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Some of the most imaginative exhibitions of the last twenty years have been created by a man you have most likely never heard of...

Text: MIke von Joel | Images: Various

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The night of 2 November 2010, James Mayor Gallery, Cork Street. The oldest gallery on the strip is hectic and overflowing out onto the pavement with art-niks – the talk is excited nostalgia. What is causing this anti-recession enthusiasm? It’s nothing more than a collection of fifty-year-old grainy black and white photographs. But this is a James Birch exhibition, and the subject is Christine Keeler – the girl who sank Macmillan’s Conservative Government and changed British politics for ever.

‘I first came across Christine Keeler in the early 1990’s, through Kate Bernard. She had a copy of that (now famous) Lewis Morley photograph of herself sitting backwards in a chair which she wanted to sell. Later, I went to Australia and actually met with Morley who prints them up continuously and he had given Christine some. Barry Miles had something interestingto say about this image in the catalogue intro (1). 

‘Over the years Christine would get in touch to say she had “another one” and could I sell that for her too. Then she had a lot of pictures of herself that she also wanted to sell. Keeler was not interested in the limelight, she simply needed the money. Back then I was actually busy on a show of Gilbert & George in China, so didn’t really respond. But after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, which lasted 17 years, it finally happened in 2010. I was going to do the exhibition with Christine, but in the end I had to buy the photographs myself. All the pictures in the Mayor Gallery had belonged to her except the Duffy prints. I would say 60% were exhibited, but remember, the rest were pretty mundane and not of any historical or archive interest. The copyright issues were a complete nightmare too; I needed a specialist lawyer – not cheap – and even her lawyer got on to me about something we said. We called her a kind and amusing woman – she is – but somehow it got misinterpreted. 

‘James Mayor was fantastic. We three were going to do it together initially, but when I ended up buying the material myself, James [Mayor] was still up for it. It had to be in Cork Street. Malcolm McLaren said to me at the time: “put a bit here, a bit in the East End, a bit there” – that would not have worked. The younger generations might never have heard of Christine Keeler, but mention the chair image and they are right there..!’

One of the highlights of the exhibition was a small colour shot of Keeler in a swimsuit at Bill Astor’s house party...‘... it is incredible to think that it is by John Profumo himself and of Christine and it’s by the pool at Cliveden. I warned her there was going to be lots of publicity around the exhibition; she’d already said she wouldn’t attend the private view. But Christine didn’t realise just how much fuss there was going to be.’

James Birch was born in London to creative parents – one of those fortunate baby boomers who seem to have surfed life on the crest of a wave of endless possibilities...

‘I was born in Primrose Hill, still a bit of a bomb site in those days. My parents were both artists and I had an older brother and a sister – who is also in the art world. I suppose we were what was then called “well off”. I never went to art school, I wish I had, but I did study art history at Aix-en-Provence before my father’s contacts got me a job, in the Old Masters department of Christie's in London. I’d always known this was a practical option – my brother had worked there previously. At the time I suppose I was on the same level as Henry Wyndham (laughs). However, sadly it was all about money and value. I spoke toa senior guy called Paul Whitfield who agreed that Christie’s needed a 1950’s department. I did give this a try down at South Ken, but there was no internal support for it so I decided to leave – and I always did want my own gallery.

‘After a “gap year” off, I came back desperate to get going and by a fluke found a shop near where I then lived, on the “S-bend” at the end of King’s Road. Paul [Conran] came in one day and we duly collaborated on a John Banting exhibition in 1983, then John Nash, and the rest is history. We actually gave Grayson Perry his first show (1984). Once we felt we had built a reputation, we borrowed money from a bank to go in to Soho, opening Birch & Conran in 1987 with the acclaimed British Pop Art exhibition.

‘I arrived in the art world at the beginning of the 1980’s. It was still possible then to buy something at auction and sell it the next week for double the price. In Dean Street, right next to the Groucho Club, half of our clientele were people going to or coming from the club. It was a Paul Raymond property but we had to close at the 1990 rent hikes, there were no discount deals with The Porn King of Soho – we even had lunch with him to see! Running a gallery is very hard work. I would definitely not have another gallery today...’

James Birch turned to curating exhibitions with all his customary flair and originality. His first was a project that would have daunted even an official agency with a healthy budget to spend – a difficult British painter and the equally difficult Soviet Union.

‘In about 1985, I went to a party held by Sonia Melchett’s daughter. My original plan had been to take a selection of young artists to New York, but someone I met there, called Bob Chenciner, persuaded me Moscow was a better bet – and gave me a contact at UNESCO in Paris. This turned out to be Sergei Klokov, who had a sort of czarist look about him (laughs). Off we went for lunch and he turned up with another guy and a stunning girl called Elena (I’m paying, so of course he roped in all his friends). During this meal, Sergei gave me the correct procedure to deal with Moscow whilst Elena kept reappearing every ten minutes in a different outfit. It wasn’t quite a swimsuit for dessert, but I suddenly realised she was a fashion designer and trying to impress me with her stuff so I’d bring her out [of Russia].

‘Well, I wrote off and heard nothing, of course, but months later I get a call to go to Moscow immediately. Well, you cannot just go on your own, you have to be in a delegation. Luckily, Bob was going for some reason and a couple of guys doing something for National Geographic, so we formed a little unit. I checked out some venues in Moscow but quickly realised no one was going to pay for ten young artists to exhibit there. Even the £60-a-night hotel (no black market for roubles) was a financial strain back then. I discussed this with Klokov who said his own preference would be firstly, Andy Warhol, then Francis Bacon (2).

 ‘On my return home I asked Fred Hughes about it, but he said Andy hated flying etc. so no – this precipitated a little pause in the story. Coincidentally, Francis Bacon came into our British Pop Art show in Dean Street so I asked him about Moscow and he agreed. There followed phone calls to Moscow, which took hours in those days, and very formal letters of intent, stuff like that. Bacon was worried Marlborough wouldn’t let it happen because of the anti-Semitic atmosphere in Russia, but that came to nothing. ‘Francis was busy learning Russian on cassette when David Sylvester put his oar in. Bacon had decided Grey Gowrie [Thatcher’s Minister of the Arts] would write the catalogue notes and Sylvester was livid. He promptly began pouring poison in Bacon’s ear, getting him spooked about the trip. When I went round to collect John Edwards – who went as Bacon’s envoy – Francis had his bags all packed and ready to go. I was so annoyed by that whole thing. It was the first major show in Russia by a Westerner since the days of Sergey Schukin.

‘The British Council took me out to lunch and they did actually handle the Bacon shipping, but then pulled the rug out from under my feet. They never even paid for my ticket to the opening. The British Council desperately needed to curry favour with the Russians because they’d previously – I think – been chucked out for spying. In fact, since the YBAs, they have gone on to officially do what I do – did – and that made me somewhat redundant. I did once offer to work with them but got the brush off – of course.’ (Interestingly Gill Hedley, former BC curator, notes on her CV that she ‘organised exhibitions for the British Council, including Francis Bacon in Moscow, 1988’.)

James Birch’s enthusiasm and unique vision remained undaunted. He trumped his Bacon triumph by programming Gilbert & George to Moscow in 1990, and then to Beijing and Shanghai in 1993. And his innovative approach to art exhibitions did not stop there...

 ‘... I was working on an exhibition of Julian Schnabel in Cuba. He was keen, they were keen – the Cuban Cultural apparatchik liked Julian because the artist apparently paid for him to go to the US to have his teeth fixed – but a few problems soon surfaced. ‘Julian wanted these huge 22ft-long canvases to be included and it was difficult to find a plane that would take them as there were restrictions on cargo planes going to Cuba. No boats of course. Then, as we were discussing smaller paintings, he went and made the movie Before Night Falls, about a dissident, gay Cuban poet called Reinaldo Arenas. That scuppered the project overnight.

‘There was going to be Damien Hirst in Vietnam... then Damien won the Turner Prize and his focus changed. Today I have a project bubbling with North Korea and it’s the hardest I’ve ever done. I noticed recently a BBC reporter had the same driver and translator as I did – maybe there is only one who speaks English! I can tell you the artist is a household name – but not who just yet...’

 

NOTES

1) To give this much copied image a sexual frisson, Morley claimed Keeler was totally naked – Christine insists she wore white knickers and deliberately hid her breasts behind the back of the imitation Arne Jacobsen chair.

2) Klokov was later quoted as saying: ‘This exhibition is only possible, administratively, morally, ideologically, at this particular moment in Soviet History. Bacon paints the evil in humanity, without mercy. That is new in Russia. The exhibition is a symbol of our whole concept of perestroika – now, thanks to Gorbachev, we are not afraid to show the dark side of life, the dark side of society – of our society.’

 

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