For the first time in over three centuries of trading, London store Fortnum & Mason is hosting a museum-worthy exhibition, a showcase of modern and contemporary British art, mined from the collection of ebullient collector Frank Cohen.
Sometimes dubbed the ‘Saatchi of the north’ or the ‘Manchester Medici’, Cohen’s colourful press cuttings have sometimes obscured the fact that his is one of the pre-eminent collections of British art. For over 30 years he has worked with Robert Upstone, a former senior curator at the Tate, to select key works by a range of artists from Howard Hodgkin to Tracey Emin. Now the pair have made a selection of his works to scatter around the store: in the basement dining area sits a piece by the Chapman Brothers, in the fifth floor corridor and entrance is a Paula Rego and an Edward Burra. How did they settle on such an unpredictable format for the exhibition?
‘As a curator, it’s a fascinating challenge. It’s a working space with so much going on. There’s a great synergy between the artworks, the objects for sale and the environment,’ says Upstone. ‘This is probably the first time that a major art exhibition has been staged within such a special, opulent, stylish environment that is still, nevertheless, a shop.’
It’s certainly unusual for a retailer to put this amount of room aside for a project that reaps no immediate profit, and speaks volumes about the unconventional approach to retail under the watch of Ewan Venters. The store’s CEO of four years, he guided Fortnum’s to its first double-digit growth in centuries: his strategy has been to reposition the store as an institution for London residents, rather than just a tourist attraction.
Venters is particularly keen to stress Fortnum’s longstanding commitment to the arts, and its open-door policy for visitors who want to come and see the exhibition for free. ‘Of course, don’t get me wrong, we’ll be very happy, when they’re here, to sell them a pot of tea and a box of chocolates,’ Venters notes.
As far as locations go, it’s unparalleled, nestled in the heartland of St James’s commercial galleries and auction houses, and directly opposite the Royal Academy. ‘Fortnum’s is a very British institution, so it had to be the best of British art,’ says Cohen. ‘I’ve been collecting modern British art since 1978.
‘People have really started to appreciate modern British art again,’ he continues. ‘They’re realising that Auerbach, Kossoff, Bridget Riley – and especially Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and David Hockney, who are out of my reach money-wise – are a big deal. If you look at the auction market, you can see in the past ten to 12 years a rise in prices. I think that’s due to a wider base of critical understanding and appreciation of our native artists. I think there’s always been a slightly British restraint, a reluctance to be too vocal about how great our own artists are.’
While Cohen might cut an eccentric figure, with his shaggy hair and oddball glasses (one lens frame round, the other square), the collection itself betrays an intellectual rigour, offering a remarkably comprehensive survey of 20th-century British art. The hope is the exhibition will not appeal just to Fortnum’s existing customer base, but to a new and younger art-going audience. In Upstone’s words, ‘The Auerbach in the front window of the store was painted in summer 1968, looking down across London from Primrose Hill and witnessing this explosion of colour. It’s about the past, yes, but it’s also about our understanding of the city today.’
The timing of the exhibition to coincide with the annual influx of the international art crowd for Frieze Art Fair and the October auctions is equally shrewd. Cohen says, ‘We hope it’s going to create a rumble in the jungle.’ Could it be the beginning of an ongoing series? He hesitates: ‘This is not something I do regularly. It has to be the right sort of environment. The only time I’ve done something like this before was at Chatsworth House; now it’s Fortnum & Mason. You couldn’t get two better institutions if you tried. Where do I go from here?’ Cohen pauses for thought, then grins mischievously. ‘Buckingham Palace?’