Lunch with the FT: Jay Jopling

Standing on bohemian, buzzing Bermondsey Street in south London, outside Europe’s biggest commercial art gallery, its owner Jay Jopling gazes through a row of upright, painted steel fins that demarcates the courtyard. “I wanted a low wall, to be welcoming, open, but the local planning department wouldn’t allow it,” he explains. “I never forget walking down Cork Street [in Mayfair] as a student and the gallerists watching me, sizing up whether I could afford pictures or not. All my galleries have big glass doors. This building is simple, democratic – an open front, a white cube in the middle. It’s very transparent. It isn’t just for people buying art.”

Yet White Cube Bermondsey’s vast, empty front courtyard also announces the wealth of a dealer – unconfirmed estimates put Jopling’s fortune at £100m – who can afford to leave so much land unused. Inaugurated last October, the towering galleries, plus a bookshop, auditorium and archive, all speak of power and grandiose vision.

Since he began representing the Young British Artists in the early 1990s, Jopling, Eton-educated son of a Tory peer, has trod a tightrope between privilege and populism. “I always liked to collide the establishment with the avant-garde,” he says. Today, in art world terms, Jopling, 48, is the establishment. Three White Cube galleries – the others are in Hoxton and Piccadilly – dominate London’s contemporary art landscape; a fourth opened on Friday in Hong Kong. From March 9, all four will simultaneously show Gilbert and George’s “The London Pictures” – a statement underlining Jopling’s global ambition.

If you didn’t know the art was for sale, all that distinguishes White Cube Bermondsey from a museum is that – in deference to local interests – it lacks a café (the area is full of sandwich bars and small restaurants). Among the most popular is Zucca, a modern Italian on Bermondsey Street; after a quick preview of Gilbert and George, we make our way there.

Tall, with strong features and a serious expression enhanced by large black-framed glasses, Jopling, in his trademark dark suit, crisp white shirt and grey scarf, strides briskly, exuding patrician confidence. Yet his rise over the past two decades, as ambassador of a London vernacular art embodied in the streetwise styles of Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and the Chapman brothers, bears witness to complex societal shifts – democratising, but driven by a new celebrity-focused elite and increasing global wealth. These have made top dealers as influential as museums in the economics of taste: Jopling’s artists are recognised equally by the man in the street and billionaire international collectors.

Gilbert and George are a perfect example. The first artwork Jopling ever bought, aged 14, was a Gilbert and George book, from Anthony d’Offay’s gallery in London’s Dering Street, when the art world was still tight-knit and opaque. He returned a couple of decades later to poach the artists themselves. Now the couple are famous around the world and the photographic collages that appear in “The London Pictures”, superimposed with newspaper headlines chronicling brutality and scandal taken from Evening Standard hoardings, are instantly identifiable as their work. Their new series “is a survey of all that’s been prescient and newsworthy in London. ‘Read all about it!’” jokes Jopling. In his plummy tones, the quotation from the tabloid’s vendors sounds ironic, sophisticated.

We reach Zucca, whose wide glass front, slick white plastic furnishings and open-plan kitchen shares White Cube’s concept of accessible chic. “It’s very good,” says Jopling, “The approach is similar to the River Café.” The various breads, fine olive oil and tortilla that appear as soon as we are seated, bear this out. “I really like the carpaccio of sea bass,” Jopling enthuses. “Oh, it isn’t on today.” It turns out to be listed, as “pesce crudo” among the antipasti and Jopling describes the rest of these precisely; I choose mozzarella and courgettes. For mains, he orders pasta with broccoli, I opt for grilled wild sea bass. Despite a reputation for being able to drink his artists under the table at his lavish parties, Jopling declines wine.

He is greeted by several diners, noticed by more. To be such a blue chip name, I suggest, means he can hardly go wrong: isn’t that dull? He looks horrified. “If you think like that, you do go wrong. My challenge is to keep things exciting for the artists. I like to be involved. The relationship with artists is what drives me. That’s why we haven’t opened abroad before. I love going to artists’ studios. The thrill of walking in, seeing something no one has seen – it’s the best thrill. I often wonder what it was like to go into Bernini’s studio and see those sculptures being made – that marble.” Bernini, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velázquez – “that viscerality” – are among his favourite Old Masters. At home in Marylebone, he has a private contemporary collection – currently on display are neo-baroque sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere, minimalist Bruce Nauman, Rachel Whiteread, Julie Mehretu’s painting “Renegade Delirium”: “I never get bored with looking at it, so many layers, such an active surface.”

He has been looking at art since childhood, and recounts how, from the age of 10, “My mum took me to museums, that’s where the gene comes from.” The artist Sam Taylor-Wood – to whom he was married from 1997 to 2008 and with whom he has two daughters – once remarked, “Jay comes from a completely different background to me ... he has a nice stable background, a lovely, lovely mum ... we go up to the family house in Yorkshire, to see his lovely family and I think, ‘God, this is so nice.’”

His father Michael, a landowner who became Margaret Thatcher’s first chief whip in the House of Commons, “had a flat in John Islip Street next to Tate. My mum would drop me off and pick me up two hours later if she wanted to keep me out of mischief. I loved the Rothkos and Francis Bacon.” While studying art history at Edinburgh University in the 1980s, he flew to New York to persuade Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring to donate work to a charity auction. A summer job selling fire extinguishers – he would set his sleeve alight to demonstrate their effectiveness – also honed his selling skills. “If you can’t sell, you lose your artists.”

The antipasti arrive: thinly sliced fish with livid-pink prawns for him, a concoction of chicory-like salad and capers for me. “That’s not what you ordered!” Jopling notes. “That’s puntarelle with chilli – very good, sharp, an acquired taste.” He sends it back. He jabs at his prawns, I nibble at the tortilla until a waitress returns apologetically with a plate of thick buffalo mozzarella with mint and citrus-infused oil.

Jopling’s attention to detail and speedy response are amusingly characteristic. He started White Cube in 1993 with exquisitely curated, tiny solo shows of emerging artists such as Tracey Emin. “I told Christie’s I believed contemporary art in the next 15 years would be the key revenue generator, would have most exponential growth, yet on Duke Street they were surrounded by Old Master galleries: would they consider a preferential rent for a very small space? They very kindly gave me one rent-free.”

Unusually, Jopling’s gallery did not bear his name – White Cube alludes to a radical essay by the Irish artist Brian O’Doherty’s “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space” (1976), discussing how post-modern artists work within the gallery setting and market system – and, as his artists became famous, Jopling developed his own mystique. He rarely gives interviews – this is the first in 10 years – and astutely plays down his role in their rise. “I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. I really enjoyed the artists’ company, we had a lot of fun. The art was provocative, a kickback against Thatcher.

“That generation came out of art school kicking and screaming and I happened to be in London at the time. I grew up with the artists, it was very organic, but fast-tracked through Christie’s generosity. What was so exciting then was a guiltlessness to those artists – we were happy not to work within a conventional framework. With Damien, there was very strong personal chemistry, shared ambition, an overriding desire to get things done yesterday. When we met, we left each other at 4am, and at 9am there he was at my house in Brixton. He showed me his plans for sculptures, fish cabinets, the shark, the first spot paintings, and we said, ‘Let’s make them!’ Within three months the fish piece was in a show at Manchester’s Cornerhouse.”

Their relationship survived Jopling’s girlfriend Maia Norman leaving him for Hirst in 1994, and the time the artist bypassed the dealer’s traditional role for the £111m sale of “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” at Sotheby’s in September 2008. “It’s been an amazing journey. He’s pulled me along, at other times I’ve pulled him. We still speak most days,” says Jopling.

Why is the contemporary art he represents so successful? “I can’t give that secret away!” Jopling laughs. “So many galleries encourage the art to chase the money; it’s much more interesting when it’s the other way round. The art market model has changed hugely in the past 20 years. I don’t know how old you are” – this is a courtesy; he is a year younger than me – “but I remember when London contemporary art was just [the dealers] Waddingtons, d’Offay, Karsten Schubert, Maureen Paley. After Nick Serota became Tate director [in 1988], he called a meeting because he was concerned about the media lampooning contemporary art. I was very flattered to be asked. Damien had just done a fish cabinet, I invited the tabloids, the Daily Star took a photograph with a bag of chips and ran the headline ‘The world’s most expensive fish and chips’. I thought it didn’t matter if the tabloids were negative – they’d force people to take a view, bring contemporary art to people’s attention. All that is redundant now – artists are household names, part of people’s lives. I certainly didn’t imagine when we started that it would be a business like this.”

He makes quick work of his fish, and continues, “The blurring of public and private has happened in many ways. Our Chuck Close show went to the Hermitage [in St Petersburg], Gilbert and George’s ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ toured internationally to museums. And collectors engage with the scale of large works such as Anselm Kiefer’s [Kiefer’s museum-quality ‘Il Mistero delle Cattedrali’ show at White Cube closed last week] – we sold to private and public collections in America, China, Germany. Many collectors now go beyond putting things on walls, beyond buying as an investment. They are passionate about display, they want to leave something, a mark, a legacy, a contribution.”

The casarecce – long pasta spirals with purple sprouting broccoli, anchovies and pecorino – and my grilled sea bass, accompanied by cauliflower, are served: simple, succulent, tasty. Does globalisation detract from art’s immediacy? I wonder. “The art market is assisted by technology, free information, but it won’t move online in any substantial way except to sell multiples. People still need to stand in front of a work, physically engage with it,” Jopling says. “Look at Freud at the National Portrait Gallery, those trembling large hands, like claws, in ‘Two Irishmen’, that awkwardness. Or ‘Two Men in the Studio’, Cerith Wyn-Evans and Angus Cook. It reminded me of Harold Pinter, asked about The Caretaker, saying, ‘It’s about one man sitting down and another man standing up.’ Dominance and submission. But Pinter also said, ‘My plays are about the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’ – such a sinister thing of the everyday. So many artists deal with the awkward.”

Perhaps that is why dealers are smooth. Jopling asks for an espresso, downs it and grabs the bill. Then – “Sorry, it’s an instinct” – he remembers the FT has to pay, and spins it elegantly on to the table before me. As he hastens back to the gallery, I ask whether he always likes his artists’ work. “I make sure I understand it. I like some more than others, some really resonate. If it doesn’t, yes we have to sit down and talk about it. Every artist is different, there’s no recipe for how you represent them. Some enjoy engaging with broader audiences, most are interested in their market performance, others just want to be left alone. Our job is to create the boundaries in which the artist can best make his work – from facilitating to archiving. Christian Marclay came to me with the idea for ‘The Clock’, and we had nine people looking at films, cutting out bits, for two years. I knew it would be extraordinary, everyone would want it. As a dealer, the greatest thing you can have is an appreciation of art, lack of preconceptions – and extraordinary stamina. You’re nurturing artists’ careers, strategising at a business level, you have to be a showman, and you’ve got to travel exhaustively.”

Does all this leave time to consider posterity? “Every day! The fundamental question you ask when you look at an artist’s work is, ‘How will it look in 30, 50 years? Could it have existed 30 years ago?’ The immortality an artist can attain is an immortality unlike any other. It’s important to look forward, to when something can transcend its time, but it’s also a business.

“Artists are always asked who they make work for; often they reply, ‘Myself’. But Damien says, ‘I make art for people who aren’t born yet.’”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief art critic

Gilbert and George, ‘The London Pictures’, White Cube Hong Kong, to May 5; White Cube London (all galleries), March 9-May 12


184 Bermondsey Street, London SE1

Bread x2 Gratis

Tortilla Gratis

Pesce crudo £5.50

Mozzarella, courgette and mint £4.85

Casarecce, broccoli and anchovies £10.00

Wild sea bass £15.95

Mineral water x2 £7.00

Espresso £2.00

Total (including service) £45.30

Artists and friends

Jay Jopling’s friendship with Damien Hirst is well documented, but other relationships have been significant.

Marc Quinn The first artist Jopling worked with; in 1988 he showed Quinn’s bread sculptures in Docklands and in 1991 “Self”, a frozen sculpture of Quinn’s head made from his own blood. Jopling picked up the head from a laboratory and drove at top speed to get it into the refrigerated display unit of a gallery before it melted. Charles Saatchi bought “Self” for £13,000.

Itai Doron The one that got away. The Israeli artist inaugurated White Cube in 1993 with a show of installations depicting his alter ego, Mr D. However, soon afterwards the artist and dealer parted company.

Jopling with Tracey Emin

Tracey Emin Her initial deal with Jopling was that for £10 she would write him a letter every month for a year. In 1994 he launched her first solo show. It was called My Major Retrospective because Emin feared she would not have another.

Sam Taylor-Wood A photograph with her trousers down, wearing a T-shirt reading “Fuck Suck Spank Wank”, brought Taylor-Wood attention at Sensation, the Royal Academy’s 1997 exhibition. She married Jopling that year and the pair became contemporary art’s golden couple. They split in 2008.

Gabriel Orozco In 2006, Jopling opened White Cube Mason’s Yard and began representing established international artists. This gallery was inaugurated with Orozco’s “Dark Wave”,a skeleton of a whale covered in graphite recalling the signature work of Jopling’s career – Hirst’s shark.

Lucian Freud Freud was not a White Cube artist but Jopling began visiting his studio in the 1990s. “Two or three years ago, I flew Lucian to Amsterdam, it might have been his last journey abroad,” says Jopling.

“I had this idea of him making one last great late self-portrait in reference to the Rembrandts. The Rijksmuseum agreed to take the late Rembrandt self-portraits out of their frames for a private view. The portrait never happened, but I remember the insistence of Lucian’s gaze and the way his fingers moved while looking at the Rembrandts.”

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