We were at the Masterpiece London fine art fair, but we were puzzling over the 'masterpiece' bit. What makes a masterpiece? It was lucky that Spear's had assembled a crack panel of art-world experts to debate this
We were at the Masterpiece London fine art fair, but we were puzzling over the 'masterpiece' bit. What makes a masterpiece? It was lucky that Spear's had assembled a crack panel of art-world experts to debate this, and even luckier that 70 of London's biggest collectors had turned up to listen at a breakfast at the fair's pop-up Le Caprice. Guests included Lord Browne, Martha Fiennes, the Earl of Dartmouth and Marian Khalili.
The panel, co-chaired by Spear's editor-in-chief William Cash and our art critic Ivan Lindsay, saw David Linley (Linley and Christie's UK), Adrian Hamilton (Duncan Hamilton & Co), art dealer and TV star Philip Mould, Erik Mullendorff (88 Gallery) and Thomas Woodham-Smith (co-founder and chairman of Masterpiece London) discuss items they thought were masterpieces.
William Cash's introduction mentioned the Connolly quotation which inspired the debate: 'The more we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.' He also brought in Kenneth Clark, who thought a masterpiece 'a confluence of memories and emotions forming a single idea', stressing the subjective approach. What is the role of price? Can a masterpiece only be appreciated in time? And is it an overused word?
Ivan Lindsay, who chose two Rembrandt portraits, emphasised the impossibility of describing the qualities of a masterpiece in words, suggesting that speechlessness was as good a guide as any. He also thought that limited production helped, although choices by other panellists included items produced in greater numbers.
Philip Mould, who has been tracking down van Dycks in attics and Rembrandts on eBay, was reticent to use the word 'masterpiece', calling it 'dangerously anodyne, almost awkward'. He traced it back to its original usage, which meant a work that had you admitted to a guild of artists or craftsmen, meaning a masterpiece was something which your peers recognised in your own lifetime.
Van Dyck self-portrait, chosen by Philip Mould
Thomas Woodham-Smith, who co-founded Masterpiece, one of the nicest art fairs Spear's has been to, with luxurious booths and a pop-up Harry's Bar, felt that the subjective aspect was key: it has to have 'a personal, emotional, subjective element'. He contrasted this with the Waverly Criteria, which the government uses to assess whether artworks should be kept in Britain and are thus more 'objective'. His choices were all objects, including an amber cabinet and a rope armchair by Fournier, whose craftsmanship and unusual origins made them masterpieces.
David Linley's choice was eclectic, yet all were 'timeless' and possessed 'grace': the Badminton Cabinet, Stubbs' Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath (on the block for £20-30 million at Christie's soon) and Marc Newson's bulbous Alu Flet chair. It was the detail put into the pieces, the 'strike of brilliance', which made them masterpieces. Linley also defended the place of furniture in the fine art hierarchy, saying it was 'design and art and craft pulled together'. Two of the other panellists challenged his selection of the Newson chair, saying it was too early to tell.
Stubbs, Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath (1765)
Erik Mullendorf said he had rejected his original masterpieces to be talked about because a visitor to his stand said he didn't understand any of the objects there. After this crisis of confidence, he picked a table covered in fragments of jade, which, when looked at from above, seem to coalesce into a pastoral scene. He stressed the unusualness of the item but also its timeless nature.
Finally, Adrian Hamilton, who deals in classic cars, picked a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO in pale green (pictured left); only 37 of these were made, he said, and this one was worth $30 million, partly because it has been driven by a legendary racing driver. He emphasised both provenance and investment potential as masterpiece-makers, two factors no other panellist had suggested.
One of the questions from the floor challenged the idea that provenance was important. What about art that had been looted by the Nazis – was that any less of a masterpiece? Ivan Lindsay replied: 'Provenance is greatly overused. When it's no good on its own, people try and support it with provenance.'
Philip Mould countered that Princess Diana's dresses were more expensive because of who had owned them, in line with his argument that 'in an art world which has no rules any more … money is quite a useful yardstick'. There was not much assent to this rather mercantile proposition.
What the panel concluded, however, was that subjectivity was the only factor that was common to each masterpiece, from the rope chair to the equine scene to the fast car. Most of the panel felt that masterpieces couldn't be appreciated in their time, yet needed to have a timeless quality. And then it was time for breakfast.
Masterpiece London runs until Sunday 5 July 2011