“One has to try and imagine what it would be like to live in an environment without art, it would be so terribly empty.”
Steadily building up for forty years, the art collection of Brendan and Fiona Finucane is a stunning collection of classic Rembrandt etchings and contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry. A relief from their high-powered day jobs, the Finucanes are involved in many aspects of the art world, and admit to only occasionally buying something behind each other’s backs!
Why did Bernard Jacobson give you a piece of work?
Brendan: Because he had an old Jaguar XK6 that he wanted repaired. While he was away I tried to get it repaired and resprayed for him but unsuccessfully as it was too old. His wife Karen said “You have to give Brendan something for having looked after your old car”, and so he gave me this work.
Were you a car mechanic at the time?
Brendan: No, I wasn’t but I have always been interested in cars!
Fiona, were you steeped in art when you were young?
Fiona: Yes, my mother used to take my sister and I to Florence every year and my grandmother took us to Venice. We also dragged our own children around exhibitions and churches all their childhood, to the point that they’d simply refuse to go into them because they’d had enough!
Do you remember the very first piece of art you bought?
Fiona: When I separated from my first husband I left behind all the early pieces of art I owned. I literally left with one suitcase.
Brendan: When I got divorced my first wife also kept some things that she liked, but I just continued to collect, and indeed there was a gallery called the Lamont Gallery in London, and in his database he had the words “compulsive buyer” against my name, which was wholly accurate. I’ve been collecting for forty years this year.
What are your professional backgrounds?
Fiona: I’m a barrister.
Brendan: I was a barrister for 41 years, of which I was a QC for 14 years and a Recorder (deputy judge) for 17 years.
How do you feel the experience of seeing, collecting and living with art interacts with your professional life?
Fiona: Unfortunately, it doesn’t interact at all. Especially when we were both in full-time practice as barristers and Brendan was doing very heavy cases such as gang murders. I still do very heavy cases. At the moment I am defending a doctor accused of sexual abuse. So art for us is always a kind of relief from the day job.
Brendan: The only aspect that interacts perhaps, is because I was a QC it led to me being asked to join various arts bodies, where they needed lawyers on the board or as a trustee.
Have you ever been offered art in return for legal advice?
Brendan: That’s not allowed. We are only allowed to accept the fees that are agreed between our clerks and the instructing solicitor.
Fiona: You couldn’t even accept a painting as a thank you present.
Brendan: A bottle of wine is permissible but nothing more than that.
So in your professional life you deal with terrible things and very varied sections of society.
Fiona: Absolutely. Yes, so the art is a form of relaxation for us really.
Brendan: It has overlapped once. I was prosecuting a chap for fraud who turned out to be the partner of an artist whose work I owned and whom I knew.
Fiona: And forgeries!
Brendan: Yes true. I once defended a man who was a master forger of Egyptian antiquities.
How can you defend someone when you already know they’re guilty?
Brendan: That’s irrelevant for us. Barristers represent what their clients say to the best of their skill and ability. What we think doesn’t matter at all. It’s always better to have a professional distance, you want to avoid any personal involvement, and familiarities such as calling each other by your first names.
I have one hundred more questions about this, but it’s not what we’re supposed to be talking about. What stands out for you in your collection?
Fiona: I have a work by Liane Lang which I am extremely fond of—Benedict, it’s upstairs, you can see it in my study. We were discussing it last night. I also have a Lucio Fontana that Brendan gave me and it’s absolutely beautiful. If there was a fire, that would be the work I would put under my arm, even though it’s probably not terribly valuable.
Brendan: This is a really difficult question, I love the Rembrandt Etchings from the 1630s. When I bought one of them in 2006 there was a whole article about it in the Financial Times. It’s not on display but I will show it to you. I bought it before it arrived in England. Probably the other Rembrandt etchings are my second favorites. From the modern works it is the Bridget Riley, black and white plexiglass fragment series from 1965. We have three.
Why those particularly?
Brendan: They represent the very best period of her work. The clarity of her vision. I think it’s impossible to buy a painting of hers from this period, as they are almost all in public collections, and in any case I couldn’t afford it even if one were available. It encapsulates a lot of her earlier influences.
How many works do you own?
Brendan: Over 250. I have stopped counting a long time ago.
How much is on the walls?
Brendan: The works cover our house here, our house in France, our house in Italy, the children’s flats and houses, and there are more than a hundred upstairs in storage in what used to be one of the children’s bedrooms. There’s also pictures behind the sofa in the living room, Whistler, Burne-Jones, Turner, Palmer, Underwood, and many more. I’ll show you when we go round.
Fiona: It’s beginning to resemble the house of very old people when you have to create small passages to move through the objects.
How do you see your role as collectors in relation to the artwork. Do you think about the long term?
Brendan: Yes, I do. Unfortunately, one of the things that happens is, and of course you don’t think about it at the time, but if you collect good works they increase in value, and if I survive until my mid-eighties and Fiona well beyond that we would face a significant inheritance tax problem. The prospect of works having to be sold so money goes to the Inland Revenue is an unsatisfactory one, so we have been discussing how to consign works to good public galleries. Rather like my friend Trevor Dannatt RA, a famous architect and also an art collector, who is now 97, who has given works to the Whitworth, and some to the Courtauld, which are on display. I do think that things of real quality should be in public ownership.
Have you ever sold a work from your collection?
Brendan: The last piece I sold was to the National Portrait Gallery, it hangs in Room 52. A portrait of the photographer Humphrey Spender by the Surrealist artist John Banting from 1934. It is framed in a Ben Nicholson frame.
Is there anything in your collection that you’ve bought on a whim that has proceeded to become valuable?
Brendan: Yes, I bought Grayson Perry from his first ever show. I bought the devil plate for a tiny amount. It’s now worth perhaps a very great deal more. In 1990 I bought the work you will see in the sitting room from Anthony d’Offay, for what now seems a very small amount, now it is worth a very great deal more than that. It’s called Western Culture Disappearing up its own Arsehole. Typical Grayson title. It contains portraits on it of Oscar Wilde, Gilbert and George, and Noel Coward, and it’s in gold. And I bought it in effect for very little. But of course he was not yet the Turner Prize winner, but I believed in his work from the moment I saw it. I thought he was courageous, and that this was a very good new medium for confronting difficult issues in a strangely sensitive way.
And we own one of his maps, The Island of Bad Art, which of course is Venice, and one of his tapestries entitled Hold your Beliefs Lightly. I like irony in works of art. I was a huge admirer of his work and I remember going to Tate Britain to see the works that were competing for the Turner Prize in 2003, and he was up against the Chapman Brothers, whose work on that occasion I regret to say that I really didn’t like at all. Some of their work is very good but their dioramas of death camps and the desecration of Goya’s etchings I find unappealing. So he was up against them, and of course he was the underdog, and then in the final room where the audience could put their comments, an overwhelming percentage of the comments said they were for him. And of course he won.
Would you say a few things about your work for the Royal Academy and for the Art Fund?
Brendan: I was a member of Tate Members back in the Nineties and they did something that I was a bit concerned about. So I contacted the Chairman, who was Wilf Weeks at the time, and told him that I was concerned, and asked how could I make my voice heard. And he said, well you would have to come onto the Council. So I asked how do you get on to the Council? And he said, “You have to be asked!” So I said, “Ask me!” So he did, the following year, and I was on the Council of Tate Members for almost twelve years, with the membership growing from 25,000 to nearly 100,000.
I sat on the Finance and Audit committee. I also sat on the Council of the British Museum Friends for eleven years. For seven years I was director of DACS, and am now a Director of the DACS Foundation. I am a trustee of the City and Guilds of London Art School and Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. I became one of the non-executive directors of the Royal Academy—the body that runs the Royal Academy. I also chair the Ethics Advisory Committee there, which decides who to accept money from. I am also a member of the Finance Committee of the Art Fund and Chair of the Art Partners of the Art Fund.
Has there ever been any works bought or just considered, that have caused controversy between the two of you?
Brendan: No, never. We collect together. But I have to say that, as many collectors like me do, I also occasionally buy works and then tell Fiona about it afterwards. So sometimes I tell her I’m going to do it and she might say, “We have enough!” And I can’t do without it and have to have it. I buy most of the works on instalments, from dealers and artists. Some of Graham Sutherland’s work we bought from the printers who printed his work in Italy and France. I sometimes surprise Fiona with something I’ve bought five years ago. I didn’t tell her about it because the amount involved was quite a lot. She says “We need the windows done! The conservatory roof! We can’t go on holiday! And you bought this work costing that much!”
I did pick up on a controversy around Allen Jones?
Brendan: Yes... I admire his skill as an artist and there is no question that he is extremely talented. His colours are amazing. He has an extraordinary ability to convey movement. But there is no doubt that they are highly-charged sexually. The reality is that some of the works made back in the Sixties of women in PVC clothing with long boots, high heels, does have the effect of reducing women to objects. Fiona thinks it’s misogynistic. I do understand that entirely. Although I do have some erotic works, one of which is in the loo, a Rodin.
What would you say is the unique power or function of art?
Brendan: Art has the power to change people’s lives. To inspire them, to console them, to give them insight into things. I was a trustee for Paintings in Hospitals, which does exactly that, puts paintings in hospitals, for about nine years, and there is scientific evidence that shows that people in hospital benefit enormously from having works of art on the walls. But it goes beyond that, as there are documented accounts of a situation where for instance a police officer has had to bring to hospital a nine-year old girl who has been run over. He has to be the one to tell the parents, who are sitting in a room, that she has died. And he sees a picture on the wall, a work of art, that evokes these powerful human experiences and gives him the strength to do this. Art can have a powerful influence in moments of severe stress. I have an art collector friend who when his mother was dying, took her favourite painting from her bedroom, and took it to her room in the hospice so she could feel more at home there.
Fiona: One has to try and imagine what it would be like to live in an environment without art. Art is a reflection of love, thought and the imagination, it would be so terribly empty without it. I feel the same way about greenery. One of the things that distressed me about having to work in Manchester was its lack of greenery which is distressing to the soul!
Interview by Käthe Kroma