Masterpiece, which closed yesterday, is probably one of the great shopping fairs in the UK. Over 150 exhibitors, from all sorts of disciplines and covering any period from prehistory to the current era, are gathered together in a huge and very upmarket tent in the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. There are two ways of looking at it.
The first, which the organisers naturally wish to promote, is that it is “the unmissable art fair at which visitors can view and buy the finest works of art, design, furniture and jewellery – from antiquity to the present day.”
The other is that this is what you get in a world of negative real interest rates, a lack of transparency in ownership and regulation in this asset class, largely unrestricted global capital flows and an excess of disposable capital and income amongst the international very rich. Both views are true.
Certainly the event doesn’t lack bling! There are champagne bars (£19 for a glass of Laurent-Perrier), restaurants, private rooms for select clients and a general focus on display and spending. Even with the sponsorship of the Royal Bank of Canada, it must be very expensive to exhibit. Indeed if you don’t get free tickets from a friendly exhibitor (I was lucky and thank you David Franses: have a look at our LAW post yesterday for a review of their discoveries) it’s £38 a head to get in.
For some of the smaller and newer exhibitors attendance must be quite a gamble and many looked very tired and slightly concerned by Monday. Some certainly did well and the general quality of the exhibits was very high. That said, there was a slightly Gatsbyesque air to the whole thing and it might well not survive a global downturn or anything like a Corbyn government that might not be totally sympathetic to such rather conspicuous displays of luxury.
No-one however could doubt the quality of the best exhibits. I have chosen to illustrate two I particularly liked. The first, with Ronald Phillips, was an early 18th century lacquer bureau bookcase: everything on this firm’s stand is superb and much really aspires to the condition of sculpture. The second, with Stair Sainty, was a little and very covetable oil sketch of a lion with a goat by Delacroix showing a remarkably free handling of paint, a beautiful sense of light and energy, and great control of tone and colour.
There were many, many other things of equal quality. I’m not absolutely sure that I would have called Masterpiece totally enjoyable; and certainly my preference was for London Art Week. It’s very tiring and ever so slightly over the top, but if it didn’t exist you would have to invent it.