“These scenes of nature bring us a certain comfort when our urban lives in London get too intense.”
Recently married James and Anna Innes-Smith live in an airy penthouse apartment in East London’s Shoreditch. With James working as a journalist and Anna a full-time writer, neither are afraid to let their feelings be known! We take a peek around their beautiful home and at their private art collection, and find out about Anna’s experience at an art PR Agency and James’ (scientifically proven) man’s flu.
FAM: James and Anna, thanks for meeting with me today, I would love to know more about how you started out collecting?
Anna: I think I was about 22 when I bought my first painting from a gallery. It was a large blue abstract piece. I still have it somewhere in my parents’ house.
James: I used to go to the Affordable Art Fair, but I couldn’t afford anything there! I only started collecting when my parents downsized. They gave me almost everything I own today, mainly 18th century landscapes and portraits. But I love modern architecture and interiors with blank, minimal walls so I’m really torn between having these paintings up or not.
Anna: James hates any marks on the wall or on his white sofa. When I wear black jeans, he makes me sit on a throw like a dog so the dye doesn’t transfer.
James: Well I do love dogs.
What style ideas did you have in mind when hanging the art here?
Anna: I made sure all the key focal points had a painting to enhance the room or balance a bit of quirky architecture.
James: I really like the artwork we have here. It gives the place soul.
Anna: Phew! I can’t imagine living in a house without paintings. I think a Victorian building like this one needs a few things on the walls. They considered bare walls to be very bad taste so I felt it was important to honor that here. I didn’t want to overdo it like the Victorians though and have paintings floor to ceiling.
The house is very unique, could you tell us a bit about its history?
Anna: It was originally a Christian Mission and for 85 years it provided food, shelter, and entertainment to the poorest in London. It was opened in 1904 by the Prince and Princess of Wales who later became King George V and Queen Mary. It was bombed four times during the Second World War.
James: The Victorians believed aesthetics were important regardless of class and stature. Even social houses had great, thoughtful design. Unlike today, where the best you can expect is a concrete monstrosity. I really believe that human beings are deeply affected by their surroundings.
Anna: I definitely am.
James: You could argue that it really contributes to a person’s sense of well-being. It immediately puts you at a disadvantage because housing authorities are in effect saying you don’t deserve the benefits of beauty. If you think about it, the first thing a person does when they make money is to live somewhere beautiful.
What made you want to live in Shoreditch?
Anna: James officially moved in a couple of months before we got married in 2017. He’s a west London boy, so it’s a very different vibe. I love his flat but we have more space here. As we both work from home, we need a few walls and doors between us, otherwise we drive each other nuts.
James: I have an irresistible urge to annoy her.
Anna: Also I used to work in fine art and culture PR and my office isn’t too far away. My agency represented a number of artists and top blue chip commercial galleries in central London, which were also within reach.
You’re right in the center of creative London...
Anna: It was the edginess and creativity that drew me here in the first place. In fact, you can see some of the better street art from our window, like Stik’s Past, Present & Future, though it’s currently under a billboard of Ed Sheeran. That alone gives you an indication of how much this place has gentrified in recent years.
James: We are positioned in the former artists’ district but few artists can afford to be there now. There are five new skyscrapers within a minute’s walk of our front door and at weekends groups of tourists on street art tours hover around the pavements outside our building.
Anna: They are so annoying! They move around in a daze and they always get in the way. But I realise there’s a lot to see, including two Banksy works nearby, so it’s no wonder.
What do you feel about street art?
Anna: Well if you think about it, street art has its roots in ancient graffiti and prehistoric cave paintings. Graffiti and street art can capture the thoughts of the time just like Pop art or Dadaism did. The fact that it’s on the street can bring a neighborhood to life, as long as it’s done well. It’s even better when it starts a dialogue. I think Basquiat, Banksy, Stik are great at that.
James: I sometimes struggle to tell the difference between graffti and street art. I’m anti-graffiti. I find it nihilistic and it defaces beautiful structures. I always think it’s a bit like tattoos—they all end up looking the same. Maybe it’s hard to be original. I like Banksy’s comments on society. But a lot of graffiti seems mindless to me and I find it selfish—“look at me, look at me.”
Anna: But what I like about street art is that it is accessible to everybody and if it’s aesthetic and thought provoking then I’m all for it.
Anna, you said you no longer work in art PR, what do you do now?
Anna: I left a year and a half ago to concentrate on writing. I’ve now written a children’s novel that my agent has just submitted for publishing—so fingers crossed you’ll see my books on the shelves in 2019. I’m now working on a series of picture books while I research my second novel.
And James, how about you?
James: I am a journalist, author and a voice-over artist. I’m freelance so I’ve appeared in The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Spectator, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail. I write about men’s issues so everything from macho bare-knuckle fighters to man-flu.
Man-flu? I thought that was a myth based on men being over dramatic when they get ill?
Anna: According to James it’s quite true, but I have my doubts. Apparently he has scientific proof though!
James: Yes, it’s down to evolutionary biology in the most basic sense. When men fall sick they become surplus to requirement whereas some women can turn away and ignore something they consider to be weakness.
FAM: What have you been working on recently?
James: I’m writing a book on the crisis of masculinity. There seems to be a gap growing between the sexes which is now being fuelled by more extreme gender rights activists such as the men’s rights movement and third wave feminists. It’s become quite a hot topic. A lot of men are feeling emasculated and confused about their role in society. Suggesting masculinity is something to be ashamed of isn’t helping men come to terms with a rapidly changing gender landscape. While it’s important that the likes of Harvey Weinstein are punished for their misogynistic behaviour, not all men should be tarred with the same brush. I hope my book will start an important conversation.
Anna: I really hope we’re on a road to permanent change where predators like Weinstein and Artforum’s Knight Landesman become extinct. I think the courage and solidarity of #metoo and the art world’s #notsurprised campaigns are having a real impact.
Anna, do you miss working in art PR?
Anna: I miss the exhibitions—it was great to see them come to life and it was a thrill to see them in the papers after all the effort my agency put into their publicity. James and I actually first met very briefly at one of our private views. Sometimes I miss the office too. I was fond of the people there, but I am much happier writing full time. I enjoyed writing press releases the most. I didn’t enjoy pitching to journalists. AA Gill once said PRs were “the head lice of civilisation”, and I think some journalists empathise with him on that one. My agency was classier than others but there were journalists we knew we couldn’t approach.
Do any exhibitions you worked on really stick in your mind?
Anna: There are lots—Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Tony Cragg, Ivon Hitchens, Mary Fedden. We did an excellent one for L.S. Lowry in Bond Street. At that time there was some controversy because he had never been given a solo exhibition at the Tate.
Anna: The Tate owned 23 of his pictures but they had only ever exhibited one, keeping the others in storage. A number of people including Sir Ian McKellen and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher publically complained because they thought Lowry—the enormously popular, naïve, “matchstick man” painter—was deemed too unsophisticated to be exhibited there.
Did you agree?
Anna: I can see how serious art historians would object to his simple style, but Lowry was the first to admit he was a simple man that used simple materials.
James: I’ve never found Lowry’s work to be naïve or simplistic. To me, they’re incredibly detailed and they’re an important record of a way of life that has now disappeared completely.
Anna: I think his images are a really important representation of British society. His scenes of the industrial world speak to so many people and I can see why they were impatient for a solo exhibition at the Tate. He got a retrospective a couple of years later though.
Would you say that art PR was your entry into the art world?
Anna: No, I’d say I was born into the art world actually. I was raised on the Suffolk coast by my artist father and my ballet dancer mother. She was especially immersed in culture from a young age and her parents had an excellent eye for art.
They were art collectors too?
Anna: Yes—they owned sculptures by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Elisabeth Frink and paintings by Paul Nash, Mary Potter, Thomas Armstrong, and William Scott. I have happy memories of clambering over one of Frink’s Seated Man editions in their garden with my siblings when we were children.
So do you believe in a collector’s gene?
Anna: Sure, my family have definitely taught me a lot about collecting and I have been enormously lucky to come in close contact with incredible art in both my private and professional life.
James: My father also collected art and in his younger days he would attend country house auctions where you could
pick up some amazing deals on old master style paintings. Back in the 1950s many country estates had to sell off their collections to pay death duty taxes. Some of the old aristocratic families were forced out of the great estates because they could no longer afford the upkeep. It was a real scandal and broke up many important collections.
Where do you buy art these days?
James: Cork Street was always your first port of call for interesting and original work, but unfortunately most of those independent galleries have fled due to their leases being sold to property developers.
Anna: It’s the current scourge of London. How are independent shops and galleries meant to prosper when rent is hiked from £75,000 to £350,000 a year? It’s no wonder there’s been a huge rise in online art dealers and pop-up galleries. I’ve mostly bought from independent art dealers, or the artists themselves and I think it’s only a matter of time before I buy online. I’ve also got quite into charity auctions lately. I find it takes away any financial guilt when you know your money is going to a good cause.
You live in an area known for contemporary and conceptual art, but your own taste is more traditional. Is there a reason for that?
Anna: I find that people are often drawn to artworks that are familiar to them in one way or another and I’m no different. Having grown up on the Suffolk coast with huge skies and low horizons, I regularly find myself feeling affection for a painting or a photograph that expresses similar scenes. The Beach by Tim Fargher now hanging in our bedroom always cheers up the greyest days outside. It brings James and myself a certain comfort when our urban lives in London get too intense.
Have you ever, or would you ever buy art for investment?
James: I’m yet to, but yes I would. Not only would you gain financially—you’d also get to live with a beautiful piece of art as well.
Anna: I would too. I’d absolutely love to live with a Rothko. I sincerely doubt I will ever be able to afford them, but I have recently been very tempted by some Henri Matisse drawings, not because they will accrue value, but then you never know. Fundamentally you have to live with the art so I think you should like it. James and I work from home full time so I think we are both better off living with art that moves us in some way.
Which pieces in your collection were auction purchases?
Anna: I got my Rob Carter long exposure photograph in a fundraiser for the Syrian crisis and it’s a firm favourite. Auctions can be a dangerous playing field though; it’s not uncommon for people to overpay, although in the gesture of charity I wouldn’t judge, especially as I recently found myself in a bidding war with television journalist Krishnan Guru Murthy—it spurred me on!
What were you bidding on?
Anna: I won a rare limited edition print of Audrey Hepburn in Kew Gardens, taken by Bert Hardy in 1950 before she
was famous. I wouldn’t normally go for a celebrity photo, but I admire Hardy’s work, especially his war photography, and this shot really spoke to me. Hepburn’s often pictured being so coquettish, but I think she’s emitting more of an English irritability here, which I relate to more. She’s been my favourite actress since I watched Roman Holiday when I was 13. James does a very saccharine impression of her, which is pretty good, but I always ask him to stop because I don’t like him mocking her. A bit sad, I know.
What pieces in your collection are your favorites?
Anna: I’m very fond of them all, but I am particularly proud of my Mary Fedden. My agency did PR for one of her solo exhibitions in Bond Street a few years ago and when I got word of this a year or two later, I took the plunge. I also love our Mary Potter, which was given to us by her daughter-in-law as a wedding present. Her subject is wearing the most fantastic shoes and this work is so different to the abstract and still life paintings I know her for. I can picture Potter drawing her sitter smoking and drinking wine while having a good chat about things.
James: My favourite is Tim Fargher’s Hollesley Bay that’s hanging above the stairs. It makes me nostalgic for the Suffolk sky and landscape.
Anna: Everybody loves that one. It’s one of the best views in Shoreditch.
Anna on Twitter
James on Twitter
Interview by Eliza O’Hara