Sweet Art Deal – Frank McNally on a surprising Irish contribution to the history of art

An Irishman’s Diary

 Frank Dunphy and Damien Hirst. Dunphy revolutionised the London art market and turned Damien Hirst into a multimillionaire. Photograph: Billy Farrell/Getty Images

Frank Dunphy and Damien Hirst. Dunphy revolutionised the London art market and turned Damien Hirst into a multimillionaire. Photograph: Billy Farrell/Getty Images

 

It had somehow escaped me until he died recently that one of the most influential people in the so-called Britart movement was a Dubliner and the son of a former Cumann na mBan member, who as an altar boy in the 1940s, officiated at “many an IRA funeral”, with “the lads firing off the old 303s over the grave, and me swinging the thurible”.

But this is only one of several colourful things I now know about the late Frank Dunphy, who revolutionised the London art market and turned Damien Hirst in particular into a multimillionaire. 

Another is that his official first name was Erskine, after Erskine Childers, and that his mother once brought him into the Dáil to meet Dan Breen, her comrade from the War of Independence, who greeted them while wearing “slippers”.

Later, as a young accountant in England, Dunphy learned his trade working for burlesque and circus artists. 

Arriving off the boat from Dublin, he had been brought to a “safe house” by another well-known Irish organisation, “the Legion of Mary”. But the house wasn’t safe enough, obviously, because his clients soon included Soho strip clubs, who circumvented the indecency laws of the era by posing as “life-drawing classes”.

Apart from anything else, he was a one-man campaign against the stereotyping of accountancy, in a classic Monty Python sketch and elsewhere, as boring. Of his circus-act portfolio alone, he told the Observer a few years ago, “I had Coco the Clown and all the top jugglers in Europe on my books.”

This must have a useful preparation for dealing with Hirst, Tracy Emin, and the multiple other celebrity artists he attracted in later years, multiplying their income from rich collectors such as Charles Saatchi, who (according to the London Times obituary) once paid Dunphy the tribute of asking with a growl: “Who the fuck is this bloody Irishman?”

Hirst was the biggest beneficiary by far. He and Dunphy bonded, and when not extracting enormous sums of money from art buyers, they enjoyed “long existential discussions that drew on their shared Irish Catholic heritage”. Yes, it turns out Hirst had an Irish mother too, which may explain a lot.

***

I liked the fact that the Guardian’s obituary added a touch of burlesque, albeit unintentionally. 

Mixing up their Catholic accessories, they at first had the Mass-serving Dunphy “swinging the chasuble”, before correcting the error.  As an army of former altar-boys (they haven’t gone away, you know) could have told them, and probably did, the chasuble is the outer vestment worn by a priest.  You wouldn’t be swinging that unless you had seriously overdone it with the smoke.

***

Dunphy may also have been an influence on making London the European centre of the art market at the expense of a former powerhouse, Paris. Or maybe the French just became too bourgeois at some point and lost their bohemian edge.  

That’s one possible explanation for an incident at the Musée d’Orsay last week where a woman was initially refused entry because of her low-cut dress. The gallery later apologised after she tweeted a complaint, illustrating it with a photographic self-portrait in the (hardly indecent) garment.

The joke here, of course, is that the Musée d’Orsay houses many of the world’s most famous pictures of naked women. Its collection includes Renoir’s Grand Nu (“Large Nude”) and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Lunch on the Grass”), both of which display the female body in all its glory. Another of Manet’s, Olympia, even lets it be known, through several heavy hints, that the woman portrayed is a demi-mondaine (“citizen of the half-world”), a poetic French euphemism for prostitute.

And then of course there is the grandly titled “L’Origine du Monde” (“The Origin of the World”), by Gustave Courbet.  That too features a demi-something – the lower half of his female model, in close-up.  Painted in 1866, it was so controversial it couldn’t be displayed anywhere until the 1980s and used to have its own security guard. But as measured by postcard sales in the museum shop, it is now one of the most popular exhibits.

A putative top half of that portrait emerged a few years ago, but the claims were disputed. So far as I know, Courbet’s real-life model remains unknown. But the most likely candidate is still Joanna Hiffernan, the artist’s favourite muse, who was born in Ireland during the Famine years and emigrated first to London, then Paris, on the way to becoming another of this island’s colourful contributions to the history of art.

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