The Inventory: Julia Peyton-Jones

Julia Peyton-Jones, 58, became the director of the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1991. She is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art and the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was appointed OBE in 2003 for services to art.

What was your earliest ambition?

To learn to read. I learnt when I was over 40 that I was dyslexic, so learning to read was a very big deal and challenging, to put it mildly.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

I started in the public school system and went on to postgraduate study at the Royal College of Art.

Who is your mentor?

Professionally, I had two: my art world parents were Joanna Drew and David Sylvester. David was the great curator, critic and writer, and a trustee of the Serpentine Gallery. Joanna was director of the Hayward Gallery and on the Arts Council – she really was queen of the arts. I learnt an immense amount from both of them.

How physically fit are you?

I try to exercise two to three times a week, sometimes more. It’s important for me as a way of dealing with stress and keeping in good shape.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Ambition. You can have all the talent in the world but without ambition, you don’t have the propellers to push you.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

Yes, when I learnt I was dyslexic. It was frightening, because dyslexia has a set of challenges if you’re in formal education and it perhaps misrepresents intelligence. I was relieved that I wasn’t humiliated by my score; in fact, I was quite proud of it. But I wouldn’t want to do it again. Quit while you’re ahead …

How politically committed are you?

To lead a public institution, one must stay apolitical. But I am deeply committed to art for all.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Yes, of course. My work requires me to travel, but I limit it to when it’s absolutely necessary.

Do you have more than one home?


What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

Greater intelligence.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

I have a dog; she’s a glorious combination of lots of breeds, and I understand now why the pet industry is so massive. A dog is a very expensive undertaking.

In what place are you happiest?

By the sea and in Brazil, a country that I really love. It’s inspiring in all sorts of ways, not least because wherever you look you see fine examples of modernist architecture.

What ambitions do you still have?

Principally, to achieve my potential.

What drives you on?

Knowing I have a long way to go to reach that potential.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Being part of a wonderful family.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

The collapse of my first marriage.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?

She would probably faint. She would be astonished.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

I would go to the job centre and start again. One can always earn money, and that gives you the freedom to mentally roam.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

Yes, I would certainly consider it, should that be necessary.

Do you believe in an afterlife?


If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

Oscar Niemeyer is one of my heroes and he’s 103. I want to live to 100. I’m 50 per cent of the way through, so I’ll give myself five out of 10.

The Serpentine Gallery’s major survey of the work of American artist Nancy Spero runs until May 2

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