Breakfast with the FT: Sir John Richardson

It’s grotesque! I hate this hotel!” says Sir John Richardson as I enter a fourth-floor suite giving on to a sweeping vista of the Thames and the London Eye. “I’m in my 90th year but this place makes me feel 100.”

Dressed in a grey jacket with dashing crimson border, cream shirt, black slacks and bright red slippers, the writer shuffles disconsolately around the huge living room. He can work neither the light switches nor the telephone at the five-star Corinthia Hotel, which means he has not been able to order breakfast. His boyfriend, a former footman at Buckingham Palace and “a hero”, normally looks after these things but he has gone out.

When I, too, fail to work the touchscreen telephone, Richardson invites me with a hopeless shrug into the bedroom, where a traditional handset sits alongside dishevelled sheets, pill bottles and notes in huge black letters – Richardson suffers from macular degeneration and reads with difficulty. I dial room service, and get an immediate answer.

I ask Richardson what he would like. “I don’t know. I’ve already had breakfast. A banana!” I order two portions of fruit, tea, orange juice. “Oh, and some croissants,” adds my host/guest. His voice is warmly booming, upper-crust English; he has lived in New York since 1960 but feels “totally British – more and more British” as America lurches towards the right.

Richardson is in town to receive the London Library’s Life in Literature award, one of many honours, including a knighthood, accorded him for his multi-volume, still unfinished biography of Pablo Picasso. Volume One appeared in 1991, Volume Four is expected next year.

But such has been his varied, busy life – he launched Christie’s New York; watched Georges Braque (“so good-looking!”) complete his last paintings; got ejected from WH Auden’s villa on Ischia for seducing the poet’s secretary in the garden; owns a legendary art collection, ranging from Picassos to a whale’s penis, housed in his Fifth Avenue apartment; and is now consultant to über-dealer Larry Gagosian – that queues of artists, publishers, collectors, scholars supplicate for his attention on this brief visit to England.

A sculptor precedes me (the first breakfast), a trip to Oxford follows – to give the inaugural lecture at Ertegun House, the new humanities centre launched by the widow of Richardson’s old friend Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records. “Ahmet was a great character, very intelligent and well-read, you’d have loved him. He was the son of the Turkish ambassador in Washington. He noticed that the ballroom in the embassy wasn’t being used so he got these jazz musicians, working as taxi drivers, to come and play. He went into the record business and made a hell of a lot of money.

“Mrs Ertegun flew us over in a private plane. We’re being spoilt rotten, put up in this enormous suite with fantastic views and hideous grey walls that make one feel one is on the outskirts of Frankfurt or maybe” – pause – “in Sweden.”

Grey and stooped, Richardson remains charismatic – broad face, high brow, lively, mobile features, hazel eyes that immediately engage as he talks. “I love people”, he says. “I also hate people. I hate nasty cruel rightwing people.”

A flair for attracting those with “a hell of a lot of money” started in his twenties. He had left the Slade and given up trying to become a painter when Douglas Cooper, notoriously ugly collector and scholar of cubism, fell in love with him and lured him home in a yellow and black Rolls-Royce – “a villain’s car if ever I saw one” – after a Chelsea party. “Alcohol overcame my initial revulsion,” he recalls in his memoir The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1999). “A kiss from me, I fantasised, would transform this toad into a prince, or at least a Rubens Bacchus. However, Douglas turned out to be as rubbery as a Dalí biomorph.”

Nevertheless, he tells me, “I learnt so much from Douglas” about art. The couple were together for 12 years, living mostly in Cooper’s château in Provence. Picasso, a neighbour, was initially between mistresses. Richardson “backed the right horse” by befriending Jacqueline Roque, who eventually became the second Madame Picasso and determined access to the master.

There is a knock at the door; a trolley laid with a white tablecloth and piled high with bowls of fruit, viennoiserie and two towering flasks of freshly squeezed orange juice is wheeled in. I quickly offer a credit card to pay – FT rules insist – before the meal is assigned to room service. Richardson leaps to compete, wielding a tenner to supplement the tip. He leads me to the spread, offers to pour tea, removes the bananas for safekeeping to another table, and nibbles a croissant.

“With Picasso,” he continues “this sounds dumb – I don’t even know if I want to say it – it was a psychic thing. Picasso realised that I not only adored his work but understood what it was about.” The glorious mix of erudition and gossip that makes Richardson’s A Life of Picasso the greatest, most compelling biography of an artist ever written was facilitated by decades of conversations in the studio, written up afterwards in notebooks. Richardson’s insights, informed by both a connoisseur’s eye and Picasso’s own explanations, are pitch-perfect but determinedly non-academic. This makes his biography, I suggest, important beyond Picasso studies, representing a bulwark against the increasing tyranny of theoretical approaches to the humanities.

Richardson leans forward intently. “You know, there’s this book coming out – it’s wholly aimed at me.” I feel uneasy; next to us in my bag, waiting to be (favourably) reviewed, is Picasso and Truth, by Marxist critic and Berkeley art history professor TJ Clark. It, indeed, opens with an attack on biographical interpretations of Picasso.

“TJ Clark is such a clever man but these theorists are exactly like the evangelicals in the Tea Party,” says Richardson, before elaborating his views. Students write exam papers “taking their line” or risk failing, he says. “But the main point is: the pupils they turn out are utterly useless. You’ve got to be as clever as TJ Clark to get away with it. The result is that when the brilliant new director of the Metropolitan Museum, Tom Campbell, had several new curator posts, they were all filled by Brits because the people turned out in the US by Clark and Ros Krauss [Columbia University professor] are the worst possible.”

We move to the fruit: an all-seasons platter of blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, pineapple, grapes and three sorts of melon.

Will Richardson live long enough to complete his biography? “My grandfather was born in 1817, in Georgian England. I want to live to 2017, so that there are three generations in two centuries!”

His father, Sir Wodehouse Richardson, was 70 when his son was born, and died five years later. “I still miss him, oh God, yes, hugely. He was a brilliant man, a quartermaster-general in the Boer war decorated by Queen Victoria, knighted by Edward Vll. He is deep down an inspiration.”

Sir Wodehouse founded the Army and Navy Stores and there met a 35-year-old photographic retoucher, Richardson’s mother Patty. She brought up their three children alone, sending Richardson to a series of boarding schools where he was bullied. At 18, he converted to Catholicism so he could marry a fellow Slade student; he broke off the engagement but kept the religion. “Many years go by before I see the inside of a church but in old age – it’s fairly natural – I’ve become rather more Catholic. It’s something to cling to when everything is in total shambles.”

It is not difficult to connect Richardson’s relationship with Cooper, and his subsequent immersion in the disappearing old-chic world of Picasso, Braque and co, with the death of his father and an associated life-long nostalgia. “I am the victim of anxiety, terrible anxiety,” he says. It took him years to develop confidence to begin the Picasso biography, which demands prodigious research – he speaks no Spanish and for Volume Four is being helped by scholar Gijs van Hensbergen with material on the Spanish civil war – and has been slowed by his degenerating eyesight and funding problems. “I make no money whatsoever from my books. I always have to do things to make money but I’m bored by business. I was amazed to be asked to join Christie’s.” That was in 1964; he left in 1973, was vice-president at New York dealer Knoedler until 1980, and has since devoted himself to writing.

“I used to bounce out of bed to write. In the old days I shinned up a ladder, got a book down, looked in the index – I can’t do that now. But the chance is that I won’t be able to get to the end of the Life [of Picasso], not because of my health or my eyes but because, well, I know too much. I know where the bodies are buried. I think I’ll stop in 1962, when Picasso and Jacqueline got married.

“Now, talking to you, I’m too old to come to terms with what I’ve done, this difficulty I have with – what do they call it? – low self-esteem. I’m thrilled to bits to be given this award and recognised. I never went to university, I’ve no proper education. I educated myself reading, reading, reading at the London Library – so there’s a certain justice to my getting this prize. I had a flat round the corner in the Albany when it was a nice secluded place not taken over by New York art dealers.”

For an employee of Gagosian, this is close to the bone. “Larry respects scholarship, pays nicely, makes it possible for you as an art historian to borrow any work you want. I don’t like half of what he shows but he’s heaven to work for.” And Richardson must be worth his keep. At Gagosian, in spring 2009, he curated Picasso: Mosqueteros, a seminal show “from the last Mougins years when Picasso shut himself away and the work becomes exceedingly erotic. I love the late work but before my show nobody wanted it, now everyone wants to own a late Picasso – that happened because of the show.”

The effect on the market was immediate: that June, Christie’s sold a Musketeer work, “L’Homme à l’épée”, for £5.8m, more than double what the same painting had fetched four years earlier. The next day at Sotheby’s, another in the series made £7m and, in 2011, “L’Aubade” (1967) sold for $23m, a record for late Picasso.

Scholarship and the market are entangled today as never before, and in Richardson’s lifetime the art market has become “this huge financial thing, it’s horrible, not at all to my taste. The big kick for me at the Gagosian show was that the kids swarmed in off the street, that’s what I care about. Picasso was becoming this dusty figure from the past; I wanted to treat the pictures as if he was the new kid on the block, no labels or explanations, just rubbing people’s noses in it. It’s pretty easy to understand – what you see is what you get, you stick your face right in between the breasts and the legs of these ladies. And you can go straight in at Gagosian 21st Street – not like at 25th, which has glassy flashy doors and miles of marble floors and then you’re confronted by a receptionist with a false smile.”

The door to his suite opens and Richardson’s youthful partner walks in, exclaims at the reprise of breakfast, and whips out his camera to immortalise first the remains of the glossy fruit in close-up, then its consumers. (Hours later, he emails me both images, along with a charming note.) He is here to escort Richardson to his next appointment; there is a flurried search for shoes and a walking stick, a few seconds for a final question. Has a life in letters made Richardson happy, I venture. He hesitates: “It made me fulfilled.”

I hasten out, taking the stairs to leave the lift free. We reach the ground floor at the same time, and I glimpse Richardson, still an eager, decisive figure, scurrying to keep up with the younger man. He waves back at me from the lobby: “Promise to call me when you come to New York!”

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic

Corinthia Hotel

10 Whitehall Place, London

Fruit platters x2 £22.00

Croissants x4 £16.00

Fresh orange juice x2 £10.00

Tea x2 £11.00

Total (incl service) £64.13

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