WORKING FROM HOME. Ivor Braka is an art dealer and collector who works privately from his home in London rather than a gallery. For many years he has also been involved in the restoration of Gunton Park in North Norfolk, where he now owns and runs two celebrated pubs.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Ivor Braka, what is your family background?
My grandmother, Shafica, was born in Damascus, and at age 13 she broke off her engagement to a Muslim neighbour and married Isaac Braka, who was from a village called Aley, in the hills above Beirut. They came to England in 1919 in a boat via Marseilles. My father was the first of Grandma Braka’s children to be born in Manchester. One of 13 children, he was brought up with Arabic as his first language and, to an extent, culture. This Jewish side of the family had a clannish mentality; my grandma used to say to me, “Why do you want Christian friends, why don’t you play with your cousins?”
How would you describe your upbringing?
I had a freethinking, liberal, loving mother, who was not Jewish and an atheist. My mother let me do absolutely what I wanted, whereas my father would have liked to keep me much more in the home. I liked to live outside, riding my bike, playing in the woods, and potholing down the copper mines – because we moved out of Manchester to the country near Alderley Edge as soon as we could afford it. From age 6, I was brought up in a rural idyll with a lot of freedom.
“I was close to Lucian Freud and I used to see him regularly”
Ivor Braka, what kind of example was your father to you?
He set an ambiguous example. For instance, he was extremely generous, even buying houses for waiters he has befriended in hotels he stayed in. He helped my cousins financially, was devoted to his mother and father, and was the effective head of the Jewish side of my family. He loved tennis. He was funny and eccentric. On the downside, he was a womaniser, albeit a shy one and I now realise how my mother must have suffered.
What did you do when you discovered this?
I shocked my father by showing no signs of judgement of him. I said, “Dad, that’s understandable, you married someone so different from you”. My mother did not like or feel comfortable with the closeness of the Sephardi side of Dad’s family, the way they were exclusive and stuck together. She always felt an outsider, being passionate about animals and the natural world, and felt my father’s family were mainly interested in family, children, clothes, and money – things in which she had little interest.
Did he want you to join his business?
Yes, but I didn’t want to stay in Manchester and work for him in textiles. He was broad-minded enough to allow me to go to choose to go to a boarding school, Oundle in Northamptonshire, at age 13 (him thinking nonetheless that it would be a den of homosexuality and sadism). Education was my only way out of that closed environment and I loved Oundle because the teaching was of such a high level. If I’d stayed at home with my parents I would have been out every night with girls, going to movies and night clubs like the one my cousin owned, The Twisted Wheel in Manchester; and I would never have got into Oxford.
Which Oxford college did you go to?
I went to Pembroke, Dr Johnson’s old college, to read English. Coming from my background, Oxford was a huge deal for me and I was surprised when I heard I’d passed the entrance exam. My mother loved reading, but apart from a couple of history books my father never read. The reason was not lack of education; he was manic-depressive and identified too closely with the characters in novels. He read Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure”, which he loved, but it gave him a nervous breakdown. I didn’t inherit his sensitive sensibility!
What was Oxford like in the early 70s?
Most of those around me were trying to be upper class gentleman like the character Sebastian Flyte in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, and I was trying to be Alice Cooper, a rock star, so there was a disjuncture between my image and theirs. I was going out with an older woman of nearly 40, a divorcee who has a cottage in Wiltshire where I used to spend every weekend, so I missed out on a lot of the social life at Oxford. I enjoyed the academic life there, but Oxford left you to your own devices. They just said, “Go and read Jane Austen and then come to a tutorial in two weeks.” Your teachers were interested in their own research. They weren’t really interested in the students.
What period of English literature particularly interested you?
Jacobean revenge drama, especially John Webster, who wrote “The Duchess of Malfi” and “The White Devil”, both plays with a high level of violence and psychological realism. In his critical essays TS Eliot single-handedly resuscitated this period from 1600 to 1612. People had been focussing on the Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and even the Augustan Age, Alexander Pope; but the Elizabethan dramatists and the Metaphysical poets like John Donne were neglected until Eliot.
Why did you become an art dealer, not a poet or a writer?
I wanted to become an English teacher and knew my faculties were better towards being a critic than a creator. But I became an art dealer because of sheer chance. This goes back to before I was born, when my father happened to be playing tennis at the Northern Lawn Tennis Club in Manchester. On the next court was this incredibly good player, who turned out to be a Jewish Hungarian refugee called Andras Kalman. My father asked Kalman for a tennis lesson and they became best friends. Kalman was sophisticated and well-read and he encouraged my father to open an art gallery in Manchester. He became in later years in some ways more of a father to me than my own father, because he was much more open-minded and less judging of my long hair and makeup. He suggested I do the Sotheby’s course on leaving Oxford. So tennis is the reason I’m an art dealer.
“I tried to buy the best, sometimes paying auction records”
Ivor Braka, how were you able to become an independent art dealer?
My father set up a bank loan with Trade Development Bank, (that later became American Express Bank), founded by Edmond Safra, with whom my Uncle David in New York – was connected. The loan was £30,000 and I had no clients. I just had a beautiful two-bedroom flat in Pont Street which my father bought me from an ex-girlfriend.
In fact he was not such a bad father?
No, in many respects he was a good father. He was generous and consistently gave me a lot of financial support during his lifetime. He steadily let me have capital as he saw that my business was doing well but needed more capital to buy pictures. He was tremendous like that. It was only that he called me a “pansy” because I had long hair and he was worried I was homosexual!
Were you buying works by artists who later became famous?
The curious thing is they were already famous. When I was 24 years old I didn’t understand how I could be buying Stanley Spencer, Edward Wadsworth, Walter Sickert, or Bridget Riley or Lucian Freud for £4,000 or £5,000 – even Francis Bacon for £26,000 I remember. There wasn’t an art market like there is today. Art wasn’t an investment vehicle, and prices stayed stable until the 90s.
Did you want to have a gallery?
No. I don’t like the idea of working for hours and hours every day. It’s not the way I would ever like to operate. This became very clear when Anthony d’Offay, who I admired more than anybody else professionally, wanted to start Number 23, the modern art gallery which changed London because it was bringing international artists that had never been shown, especially German artists like Beuys. He invited me to his gallery and said, “Ivor, I just want to plant a seed in your brain and hope that it grows. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do this together and you could be my partner in this venture?” I knew that Anthony’s work ethic was very different from mine. I do work hard but in my own way. I was happy to take clients to dinner and sell them pictures at midnight, but I couldn’t bear the idea of getting into an office at 9am and leaving at 6 or 7, and so I said, “I’m sorry Anthony, it’s not going to work.” I turned down a huge opportunity to be part of probably the most exciting commercial venture in art in London that we’ve seen since the war.
You continued your own private business?
I stayed working alone but began to realise the importance of having close ties with colleagues. When I was briefly working at Crane Kalman Gallery for my father’s old partner, I was lucky to meet a woman who bought for the Midland Bank, mostly Lowrys from Kalman and Seagos from John Erle-Drax at the Marlborough Gallery. She introduced me to John and it changed my career, in that he encouraged me to move into dealing in more international art and not mostly British.
Were you also buying pictures?
My father allowed me to buy my first expensive painting for him to hold as an investment, a Fernand Léger for £65,000. I had overheard my friend Alex Apsis in conversation with someone at the auction viewing, saying the Leger was the best painting in the sale. I looked at it again and thought “He’s right”, and I bought it at the auction. A few years later I bought my father a Mondrian at Christie’s New York, encouraged by Annely Juda, for $300,000. I later sold it to Ernst Beyeler in Basel for around a million dollars. The same picture sold recently at auction for $38 million.
What was your way of working?
I tried to buy the best, sometimes paying auction records for certain artists, such as Stanley Spencer and Francis Bacon. I worked from home, with an unconventional interior for contemporary art, in that it had 19th century furnishings and a colourful Victorian gothic atmosphere, not a white cube.
Ivor at work in the late 70s at 34 Pont Street, London.
Image courtesy of Ivor Braka
Ivor Braka at his London home in the 1990s with David Hockney’s The Room, Tarzana 1967.
Photo Homer Sykes
Ivor Braka at his London home in the 1990s
Photo Homer Sykes
“I have had a lifetime project restoring a historic landscape in Norfolk”
Ivor Braka, were you selling your pictures?
Yes, I usually owned the stock but some things I had on consignment. I was careful, and still am, of colleagues who have galleries, not to abuse the privilege of being given access to things by the dealers with whom I am friends. In the art business the key is not selling. The key is being able to buy the right thing, and to do this you’ve got to adhere to certain unspoken rules. You don’t (or shouldn’t) buy a picture from a colleague and then quickly put it into auction and double your money.
Did you also buy direct from artists?
No, because all the good artists had exclusive rights and contracts. I’ve never made it my business to get to know artists. A lot of collectors now seem addicted to knowing the personalities behind who does the work. I am not one of those.
Were you friendly with certain artists?
I was close to Lucian Freud and I used to see him regularly. I like his assistant David Dawson very much, and that used to make it also a very easy relationship because we’d meet together at Lucian’s house. Bridget Riley is another artist I hugely admire and am friendly with. There are younger artists, such as Glenn Brown, Caragh Thuring, Anya Gallaccio, Tracey Emin – but I am not going to go on and give a list!
Were you able to keep paintings when they increased in value?
When paintings reached a certain price threshold, around $1 million or $2 million, I felt that selling would make a material difference to my life. I have had a lifetime project restoring a historic landscape in Norfolk and most of the money I have made through art dealing has gone into this and it has prevented me from being able to have a great art collection. The artworks I do keep are Christopher Dresser metalwork, 19th century architect designed furniture and textiles, and some Modern British paintings by artists like Edward Wadsworth, Wyndham Lewis and Sickert. I am happy when art in my collection doesn’t appreciate in value because then I’m not tempted to sell it!
You live in London but have also made a life in Norfolk, restoring Gunton Park’s 1,200 acres of parkland and garden?
Yes. Which is insane on one level, but the 18th century designed landscape of the English park, along with the parish church, is one of England’s unique contributions to art history, outside of architecture, painting and sculpture. Equally important is the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees and keeping an area of grassland in a county largely given over to intensive arable farming. Gunton Park has been my life’s work since 1986.
You also own two Norfolk pubs, the Gunton Arms and the Suffield Arms?
Pubs are meeting places and offer solace, companionship and fun in what’s become in some ways a depressingly impersonal and technology-driven world. The internet and social media have paradoxically increased feelings of loneliness and alienation, rather than connection with other people.
Do you run the pubs?
I am closely involved, but not every day. Luckily I took the advice of Mark Hix, former head chef of Le Caprice, J. Sheekey, and The Ivy, and Hix Oyster & Chop among others. Mark effectively gave me his head chef Stuart Tattersall and Simone, Stuart’s partner, to take on my first pub, The Gunton Arms. They had wanted to start their own pub in the country but decided under Mark’s encouragement to join me. The Gunton Arms is popular and won the Michelin Pub of the Year in 2013, the year it opened.
Isn’t a pub a place where people go to have a drink and a sandwich rather than a restaurant?
We’ve found that it can be both. It really is a local and I make sure locals get priority. You can have curry and chips, or a venison sausage roll, or a fish and chip sandwich, or a salt beef sandwich, in the bar for £3.50. Or you can go to the restaurant and spend £50 on a rib of beef or Cromer lobster, with Château Margaux or a good white Burgundy. I first witnessed what could be seen as this schizoid element working effectively in the Auberge de la Môle, a restaurant near Saint-Tropez, where workers from the vineyards drink wine and eat olives in the bar, and then you had Jacques Chirac and Sophia Loren in the restaurant at the back.
Soon you will move into a new house in London, but can you still be a successful private art dealer in today’s world?
I don’t think what I’m doing is viable today in the same way as it was 30 years ago, when an art dealer such as James Kirkman could represent an artist like Lucian Freud whilst working solely from home. Clients today would far rather buy from an established gallery such as David Zwirner, Larry Gagosian, Thomas Dane, Pace, or Per Skarstedt. Many galleries, such as Hauser and Wirth, have developed the status of a brand, and many clients feel more comfortable buying from them than they would from a one-man-band. Then there are brilliant independent dealers with public spaces, such as Sadie Coles and Thomas Dane, who concentrate on looking after their artists and ensuring their careers are handled in the right way. I am lucky in that I started dealing quite a long time ago and have wonderful colleagues and contacts both with museums, and artists and galleries, but I don’t think I would recommend doing things my way now.
Ivor Braka, thank you very much.
All images courtesy of Ivor Braka.
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