokes preaching your politics. You’ve always had fun as a band, too?

Always. There’s deep affection between us, but we’re mercilessly brutal with each other. We learnt not to take ourselves  too seriously having read interviews  in the music press with Morrissey and Ian McCulloch. We had a lot of fun making The Holy Bible. The three Astoria shows we did in December 1994, which turned out to be Richey’s last gigs, were heavy-going, but halfway through, James [James Dean Bradfield, the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist], put on a Santa hat and did a version of Wham!’s Last Christmas.

When you play The Holy Bible live, will you leave a space on stage as though Richey is sitting out a song?

Yes. We’re playing as a three-piece and we won’t be just going through the motions because we’re two decades older. We’re going for full-on intensity and anger.  

Frank Skinner – Comic timing

Back on tour again, comedian FRANK SKINNER is having the time of his life. He puts his 27-year career down to a Protestant work ethic and a Catholic fear of regret 

As a boy, I used to dress up in a full cowboy outfit and strum a plastic guitar in front of  my family. I’m not a very nostalgic person,  but when I see my son Buzz doing comedy in that idiosyncratic two-year-old way, I do think, ‘God, I must have been like that.’ As much  as I don’t spend much time thinking about the past, I do find the image of a comedian- in-waiting rather satisfying. But then it’s very easy to transpose things retrospectively – the way I held the Mars bar when I was ‘performing’ didn’t mean I was born to hold a microphone. 

I can still remember the first stand-up show I ever did. It was as the host of a charity gig for the Birmingham Anglers’ Association back  in 1987 and I was absolutely convinced – in all seriousness – that I would be on Saturday Live alongside the likes of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson within the week. I thought I was  a sensation just waiting to be discovered, so  it was quite a blow when nothing happened.  I couldn’t believe the audience at this gig wasn’t howling with hilarity – I was used to  big laughs in my regular domestic settings, after all. It took a while for me to nail it and  I didn’t storm it till the third week. And that’s what I call my wilderness fortnight.

You need profound self-belief to be up there on stage as a stand-up, but self-doubt to be any good. You have to hate failure enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If I had to choose one reason for my longevity, I’d say it’s hard work. My dad instilled that in me. It’s a bit  odd to have a Protestant work ethic when you’re Catholic, but I can’t escape it. I give everything I do 100 per cent, otherwise  I can’t cope with the aftermath of regret  and self-loathing. And if that ever goes away,  I think I’ll retire, because the idea of doing  this as a routine job disgusts me. I always  have to be the best and funniest I can be.

The hardest aspect of my work is getting together the material for a stand-up show. When you’re doing TV or radio, there seems  to be a little bit more air between gags, but when you do a stand-up show, it really needs to be gag, gag, gag – that’s why comedians  stop doing stand-up once they have the option to do other things. I still love the challenge, though – once I’ve done the initial writing,  the tinkering and fine-tuning is a really  joyous experience.

I don’t really think about comic timing when I’m writing – I have to believe it will be  in there. I can only compare it to clay-pigeon shooting: I already have the machinery and  I just need to put in the clay pigeon and fire it correctly. If you believe in your very marrow that you’re the funniest person on the planet, you’ll get through every stage of self-doubt. But then I’ve always been quietly obsessive and romantic about stand-up – I think that,  if you treat it badly, it might all go away, so it has to be treated like a delicate bird sitting  on your shoulder.

It’s possible that I put more into my work now than I did as a younger man. I was talking to a photographer recently about having kids and asked what he thought about [literary critic and writer] Cyril Connolly’s idea that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. The photographer said being a father made him more motivated because he wants to be his children’s hero.  I want to be Buzz’s hero. That’s not to say my stand-up has become benign – it’s still quite  an adult show, but there’s less sex in it. Sex is not as big a part of my life as it used to be –  or if it is, it’s domesticated.

Television and radio shows are very different to stand-up gigs, but I still end up comparing them. You might have only a small studio audience for telly but it feels like playing to an arena, whereas I have 800,000 listeners to my Absolute Radio show yet it feels like talking  to an intimate, 80-seater venue. I always imagine the radio audience are falling about laughing and that gives me more confidence.  I can go up side roads knowing I won’t lose  my nerve like I might on stage if the audience has suddenly stopped laughing.

There’s nothing like a good stand-up show – I even enjoy the heckling. It makes each show unique and it means I have to improvise, which is always exciting. In the old days,  I’d stop working on my material once it was getting laughs all the way through; now, I can’t stop tinkering with it and changing it around. I need something new to try out each night  to keep it fresh, even if it’s just one line.

I’ve noticed I feel more relaxed on stage than I used to – maybe getting older is just a natural muscle relaxant. There’s always a little fire burning inside me before I go on stage, but I don’t know if I’d call it nerves. I think it’s just a readiness to go out and make people laugh.   

Mick Rock – Shooting stars

Legendary photographer MICK ROCK on why the Seventies was an exceptional time for music – as proved by his seminal photography of the decade’s talent

I first met Bowie on 18 March 1972, before  his Birmingham Town Hall gig. He was a few months into his Ziggy Stardust tour, but the album wasn’t out until June that year. I was taken to his dressing room just before he was due on stage, so he was very quiet but utterly charming. I took a few photos of him in his early Ziggy outfit – he looked incredible.  

I had no idea that those photographs were going to be iconic. I don’t think I ever applied the word ‘iconic’ to a photo back then; after all, I was only in my early twenties and pretty much just going with the flow. You have to remember how young the stars were in the early Seventies. It’s amazing so many of them are still around; Mick and Keith still hop out of their wheelchairs on a regular basis to do  a bit of a dance on stage and Pete Townshend sang about wanting to die before he got old – well, Pete, you got old and you’re still fabulous. 

Rock photography is a different world now. In the Seventies, it was completely disposable. Those early images of mine – of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry et al – were irrelevant six months after they were taken. The words ‘classic’ and ‘rock’ did not go together. Music was supposed to move on to the next thing with barely a glance backwards. 

David, Lou and Iggy had time to marinate. They all had to struggle through early careers that were not that successful. Even Raw Power wasn’t a hit album for Iggy on its release – and I remember that very clearly because I shot  the cover image. There was time back then  for musicians to build some mystique because people didn’t care about them until a certain point. But how can Justin Bieber do the same? I suppose he can spit at a photographer or pretend he’s a bit of a yobbo, but he’s probably just a nice boy trying to be rock’n’roll. 

It’s significant, too, that David, Lou and Iggy were culturally and musically important; look at the phenomenal success of the V&A’s recent Bowie exhibition. Elton John and the Eagles sold massive amounts of records in the Seventies, too, but they had a different kind  of cultural impact. That doesn’t make them lesser artists – it’s just the way it was. 

I was lucky to be around in the Seventies.  I stayed on in New York at the end of the Ziggy Stardust tour to take some photos of Lou Reed and he took me to the kind of underground places that didn’t even exist in London. He was a sweetie, but you had to know what you were talking about. He could be really naughty with journalists, sometimes just for the hell  of it, but if you passed the early tests, he was fantastic. There was nobody like Lou. He was an extraordinary man and I miss him terribly. 

I miss Syd Barrett too. We became friends while I was studying modern languages at Cambridge University; he wasn’t at college, but he lived in the town. My pictures of Syd were the first anyone really gave a damn about. We laughed a lot – but then if you smoke a lot of hash, you do tend to laugh. I also took an acid trip with him a few weeks before shooting the cover of The Madcap Laughs; these days, however, I prefer to meditate and have a massage before a shoot. 

I’m not one for nostalgia or regrets, but  I do envy my late friend Al Wertheimer, who took all those early photos of Elvis before he became a big star. And I wish that I could have photographed Bob Dylan in the mid-Sixties, around the time of Blonde on Blonde. I love the wild hair, the shades, the skinny trousers,  the hunched shoulders. And Keith Richards in 1969, when the Stones appeared at Altamont – by this time, he wasn’t a kid with big ears,  but an archetypal rock’n’roller. Sadly, I’d only  just picked up a camera at that point and had never been to America.

I used to be prickly about being called ‘the man who shot the Seventies’ because I didn’t stop working in 1980 and I still shoot modern stars such as Pharrell, Daft Punk and Kate Moss. But I’m a lot more mellow these days – and there’s not much that a massage and some meditation won’t sort out.  

Sublime passions

The subject of both his latest film and an upcoming Tate Britain exhibition, JMW Turner was a flawed, eccentric character with whom film director MIKE LEIGH finds great empathy

When I was about 14, I had art posters pinned to my bedroom wall. Picasso, the Impressionists and, even though I’ve now got over the enthusiasm, Salvador Dalí. But it wasn’t until I was at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts that I really started to look at JMW Turner and to become aware of him as a great painter. I responded, like we all do, to the scale of the paintings, to his dramatic portrayal of the elements and his use of light.  

It occurred to me in 1999 to make a film about Turner, after I’d finished a period picture about Gilbert and Sullivan called Topsy-Turvy. I knew some of the more famous Turners, but I knew very little about the man himself. As soon as  I started to read about him I thought, ‘This is a very good potential character for a Mike Leigh film.’ 

Turner was clearly a difficult, eccentric man and when you put a figure like him at the centre of a film, what is fascinating is the tension between him – as this flawed, eccentric individual – and the sublime, passionate and spiritual art he created. I have hung around artists and creative people for a very long time and he’s just one of those guys, basically. I suppose, had I met him, I would have had some instinctive empathy with him. 

Although Mr. Turner is a biographical picture, it’s not a biopic. I deliberately didn’t put time labels all over the screen because it is not a documentary. If anything, it is quite inventive with history. The film is, rather, a reflection on this incredible painter. And, as such, it doesn’t start at the beginning, with young Joseph Mallord William Turner being born, but covers instead the last 25 years of his life. 

I felt everything one would want to say about Turner could be said within that time, including the earlier biographical references – of which there were many different kinds – that we put in the film. In Turner’s final  25 years, his father died and he was distraught, he met  Mrs Booth in Margate and formed a long-standing relationship with her, and he famously clashed with Constable at the Royal Academy in 1832. 

Constable, who privately dismissed Turner’s work as being ‘just steam and light’, had been working for a long time on ‘The Opening of Waterloo Bridge’. Right next to Constable’s very red painting was Turner’s rather grey seascape, ‘Helvoetsluys; – the City of Utrecht, 64, Going  to Sea’. When all the paintings were hung, Constable kept on putting finishing touches to Waterloo Bridge. Turner casually added a single daub of red paint to Helvoetsluys and, in doing so, transformed the painting. 

Turner often made trips to Europe and we would like to have filmed on the continent. But the only way you can do Venice is by going to Venice. You can’t simulate it. Nor can you build it. It would have been very, very expensive; it’s expensive just to buy a bag of chips. And we’d have needed control of chunks of Venice to ensure that [cinematographer] Dick Pope could capture the light. It just wasn’t viable. 

In the end, we decided it shouldn’t matter if we didn’t get to Europe, or Scotland – or Snowdonia. As long as  we got out of London, which we did, then other locations could stand as metaphors for all the trips he made. And Mr. Turner is not, as I’ve said, a biopic. It’s about the essence of a journey made by a radical, revolutionary painter who was a flawed individual. 

A cut above

A landmark Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern offers a rare opportunity to view his final – and most radical – work, says the curator Nicholas Cullinan, exploring the artist’s legacy

The idea for curating this exhibition – the most comprehensive one ever devoted to Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs – came while I was busy preparing the  Cy Twombly retrospective with Nicholas Serota at Tate Modern back in 2008. I used to talk to Cy, who had turned 80, about his work, and we kept returning to Matisse. 

In the final years of his life, Matisse underwent a gruelling operation and was often confined to a wheelchair.  Less able to paint and sculpt, he started to cut out shapes in vividly coloured paper. 

Few artists ever had such great late periods as Matisse – perhaps only Titian, Monet, Rembrandt or Picasso. Even fewer pioneered a new form. Some of the first cut-outs were made on Matisse’s lap in bed around 1943/44. He just sat there and cut out shapes using a huge pair of scissors, and they were collected together in the limited-edition art book Jazz. The book and the maquettes made for it  will be shown together at Tate Modern. 

The new technique allowed Matisse to become not only more prolific, but more ambitious – and the scale of the work grew accordingly. He could no longer walk in the garden,  so he brought the garden inside. He could no longer swim, so he crafted himself a swimming pool. The cut-outs let him recreate the outside world indoors at a time when he was largely confined to  his home. In the Twenties,  he moved to Nice and the cut-outs perfectly capture the crystalline light of the Côte d’Azur that he loved so much. 

Most of the colours are still vibrant and stable. Some hues have fared better than others, such as the blue in the Blue Nudes – the exhibition includes the largest number of these to be shown together with their related works.

Looking at pieces such as ‘Large Composition with Masks,’ you start to realise the cut-outs are more  like installation art than paintings. Now seems a good time to revisit the cut-outs, and to consider just how influential and prescient they’ve proven to be.

Artists such as Ellsworth Kelly were in Paris when they were first exhibited in the early Fifties, while Matisse was alive. You can see the legacy of the French master’s work in Kelly’s very flat, bold areas of colour and form. Later, in 1964 – a decade after Matisse had died – Andy Warhol declared, ‘I want to be Matisse.’ And there is a direct correlation between Warhol’s flower paintings, which are similarly flat, bold and deliberately decorative, and Matisse’s cut-outs. 

Two young, contemporary British artists, Lucy Skaer  and Rosalind Nashashibi, have created works that refer to the Vence Chapel, which Matisse designed. Their 2008 short film, Pygmalion Event, shows a priest wearing one of the chapel’s brightly coloured vestments, the design of which also sprang from Matisse’s rich imagination.

I hope this exhibition  will attract a new generation to evaluate the cut-outs for themselves. I think we’re now more fully equipped to really understand what Matisse  was trying to do, and the full strength of his achievement. Even some of his close friends thought he was just amusing himself – they didn’t realise how radical the art form was. 

It was difficult to get so many of Matisse’s cut-outs in one place because private owners and museums were reluctant to release them.  Not many of us will be able to see such an astonishing group of works together again: it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. 

Keeping up with Jones

Exalted and demonised by turns, the work of Pop Art veteran ALLEN JONES has always courted controversy. Now, as a Royal Academy retrospective brings together his most iconic pieces, the artist retraces his journey

I was 26 when I went to live in New York. If  one had been a young artist with any aspiration  in 1910, one would have gone to Paris. By the early Sixties, however, New York was certainly the centre of the Western art world. I lived for  a while in the Chelsea Hotel because it was a cheap place where you could stay for a long time and rent rooms to paint in. At that time,  it didn’t have the history it has now, but Dylan Thomas had already died while staying there and I think the manager was very happy to  see another Brit. I suppose he was hoping he could put another plaque on the wall.

The Chelsea was on 23rd Street, a seedy neighbourhood, really, but from my window  I could just see the top of the Empire State Building and I was glad to be able to write to my mother and tell her that. My time in New York was an unbelievably positive, electric experience. The hotel was full of artists who you got to know, who subsequently became very famous. The main thing was becoming socially enmeshed in part of the city’s artistic moment: ice-skating in Central Park with  Roy Lichtenstein; going back to eat supper  at someone’s loft; hanging out at endless parties. Even Jasper Johns was grooving away with everybody else in those days. 

New York changed everything. I came back to England determined to try and violate as many of the precepts of painting – hard edge, flat surface, clear colour – as I could. The first art I produced on my return were the ‘shelf’ paintings, so-called because the work included a small wooden shelf that protruded forward from the surface of the canvas. My idea was that if you affixed an object to the canvas,  it actually declared the painting’s objecthood and flatness. One of my first attempts was ‘First Step’ (1966) – a symbol of a woman’s  legs, knee to floor, in black high-heeled shoes. 

It’s interesting how my use of colour has changed over time. One of the things you can see in the Royal Academy show is that the first five years of my work used the same range,  but somehow the paintings weren’t colourful, they weren’t bright. I don’t know exactly how my palette developed. However, I remember very clearly as a student being drawn to Bauhaus and Fauvism, and warming to the poetic idea that, actually, the way a painter makes the thing on the canvas visible is by using paint, and paint is colour. 

As far as a Bauhaus artist like Kandinsky was concerned, the colour spectrum was actually the spectrum of life. In fact, the colour wheel does not have black or white on it. Black was not seen as a part of the totality of life. I never asked why black wasn’t there, but I did ask about the absence of white. Of course my teachers said that the theoretical centre of the circle, where all the colours come together, would be white. In other words, light. Somehow or other, one was inculcated into  the language of colour and, when the penny drops, you realise that colour is in fact the  way to animate the space in the picture.

The Royal Academy show is a little overwhelming; I’ve seldom seen so much of  my work in one gallery and I’m pleased the use of colour has such an impact. Kate Moss looks fabulous on the poster in the bronze glitter armour I created. I couldn’t resist taking a photograph of her, but I did feel intimidated  by all the professional photographers who had captured her image before me. Then I thought, ‘No, she’s visiting my world now.’ And, all of  a sudden, it worked. 

It’s wonderful that some critics are saying I’m an artist to be cherished, but I’d like to  be part of the Tate’s permanent collection. They’ve had six of my works for decades, and put some up when I turned 70, but then they took them down again. They have a ‘Chair’, which was damaged in 1986 when a member of the public threw acid over it, and I suppose  if you’ve been smacked in the face once, you might be reticent. That said, the Tate has graciously lent the Royal Academy two of my paintings from the early Sixties, so I suppose it’s time to stop thinking about it now.  

Hopper, hippies and Hell’s Angels

Curator Petra Giloy-Hirtz describes her excitement at finding boxfuls of Dennis Hopper’s photographs, not seen since 1970, documenting a period of great change in the US

Before Dennis Hopper died in May 2010,  he had been preparing a retrospective of  his photographs, paintings, sculptures  and mixed-media works with the American artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel.  In July that year, I went to the preview at  the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and met Hopper’s daughter Marin. A year later, she invited me to look through her father’s photographs, some of which  are stored in warehouses and others in his beautiful studio at Venice Beach. There were hundreds – from black-and-white prints to Polaroids and digital shots. The second time I visited, Marin unearthed five boxes containing 429 vintage prints, which Hopper had exhibited at his first major show at the Fort Worth Museum in 1970. 

My original intention had been to curate a retrospective of Hopper’s photography covering everything from 1961 to the pictures he was taking before he died.  When the boxes were discovered, I revised my plan: I now had a treasure trove of lost black-and-white shots taken by Hopper between 1961 and 1967. He had personally selected more than 500 of them for the exhibition at Fort Worth: the show then moved to Washington and the photographs disappeared. They haven’t been seen by  the public since.

The photographs we have are small, black-and-white, mounted on cardboard  and are fixed directly on to the wall. No glass and no frames. Hopper wrote notes  on the back of many of them. I scrutinised  a few documentary shots we found from  the Fort Worth exhibition to see how he  had hung them and tried, as far as possible,  to reconstruct the original hanging. The way in which he grouped and hung them was idiosyncratic. 

The lost photographs cover a fascinating period of Dennis’s life and of American history. Apparently, James Dean had encouraged him to pick up a camera when they were working together on Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Hopper admired Dean immensely and was devastated when he died in a car crash in 1955. So, when his first wife, Brooke Hayward, brought him  a Nikon F camera with a 28mm lens, Hopper slung it around his neck – where  it remained almost constantly until 1967 when he stopped taking photographs and started working on Easy Rider.

Looking at the lost photographs, you  can see how Hopper ended up co-writing, directing and starring in Easy Rider. He had been taking pictures of bikers and hippies, of drug-taking and counterculture. There  is an enormous similarity between his photography and the moving images –  for example, a series of eight photographs telling the story of a homeless guy who  is looking for something on the street.  It almost resembles a little film in that it  has a definite narrative. 

The range of Hopper’s photographs is breathtaking. There are images of celebrities such as Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as members of his own family. Others capture counterculture gatherings and the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery at the height of the African-American Civil Rights Movement – an experience that totally overwhelmed Hopper. 

It’s very easy to think of him as just a Hollywood bad boy, but in the Sixties,  he regarded himself as a political artist  and wanted to be a witness of his time,  to contribute to history by chronicling  what he saw going on around him. At this stage, he thought these photographs were going to be his only legacy. Although Hopper was self-taught, he took photography very seriously and his compositions stand comparison with the work of other great photographers of the time. 

The exhibition at the Royal Academy  will show Easy Rider and The Last Movie, which Hopper also wrote, directed and starred in. If you watch Easy Rider and hear Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ after looking at these lost photographs, you’ll get goose pimples. It’s clear how they led Hopper to make a movie that essentially changed Hollywood. His eye, his visual talent and political awareness all manifest themselves in the film – while the photographs act almost as its storyboard.  

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 from 26 June to 19 October; royalacademy.org.uk

Angela Hartnett – The Italian connection

Michelin-starred chef-patron of Murano Angela Hartnett grew up with ‘la cucina’ in her blood. Now she’s passed on her skills to protégée and Cafe Murano head chef Sam Williams, an Italophile who is yet to visit the country 

Angela Hartnett 

My grandfather and his two brothers had fish-and-chip shops in the East End when  I was a kid and I always liked the idea of running my own restaurant. But it wasn’t  until I started to work with Gordon Ramsay that I realised I wanted to be a chef. My mum worked and had three kids to look after, so I started to help her out in the kitchen at an early age. My older brother certainly wasn’t going to help, which meant I was always  the one cooking alongside  my mum and grandmother. 

My grandmother, who came from Bardi in Emilia-Romagna, was fantastic at savoury food, but she wasn’t  a great baker. So I was always making cakes and, by the  time I was a teenager, fresh pasta. My nonna would go back to Bardi for the whole summer and we’d join her in this village in the middle  of nowhere for a few weeks. When I go back there now,  I live off very simple but incredible food: cheese, ham, bread, salad and fruit. 

I opened Murano, in Mayfair, with Gordon Ramsay in 2008, becoming sole owner in 2010, and  Cafe Murano opened on St James’s Street last November.  I wanted a restaurant that reflected the simplicity of the northern Italian food I loved, and was as good as the River Café or Locanda Locatelli without being that pricey. There was nothing between those top-level restaurants  and Jamie’s or Ponti’s and  I thought a restaurant with great service offering simple, authentic food, cooked well,  at mid-range prices, might  be a success. 

I first met Sam, who is head chef of Cafe Murano,  in 2011. I was leading Smart Hospitality’s chef team at the Olympic Hospitality Centre in preparation for London 2012 and she was one of more than 100 chefs. She was calm and organised, without ego, could taste food brilliantly and shared my ethos about food. She also had the passion: she was a head chef but took a pay cut to work at Murano for two years till I found the right site for Cafe Murano. 

It’s rare I have to tell Sam something isn’t right, but  she has had to learn to loosen food up, to relax it on the plate. It’s hard for a chef who was used to cooking classic French food that wasn’t exactly fancy but was quite  set. She showed me a pork belly dish recently that was delicious, but it looked too pretty on the plate. All we had to do was throw all the garnish in a bowl and put the pork  on a plate on its own. Gordon once said that chefs with too much time on their hands make food that’s too finicky, and he’s right. If you have  130 covers a night, you have  to concentrate on flavour, flavour, flavour. 

My last supper

I’d start with antipasto of salami and prosciutto, followed by anolini – stuffed pasta served in a broth from my grandmother’s region in north-east Italy. I’ve made it since I was a kid and it’s great comfort food that evokes good memories. I love roast chicken, but for the main course I’d probably choose  a whole baked fish. I’m not a big dessert fan, so I’d finish with a selection of British, French or Italian cheese.


Sam Williams 

I’ve never been to Italy. It’s quite embarrassing – shocking even. I said to Chef [Hartnett] the other day that she had to take me soon. But I think I understand the combinations of food and I’ve got a good palate. My training is more classical French – I worked  at Racine with Henry Harris and at the Fifth Floor in Harvey Nichols. We made our own pasta, but that was about it. Then I ran the pasta section at Murano and I started to develop a real love for Italian food.

I grew up in Cape Town with a Norwegian mum and an English dad. Food was important in our family, especially with mum’s heritage. We had a dining table that could seat 20 that was the heart of the house. The food we ate was a real mixture: Sunday roasts or barbecues using fresh local fish. My mum always baked and cooked healthy food for us as kids. From a young age, I’d stand on a chair, watch her roll dough and get covered in flour. 

My career choices at school were, in order, doctor, marine biologist or chef. I loved cooking so much that I went off to catering college and university before coming to England 16 years ago to pay off my huge student loan. 

I was scared ahead of Cafe Murano opening, but in a good way: if you’re not terrified, you’re not passionate enough. What I love about working here is that it’s about getting the simple things right. It’s about taking fantastic seasonal produce and not messing with it. Everyone loves the truffle arancini (rice balls) but my favourite dish is probably the pork belly with romanesco, pea shoots and clams that is now – thanks to Chef – beautifully simple. The winter menu is dominated by heavy northern Italy dishes, but I find spring greens much more exciting, and they look so lovely on a plate. 

My last supper

I grew up on the coast, so I’d have a seafood starter: crayfish, lobster or prawns cooked really simply. Then barbecued or pan-fried red meat for the main and homemade chocolate ice cream for pudding. Q

These golden years

This spring’s David Bowie retrospective at the V&A celebrates the style icon’s influence and examines his influences. Exhibition co-curator Victoria Broackes offers a private view

Long before David Bowie released ‘Where Are We Now?’ out of the blue on  his 66th birthday, we’d decided to call the exhibition David Bowie is. We wanted  to put Bowie firmly in the present tense and explore what he means now, after a career that has lasted more than five decades and is still continuing. He is a pioneer  in music, rock theatre, style, video, gender politics and  the use of the internet and digital downloads to reach out to fans. It’s rare to find  a musician with such a fantastically broad range  of interests and that’s partly what makes him so admired. 

The poster for the exhibition is from the photo session Brian Duffy did with Bowie for the cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane. It’s possibly the most iconic image in rock. On the cover his eyes are closed, but we chose a photo in which he  is staring right out at you.  It’s an image that’s borrowed time and again – among many other such examples, Kate Moss appeared on the cover of British Vogue in May 2003 with an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across her face. 

Bowie himself has had  no involvement with the exhibition, but he gave us unprecedented access to the David Bowie Archive to curate the first international retrospective of his career. We have chosen more than 300 objects from the archive, which include lyrics, ideas scrawled on the back of cigarette packets, his own storyboards for music videos and films, the footage itself, set designs, photography  and original costume. 

The costumes, which most people have only seen at a distance on film or stage,  are breathtaking. They include the Ziggy Stardust suit designed by Freddie Burretti and worn for Bowie’s performance of  ‘Starman’  on Top of the Pops in 1972,  as well as the Union Jack  coat Alexander McQueen designed in 1997 for the Earthling album cover and tour. We want to show  not only how Bowie has influenced fashion through his personal style, but also how he has spotted and championed upcoming design talent. 

He saw the work of Kansai Yamamoto [no relation to Yohji] when it  was first shown in London  in 1971, but couldn’t afford  the original designs, so  asked Burretti and Natasha Korniloff to create their own inspired versions. A few years later, after the success of Ziggy Stardust, Yamamoto himself designed a set of stage costumes for the Aladdin Sane tour, which are also on display in the exhibition. 

We could have put together a rather good exhibition around just that 1972 Top of the Pops appearance. Bowie’s vivid, outlandish appearance and daring stage-play sent out a message of individualism, that you can be whomever  you want to be. It changed the lives of such a broad demographic of people: not only gay teenagers sitting in their bedrooms wondering why they had to hide away, but anybody interested in style or  who was a music  fan or felt themselves to be a little bit quirky or different. Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art and Central Saint Martins, was an adolescent superfan listening to Bowie in his bedroom in Wiltshire in the Seventies. In the exhibition, we display his scrapbooks and a version  of a painting he did of Bowie that he sent to Bowie’s mother. She liked it so much, she put it above the fireplace. 

For me, one of the real highlights of the exhibition  is the stage model from the Diamond Dogs tour of 1974. The set was informed by George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, William Burroughs’ avant-garde novel The Wild Boys: a Book of the Dead and Fritz Lang’s expressionist film Metropolis. Bowie really wanted to stage a musical  of  Nineteen Eighty-Four and fully expected it to happen – he was at the stage where  he could pretty much do anything he liked – but Orwell’s widow refused permission. History doesn’t relate exactly why, but reportedly it was connected to the 1954 live BBC TV adaptation, which was so frightening someone supposedly died from shock while watching it.

He couldn’t make his musical, so he turned it  into the stage show of Diamond Dogs. It was the most ambitious theatrical rock show ever staged.  Bowie, who had been on  the verge of pursuing a  career in theatre in the Sixties, pulled in collaborators in a way that hadn’t been done before. The show was stunning, albeit logistically  a total nightmare. In fact, half the set was ditched before the tour ended, but rock shows were never quite the same again.

The exhibition is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. But it does kick off in post-war London, which we see as the landscape of Bowie’s imagination.  We chose photos of him in his first bands and a green jacket he’d decorated with hand-drawn felt-tip stripes. We found some early radio interviews in which  he sounded really earnest  and thoughtful about what he wanted to do. He was ambitious, but, of course,  he could not possibly have predicted the sustained influence he would have. 

It was fantastically hard  to settle on 300-odd objects. The David Bowie Archive offers almost infinite opportunity for an exhibition. For an artist who has always been forward-looking –  with the exception of ‘Where Are We Now?’, which is a lovely, reflective song –  he had the prescience to hang on to all those scrawled-on cigarette packets and sketched storyboards. It’s our great luck and joy that the story is there to tell. We just had to find a way of telling it.

Coming of Age

Amy Raphael looks at how, In an ever-changing market, today’s star artists are being given a run for their money by the Old Masters

Peggy Guggenheim met Samuel Beckett in Paris on Boxing Day, 1939, at a dinner thrown by Beckett’s employer, James Joyce. That night, Guggenheim reportedly took Beckett back to her apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where the wealthy socialite and the young, avant-garde writer  spent 12 days together. There was much talk of art: Guggenheim had started collecting the previous year  and her great love was the Old Masters. But her new friend had other ideas. ‘Beckett told me one had to accept the art of one’s day, as it was a living thing,’ she recorded in her memoirs.

Guggenheim started to collect modern artists instead of her beloved Old Masters and, of course, her name has since become synonymous with contemporary art. For at least the  past decade, the art world has all too readily been embracing Beckett’s belief that one has to accept – some might say, even hype up – the art  of one’s day. World sales records are constantly being broken. In November last year, Jeff Koons’ ‘Balloon Dog (Orange)’ sold at Christie’s in New York for $58.4m – $3.4m above its estimate. It became the most expensive work by a living artist to be sold at auction. 

Despite such inflated prices, there is no sign that the market  for contemporary  art is about to crash and burn. And yet the Old Masters are making a comeback in a way that would most certainly have pleased Guggenheim, were she still alive. In July this year, the Old Master & British Paintings Evening Sale at Sotheby’s soared past its estimated total to reach an impressive £68.3m, the highest figure ever recorded for such a sale at the London auction house. And the shift isn’t just occurring in the British capital, either; earlier in 2014, the Christie’s  Old Masters Week in New York achieved a grand total of $68m.

The tide has been turning for  a while now. In 2011, works by the Renaissance master Tintoretto were shown in the official main exhibition  at the hyper-contemporary Venice Biennale. In London that same year, Grayson Perry became the first contemporary artist to curate a show at the British Museum – an installation of his own works alongside objects made by unknown men and women throughout history from its collection. Meanwhile, in January 2012, Koons gave a talk on medieval woodcarving at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.  

In October 2012, the Frieze Art Fair, held annually in Regent’s Park in London, launched a new event: Frieze Masters. Frieze London has long had the Kitemark of cool. Widely accepted as one of the leading contemporary-art showcases, both its London and New York fairs attract the most powerful people in the art world, ergo, if even Frieze is embracing this market, then it’s official: old is cool again.

The genius of Frieze Masters is to place the old alongside the new, in  a contemporary setting. ‘We show only art, not furniture, jewellery or antiques, as was once the norm when displaying Old Masters,’ explains Victoria Siddall, director of Frieze Masters. ‘You can see a 7,000-year-old idol next to a medieval sculpture, which, in turn, is next to an 18th-century sculpture next to a Donald Judd, so you can see how sculpture developed through history.’

Frieze has also been successful in bringing together contemporary artists and museums through its Frieze Talks series. ‘We did one recently in New York with Ed Ruscha and Ian Wardropper, director of the Frick Collection,’ says Siddall. ‘You wouldn’t expect someone like Ruscha [who is associated with the Pop Art movement] to have a strong relationship with  the Old Masters, yet he was talking about Giovanni Bellini, Hans Memling, Hans Holbein and Édouard Manet.’

Alistair Hicks, art advisor to Deutsche Bank, the main sponsor of Frieze Masters, is usually preoccupied with late 20th-century and early 21st-century works, but is unequivocal about the importance of Frieze Masters. ‘Most of the artists I’m fascinated with have an extraordinary relationship with older art. When you hear artists talk about their influences, you rarely hear them talk about their peers; instead, they are completely fascinated by what came before them. Indeed, some of the best art libraries are to be found in their houses.  You won’t find many contemporary artists who don’t enjoy going round Frieze Masters.’

Most art-related stories in recent years have tended to focus on, let’s say, Damien Hirst generating more than £111m in his 2008 Sotheby’s sale. But Old Masters make news, too.  The headline sale of last year’s Frieze Masters was ‘The Census at Bethlehem’ by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, which went for $9.6m. Johnny Van Haeften, one of London’s most respected dealers in this market, discovered the painting in East Africa. ‘It’s every dealer’s Holy Grail to find something of this calibre and it will be a hard  act to follow. It’s certainly the greatest discovery of my lifetime. At the moment, I don’t have anything to show at Frieze Masters this year to equal  it, but you never know.’

Van Haeften insists public perception of older art is changing. ‘People are beginning to understand that Old Masters aren’t dark, dreary, yellow, unvarnished pictures. They  can be vibrant, colourful and exciting. Many have hidden meanings and symbolism. Brueghels are very popular right now because they’re such fun. Someone who’s made a lot of money may want to own a Damien Hirst or  an Andy Warhol to show they have  real money and they’ve arrived, but  to show style, sophistication, elegance and culture, you really need at least one Old Master.’ 

He has just lent a few Old Masters to an estate agent selling  a classic, stucco-fronted house in Grosvenor Crescent. ‘The agent didn’t want to sell the house empty. The paintings were hung in a contemporary way: in the dining room, one wall is covered by a mirror and a large, opulent still life has been hung on the wall opposite. It looks sensational.’ 

Old Masters may be rising steadily in value, but they still represent excellent value for money. As Van Haeften points out, you could buy Andy Warhol’s ‘Turquoise Marilyn’  for $80m or you could use the same money to buy a Brueghel, a Canaletto and a Rembrandt, even, and still  have money to spare. An entire house can be decorated with good-quality Old Masters for £10m. Alexander Bell, co-chairman worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department, says you could even buy ‘a really  lovely Old Master for tens of thousands of pounds’.

Bell remembers that, when he joined Sotheby’s in 1986, he thought the very small contemporary-art department was rather ‘sweet’. How things have changed — and are changing yet again. ‘If you look at first-time bidders in our sales this year, the contemporary-art market had the most, with 2,000, but Old Masters did well, with 900. We’re really not that  far behind. Buyers are far more catholic than they used to be and will now buy contemporary art and Old Masters.’ 

Sotheby’s used to hang its Old Masters — as did most auction houses — densely, on a dark red or dark blue background and alongside decorative arts. The palette has now changed  to greys, the decorative arts have  been ditched and the paintings have room to breathe. ‘People feel more comfortable with the new presentation – it’s likely that it’s not that different from their own home,’ says Bell. ‘Among the pictures that perform  best in today’s market are those that have the strongest, simplest images. Work by artists such as Lucas Cranach the Elder, Rubens and van Dyck do particularly well.’

The issue with Old Masters will always be supply and demand. With living artists, of course, supply is not an issue. It’s not really an issue with Brueghel the Younger either, because he was so prolific. But as Van Haeften puts it, ‘the supply of Old Masters is finite’. Perhaps, then, it’s never been  a better time to invest. 

Jonathan Green, the deputy executive chairman of Richard Green, a family business with two galleries  on New Bond Street, says important pieces of art will always fetch extraordinary prices, regardless of genre. ‘Evidence from the fair at Maastricht and from the Sotheby’s  and Christie’s auctions this summer seems to support the idea that Old Masters by big names that are in  mint condition have never been more popular,’ he says, adding: ‘The cream  is certainly rising to the top.’

Green’s advice for first-time buyers of Old Masters is simple: ‘If money is no object, start at the top.  However, if the budget is more limited, there are many opportunities to buy good works by less celebrated Dutch artists at very reasonable prices.  Italian vedute [large-scale landscape paintings] by artists other than Guardi, Canaletto and Marieschi are a good buy, as the Italian market has been very subdued over recent years.’

This isn’t a seismic shift in the art landscape – more an acknowledgement that without the old, there would be  no new. As Frieze Masters has proved, the worlds of contemporary and historic art are finally turning to face each other, following years of self-consciously ignoring one another. After all, today’s artists might one day be Old Masters themselves.