Wry Society: The art philanthropist

A daughter’s insatiable appetite for wildly avant-garde works of art gives a wily father the perfect excuse to make moral and monetary capital

Image: phildisley.com

Fiona Cavendish was getting married – words her parents never thought they’d hear. As sole heir to the family frozen food empire, their only daughter had always seemed to them singularly unpromising. Sir James had despaired when she enrolled for a City & Guilds in fine art instead of taking up the desk next to his at head office.

Lady Katherine was similarly dismayed at her daughter’s serial preference for art over boys. If the family went to Miami, Fiona would eschew gleaming muscled men for Art Basel and LGBT gallerists, whom she locked in conversation. And her furrowed brow and impenetrable views on art theory rendered her off menu to even the most persistent of fortune hunters.

In her 20s, Fiona spent every penny she had (well, what was left after her father tightened the bolts on her trust fund) on what she called conceptual art – which her father referred to as “pointless planks of wood from B&Q and piles of soiled bathroom tiles stolen from skips”.

It was only when she sold the said pile of porcelain for a quarter of a million pounds to a gallery in Tokyo that Sir James had to concede there was some method in her seeming madness, spying the opportunity for a tax break (not to mention a gong for philanthropic services to culture). And so he set up the Cavendish Foundation for Contemporary Art, making Fiona its patron. Finally, she had a job. Although he refused to use the word art for anything that didn’t come in oils or bronze, Sir James was delighted that frozen sweetcorn was no longer the only source of gold in the family.

With Banksy their matchmaker, it was a coup de foudre when Fiona met DYLAN (never not in upper case), a conceptual artist from Colwyn Bay. In the contemporary art world, word of their engagement was dropped in awed tones.

The wedding would take place at the family estate, where the great and the good of the art world could land their helicopters on the croquet lawn. DYLAN’s work was to be shipped from galleries across the globe and temporarily installed in the private chapel. This was so that the wedding congregation could share “an intervention with DYLAN’s remarkable body of collective assemblages”. 


Lady Katherine hadn’t grasped what this meant until the Cadogan Tate vans appeared in the driveway and her house began to look like a Montessori nursery school – because DYLAN’s most famous work was a recreation of Dante’s Inferno in Play-Doh. Fiona found the juxtaposition of material and subject matter so viscerally emotive she knew she would cry when she encountered the piece on her big day.

During the rehearsal the wedding party was so busy trying not to pass out in the heat (humidity levels had to be carefully monitored so that the artwork didn’t dry out) that nobody noticed when two of the page boys made a beeline for the second circle of hell – where lust was tantalisingly depicted in purple Play-Doh. Lady Katherine, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on her grandchildren, was so busy choking on the fact that DYLAN was going to wear his signature orange, standard-issue US prison overalls to marry her daughter that she didn’t notice the gobs of Play-Doh stuck under her shoe – or the boys’ purple fingernails.

The next day, when Fiona walked down the aisle in her black leather pants, she initially mistook the audience’s silence for rapture. When she saw a flinty art collector weeping, she imagined he was overwhelmed by the postmodern discourse of life as performance that was her marriage to DYLAN. She smiled. Until she saw DYLAN crouching with his head in his hands, rocking to and fro.

“Darling, was it something you ate?” Fiona raced to his side. It was then she noticed Helen of Troy and Cleopatra were missing and that seven of the nine circles of hell had been rolled into giant balls.

“Did we do a good job, Auntie Fiona?” asked the youngest page boy, Milo. “Mummy always says to put everything away after we’ve played with it.”

Fiona wrapped her arms around her fiancé, sobbing. Thankfully, Sir James managed to drown out his daughter, addressing the traumatised congregation himself.


“Ladies and gentlemen, as we’ve had an unforeseen pause in proceedings, I’d like to take a moment to ask whether I hear £3m for DYLAN’s latest and most moving work to date.” He smiled jovially at the ashen-faced guests. “Building a Heaven in Hell’s Despite – a study in the semiotics of making money out of old rope.”