- The story so far
- I'm an arts journalist & PR consultant living and working in Scotland. I've been a journalist for more than 25 years. I write a regular column for Scottish quality newspaper, The Herald. I deliver a PR service with an arty bent and work on a consultancy basis with arts organisations, including Scotland's leading creative industries festival, XpoNorth & broadcast support body, ScreenHI. I am currently co-writing a book about the celebrated Scots artist, George Wyllie, with his daughter Louise. Instrumental in making a celebration of his life's work happen in 2012. For more information, see www.georgewyllie.com When I'm not being a mum/working, I talk to my dog. He laps it up. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org (All work © Jan Patience)
Wednesday, 7 October 2009
The Portal Gallery @ 50: Published in The Herald ABC section, March 2009
I've got to know Heather Nevay, one of The Portal Gallery's stable of fine phantasmagorical artists in the last couple of years. Despite the slightly menacing subject matter in her paintings, Heather is a great laugh and we were both slightly over-excited when, during the Glasgow Art Fair this year, Portal Gallery head gel, Jess, asked us to dinner with the Portal art fair team and John Byrne.
John Byrne is a Scottish icon and polymath with knobs on and I am ever-so-slightly in awe of him. I sat next to the great man and his partner Janine at dinner though and was surprised at how quietly-spoken and almost shy he appears to be.
Dinner table chat was great and had one of these 'can this be true?' moments when I found myself asking Janine: 'So how do you and Tilda mange the childcare then?' Had had a couple of glasses of red wine by then...
He has amazing charisma though, not to mention the sartorial elegance that one can only dream about achieving for oneself. Not many men nudging 70 could carry off baggy denims with text on them. Great to watch him saunter out into the street to catch the last train to Edinburgh and heads swivelling as one in his direction.
Once upon a time, in the soon-to-be swinging London of the 1960s, two old friends called Eric Lister and Lionel Levy hatched a loose business plan over a few long lunches in Soho.
The two men, likely lads about town who both hailed from the north of England, decided they’d start up an art gallery in the heart of London selling quirky figurative and genuinely naïve paintings. In other words, they’d sell they kind of paintings they liked, regardless of fashion.
Fast-forward 50 years and their gallery, the Portal is a fully-fledged idiosyncratic British institution which has launched the careers of countless artists who are now household names, including Sir Peter Blake, Patrick Hughes, James Lloyd, Beryl Cook and John Byrne.
The gallery might have garnered a reputation for fostering genuine English eccentrics, but, as a new book brought out to celebrate the their 50th year in business reveals, the Scottish connection at the Portal runs deep. John Byrne first approached Levy and Lister in 1967 masquerading as ‘Patrick’ a Glaswegian newspaper vendor and self-taught ‘primitive’ painter.
His approach was born out of frustration. Following his graduation from Glasgow School of Art in 1963, Byrne had been designing book covers for Penguin and at the same time, trying and failing to have his mainly figurative paintings taken on by London galleries. Having heard of the Portal’s reputation for promoting the work of naïve, self-taught painters, he made up a false identity, based on his own father’s persona.
Says current gallery director Jess Wilder, who has been with the Portal since 1975, “He thought that a Glasgow School of Art trained Prix de Rome scholar would be too sophisticated to show with the Portal.”
Another early Portal ‘find’ from Scotland was Fergus Hall, who created the haunting tarot cards used in the 1973 James Bond movie, Live and Let Die. He was given the commission after Salvador Dali proved too unreliable and too expensive. Hall’s wife, Rosemary Fawcett, also exhibited with the Portal and painted the illustrations for Roald Dahl’s story Dirty Beasts.
Today, contemporary Scottish artists such as James McNaught, Heather Nevay, Whyn Lewis and Peter Thomson are carrying on the mantle of showing finely executed, mainly figurative paintings, lit up by incredible imagination.
The Portal story starts as the 1950s were drawing to a close. Eric Lister and Lionel Levy had been friends since their teens. Levy was originally from Liverpool and had been to art school there, while Mancunian Lister was a classic car dealer.
Their gallery opened on December 8 1959 in a former florists shop on the corner of Grafton Street and Old Bond Street in Mayfair. They didn’t have room for a planned bookshop or café (an idea way ahead of its time), but its stylish frontage could be seen from the shopping Mecca of Bond Street, so the pair sensibly opted for location over space.
It wasn’t long before the Portal, which happened to be en route to a major acting agency, was attracting attention from the great and the good of London life at a time when old mores and values were being cast aside. If London in the 1960s was all about sex and drugs and rock n roll, then this quirky little art gallery was swinging with the best of them.
Among the early exhibitors was legendary pop artist Sir Peter Blake, best known for his design of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album sleeve. Blake first showed his work there in 1960 and went on to hold his first one-man show in 1962. Other early Portal artists included the surrealist George Jardine, who had taught Levy at Liverpool College of Art, and Patrick Hughes, who was to become famous for paintings that played wittily with perspective and who, at the time was just 19 and working as a waiter in Leeds so he could paint through the day.
Just as importantly, the gallery quickly developed a loyal client base, with 1960s legends such as Terence Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, The Beatles and David Bailey all beating a path to its door. Old and new money happily rubbed shoulders together. The Duke of Bedford was an early collector, as was construction magnate Alistair McAlpine.
As current gallery director Jess Wilder relates in her introduction to the lavishly illustrated 50th anniversary book, A Singular Vision, McAlpine was a key customer in the early days.
In just one of many such anecdotes, Wilder relates how McAlpine once came into the gallery for a browse and discovered Lister and Levy unpacking a huge crate of the painter Geoffrey Dance’s work, newly arrived from Australia. “McAlpine, a practical man, walked around the corner to one of his building sites and returned with a couple of burly workmen who made short work of the packing case,” says Wilder.
“As each painting was unpacked, Lord McAlpine bought the entire exhibition, so the show went up with a red dot on every one!”
Such happenings were not a one-off. In 1964, Garfield Weston, the late Canadian biscuit magnate and owner of Fortnum and Mason, loved the paintings in an exhibition by naïve self-taught artist A.W. Chesher so much, he bought them all and gave them to his entire family for Christmas.
The filmmaker Ken Russell, another fan of the Portal, made one of his most memorable Monitor arts programmes for the BBC in 1962 about Chesher. The widely acclaimed Mr Chesher's Traction Engines was an affectionate portrayal of a genuine English eccentric whose work sat very comfortably in the Portal.
Russell went on to make The Dotty World of James Lloyd for Monitor in 1964, which chronicled the world of Lloyd, another self-taught Portal sensation.
The link with their most famous artist, seaside landlady turned painter, Beryl Cook, came about after one of her paintings, The Lockyer Tavern, was featured on the front cover of the Sunday Times magazine. Levy realised at once that she was a ‘Portal’ artist and called her up. Her first solo exhibition took place in 1978 and there would be 18 subsequent exhibitions during her lifetime. Although she died last year, the gallery continues to represent her work.
Over 50 years, the gallery has evolved in a variety of ways although it has preserved the spirit of its founders’ original vision. Sadly, Eric Lister died in 1988, but Lionel Levy – now in his 80s, continues to take a keen interest in the day-to-day running of the gallery, which is now managed by Jess Wilder. Wilder, who has only ever worked at the Portal, was left Lister’s shares in it when he died.
She first stepped foot in the old Grafton Street gallery (they moved to Marylebone two years ago), in December 1975 as a naïve history of art graduate who had pounded the streets of central London looking for a job in a gallery.
“I’d had about 15 rejections in one day and I was beginning to despair,” she recalls. “I walked in to the Portal and was met by Eric, who looked a bit like a cross between Paul Newman and Woody Allen. He asked me if I could type, so I headed home to Henley and borrowed a typewriter from my mum and learned to type overnight!”
Wilder obviously arrived at the right place at the right time. The two men were looking for a bright young thing to look after the day-to-day running of the gallery as both had other business interests.
On her first day, she was left to man the ship as the owners went off for a long lunch. “After two hours, the door burst open and Tony Curtis came in, kissed my hand, had a chat, and left. Suitably staggered, I thought, ‘well if this is the art world, I’m all for it.’
As fashions in the art world have come and gone, the Portal vision has remained steady. Sir Roy Strong described this unique approach as reflecting ‘our flights of weird insular fantasy.’
Nowadays, according to Wilder, nearly all the 25-strong team of Portal artists have been to art school. “But many have often felt out of place and followed their own paths,” she adds. “Genuine naïve painting quickly went out of fashion, becoming self-conscious and formulaic, so the gallery’s style has evolved over the last 30 years towards highly skilful painting and works of astounding imagination.
“Scotland has been a great source of such painting, with artists such as Heather Nevay, Peter Thomson, Whyn Lewis and James McNaught typifying our ‘house style’. There is enormous interest in their work and their solo exhibitions regularly sell out. I think it is less self-conscious than work by English artists, and more European, than British.”
As well as being clear about its USP, Wilder puts the gallery’s longevity down to the fact that the gallery has always lacked pretension, an observation with which Glasgow-based Heather Nevay, who has been with the Portal for 10 years, wholeheartedly agrees.
“They really are very jolly,” she says, “whether you are a customer or an artist, they treat everyone the same.”
It must be the art world… but not as we know it.
A Singular Vision: Fifty Years of British Painting at The Portal Gallery by Laura Gasgcoigne and Jess Wilder will be launched at The Portal Gallery on March 24 and published by Prestel on April 20, priced at £30.
A Singular Vision: Fifty Paintings for Fifty Years opens at The Portal Gallery, 15 New Cavendish Street, London on Wed March 25. For more details, see www.portal-gallery.com