February 26 2010
Hugo de Piro spoke of Cork Street as if he had been actually born there. He boasted of an extremely close knowledge of London’s premier gallery space and talked of showing “his artists” in the West End’s home of contemporary art. However, his chance of exhibiting in the street was about as likely as persuading Tate Modern to hang a Jack Vettriano.
This was not just because de Piro was based in Wiltshire but also because the majority of his artists would struggle to get their work to hang from the railings in the Bayswater Road, let alone in the exclusive galleries that sold to the pin-heeled, permatanned multicultural market.
However, his clientele west of Reading were ignorant of this fact. As far as they were concerned, de Piro was the very spit of a sophisticated gallery owner. He cut an urbane figure in his dark corduroy jacket and skinny ties, including one featuring a hand-painted Bedlington terrier by the fine artist Craigie Aitchison. His gallery, created out of a converted barn and called “My Space”, was a temple for the local bohemian element and occasionally attracted the more daring stalwarts of the Shires.
The craggy de Piro had reached this modest position mostly thanks to some luck and his little black book. He had been at art school in London during the 1970s where he concentrated on conceptual art – and where, as he delighted in telling anyone who asked about it, “the idea, and the means of producing art, is more important than the finished work” – and his big idea, and his production of it, was the bedding of female students. The ensuing result was that he duly failed to get a decent art diploma but he did leave college with a bulging address book.
When a number of his former conquests began to establish their careers, Hugo was there to sponge off them. And he might have continued to do so if it had not been for the death of his mother, who left him the decent detached family house in the well-bred sticks, which he parlayed into the gallery and reinvented himself as a former player in the London art world who had chosen to “retreat to the sticks to run a rusticated arts lab”.
In truth, it was not much different from most provincial galleries with regular exhibitions of abstract acrylics, pop art lithographs and crass bronzes of alien figures. At least once a year there was a one-man show or, rather, a one-woman show of expensively framed paintings done by a rich, lonely wife who had finished making over her bijou manor into an interior-decorated doll’s house and turned her hand to fine art. Her friends came to the lavish launch party and felt duty-bound to buy her overpriced daubs – Hugo took 40 per cent.
And twice a year, in the spring and autumn, Hugo held a show of “his painters”. He would consult his black book and find an artist who had a body of work that could be transported west (usually, it was work that had already been exhibited in the capital but had not sold). Hugo then sent out a shower of invitations to the local gentry, shipped in a couple of cases of cheap plonk and played mine host to his latest “major find”, wearing his Aitchison tie.
However, recently his sources had begun to dry up as over the years his roster of past dalliances had either dropped out or become too successful. His former lover Rosie Smith, for example, was beginning to make something of a name for herself with her simple, strongly coloured two-tone landscapes. She had already had one exhibition at the Molesworth Gallery in Cork Street and had been promised another. Nowadays, she didn’t want to dilute her new work by hanging it in the provinces. Instead, she offered Hugo half a dozen of her old paintings, which carried a hefty price tag. Annoyingly, it was not enough for a proper exhibition. And so, rather than weaken the show, Hugo knocked out a couple of landscapes in the style of Smith, had them copied and framed and sold them as unsigned numbered lithographs.
And all would have gone swimmingly if it had not been for the chap in the spotted bow tie who, when he saw the limited-edition prints, claimed that they were better than anything else Rosie Smith had ever done and gave Hugo his card. It read “David Molesworth, Cork Street”.