Delfina Entrecanales
Delfina Entrecanales in her Chelsea home

“I am very nervous because I have never given an interview before,” Delfina Entrecanales whispers. “Yes, you have.” Correcting her is Aaron Cezar, director of Entrecanales’ eponymous art foundation. “You gave one in 1996, but you didn’t realise that it was an interview at the time.”

The story captures the enigma that is Entrecanales. Now 86, the Spanish-born patron seems decades younger, in part thanks to her elfin frame, but mainly because she fizzes with unguarded charisma. Her sentences, peppered with swearwords, rattle out unedited thanks to her propensity for honesty over self-aggrandisement.

Yet despite the influence she wields in the art world, Entrecanales has remained out of the limelight. Even her Chelsea apartment is a surprise. Rather than the expected zoo of spiky, cerebral installations, it is a haven of antique furniture, book-filled shelves and Spanish impressionist painting. “All these belonged to my father,” she says, as I admire a fluid nocturnal street scene by Joaquín Sorolla.

But then Entrecanales is no ordinary patron. “The one thing I want you to make clear is that I am not a collector. I collect artists, not art!”

Over the course of 25 years, she has supported more than 500 artists, first through Delfina Studios in east London, more latterly through a residency programme organised by the Delfina Foundation with particular emphasis on artists from the Middle East and north Africa. The list of recipients reveals a predilection for subtlety over showmanship: it includes Mark Wallinger, Tacita Dean, Susan Hefuna and Wael Shawky.

It is the expansion of the foundation that is prompting Entrecanales to emerge from the shadows. Since 2007, it has been housed in an Edwardian building near Victoria. Now Entrecanales has bought the house next door and the two properties are being combined. This will allow the foundation to host up to eight residents (rather than four) and boast a 120 sq m events and exhibition space.

Why subject herself to the challenge? “Because I’m nuts!” A husky laugh bellows from her tiny frame. “I am used to big things. [In Delfina Studios] I had 34 studios and bedrooms for 10 artists. I come from a big family. I am used to having a lot of people around me.”

A sectional view of the planned Delfina Foundation redevelopment
A sectional view of the planned Delfina Foundation redevelopment

The key to understanding Entrecanales lies in her background. Born in southern Spain in 1927, her youth was marked by the civil war. “My father’s family wasn’t political at all, but my mother’s was very leftwing. I had an uncle who was a general in the Republican army. Another who was an undersecretary of state, another an ambassador.”

At the end of the war, many relatives were in exile. By then, Entrecanales’s father, José María, was building the business that is today Acciona, the energy and infrastructure group which last year turned over €7bn.

“My father said: ‘Not even Franco is going to get me out of here.’ But he used to go to Paris with enormous suitcases of cash to give to all the leftwing [exiles].”

Unable to bear the thought of his daughter growing up under the regime, he sent her to Oxford to learn English. There she met her first husband with whom she had four children, one of whom died aged 17. After the marriage broke down, Entrecanales, appalled at the idea of returning to Spain where her family were plotting a life of “tea parties with old aunts”, admits she let her hair down.

“There I was, at Spanish embassy parties, sitting among the men, in a very short skirt, smoking cigars and wearing a feather boa.”

How did that feisty Bohemian evolve into the woman of today?

“I bought a farm in Wiltshire with lots of cottages,” she says. After rock musicians, including Pink Floyd, took up temporary residence, Entrecanales knew that having active imaginations around her was the breath of life. But to fit out a suite of recording studios was simply “too expensive”.

A friend who was a teacher at the RCA suggested she consider supporting visual artists instead. In 1988, she hosted her first guests in a former jeans factory in Stratford, east London. Four years later, she transferred to Bermondsey. By then, Entrecanales had remarried to Digby Squires. “He was 19; I was 45,” she says blithely. “But we were together for 30 years.”

Between them the couple transformed the Bermondsey space into 34 studios. Clean, centrally heated and served by a canteen where artists could eat for £1, it was to become a landmark of east London’s burgeoning art scene.

When the marriage ended, Entrecanales left the venture in Squires’ hands. During this period, she turned to Catholicism for consolation. “I’m quite rigid. I go to church every day!” she exclaims, sounding perplexed by her new-found faith.

Then, a conversation with a close friend, international human rights lawyer Mark Muller – now a trustee of the foundation – resulted in a trip to Syria. It was 2005, and contemporary artists were struggling to find the right conditions for producing work. “I realised no one was doing what I had been doing,” she recalls. And the foundation was born.

Does she think her own experience of political conflict contributed to her interest? “Oh definitely,” she declares. “When I left Spain I took it for granted that you see guns everywhere.” But I suspect that what really draws her to a region that is producing some of world’s most inspiring art is her contempt for the “bullshit”, which she says taints much contemporary art.

She loves spending time with the artists and regularly scoops them off to her country house in Scotland and cooks for them. “It definitely feels like a family and not an institution,” says Turkish-Kurdish artist and former resident Ahmet Ögüt. Yet he also highlights the foundation’s rigour. “They do everything to connect you to people – curators, artists, institutions – in London with the same concerns. It’s far more than basic networking.”

The new-look foundation will open briefly during Frieze Week to showcase a film by Turkish artist Asli Cavusoglu. However, when it reopens properly in January 2014, the emphasis will shift from a regional to a thematic approach.

“You have to change. Things cannot stay the same,” is Entrecanales’s explanation for the change, but conversations with Cezar reveal an awareness that orthodox notions of territorial identity are melting. Focusing on the Politics of Food, the first programme will include artists from Kenya, Indonesia, Lebanon and South Africa.

Inevitably, the future is of concern to a woman who recognises that she is “not eternal”. She is expanding the board, which now includes her son Charles. Yet she also dreams that another wealthy female benefactor from outside the family might take the reins, or start a similar project. “You get to 60. Your children have left home. What do you do with your life? [ …] Being a grandmother is not enough. I want these women to know how rewarding this [work] is. It is so fulfilling, you don’t need anything else.”

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