Charles Saatchi: The Reclusive Art Collector Behind a British Ruckus

  • Share
  • Read Later
Dave M. Benett / Getty Images

For a guy who has made dozens of artists famous, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, Charles Saatchi is quite reclusive. This is usually a shrewd business move in the art market; talking too much can detract from the mystique of the work or the artist. But it’s a definite minus for a husband who is photographed with his hands at his wife’s throat, especially if that wife is famous.

In a series of photographs splashed all over the English speaking world via the Sunday Mirror, Saatchi and his wife, the TV cook Nigella Lawson, are clearly having an argument at their regular outside table at a London restaurant. In some of the shots, the former advertising mogul has his hands on Lawson’s throat. Whether or not this was an attack or an unconventionally “playful” way of having a tiff, as Saatchi later claimed, is unclear, but he did accept an official warning from London police for the apparent assault, according to the Associated Press.

This is not the first time Saatchi has been photographed putting his hands on his wife. In photos published by the Daily Mail in December, he covers her mouth as they discuss his book Babble, which came out in March. Lawson does not appear overly concerned, but in the more recent set, she is clearly in tears.

(MORE: 10 Questions for Nigella Lawson)

The problem for Saatchi is that the new photos lack context, not just as to what the argument was about, but more crucially as to the neck-holder himself. Face to face communication is clearly not Saatchi’s thing; he rarely gives interviews, preferring to speak through books, his newspaper column and the occasional question and answer session.

What most people know about Saatchi is that he was born in Baghdad just over 70 years ago, but raised mostly in England, where he founded an advertising agency with his brother Maurice. In the 80s, Saatchi & Saatchi was the world’s biggest and most famous advertising firm.

He started collecting art surprisingly young, in his 20s, at first mostly buying American artists like Sol Le Witt and Donald Judd, but pretty soon moving to more local artists. Having almost single handedly created the Yong British Artists movement—which was not averse to shock value—he more recently has said that “my dark little secret is that I don’t actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art.” He’s estimated to be squarely in Britain’s 1%, among the 500 richest men in the country.

In his book-length or online question and answer sessions (he appears to have cribbed some material for one of his books Be the Worst You Can Be: Life’s Too Long for Patience & Virtue from a series he did online), he displays an adman’s flair for the witty turn of phrase but a very wide curmudgeonly and oddball streak. He is, he says, “narcolepsically” easily bored. He notes that “if heroin could be offered in more convenient capsule or liquid form, and be easily available at [grocery stores], that would be a considerable boon.”

He once suspended a life-size rubber figure upside down in his bathroom so that those sitting on the toilet would come face to face with it.

(MORE: Damien Hirst Brings His Famous Spots to the Brit Award Statuettes)

He’s never been arrested but “that doesn’t mean I haven’t deserved to be,” he writes. “One of my ex-wives gave as her grounds for divorce my ‘unreasonable behaviour’. People get locked up for far less every day.” He admits to having a temper, especially with himself. “I have just screeched at myself for some stupidity or other, and would have head-butted me into a heap, if it were possible.”

And, in case there were any doubt, he admits to being aggressive: “My aim in life,” he wrote, “isn’t so much the pursuit of happiness as the happiness of pursuit.”

None of this is anything like proof that he meant to hurt his wife, just that he’s an odd duck. The British police are said to be looking at the photos to see if the incident warrants further investigation.

His marriage to Lawson is her second (her first husband died of cancer) and his third. And he seems to have positive, though slightly bizarre things to say about Lawson, whom he describes as “pneumatic.” “Nigella finds it rather common to be my third wife, and would have found it more chic to be my fifth,” he writes.  When asked about his favorite place, he responds “My bed, with its over-sized plasma screen at one end, and Nigella babbling away at the other.”

Nearly all of Saatchi’s interchanges seem designed to be impressive and deflective rather than informative and it’s possible he could just be massively shy. But absent a rounded public persona, popular opinion is running largely against him, especially since Lawson has always portrayed herself, successfully, as a domestic figure — a mother who cooks well, rather than a famous chef. Oh, and let’s not forget she’s a widow.

As for the wife in question, she doesn’t talk much about her famous husband. In a recent interview with Time, she declined to weigh in even on which of his artworks she likes.  “You know one of the things I would never answer is about the art in his collection. You know, I just wouldn’t,” she said. “I just feel… although he once said to me, ‘There is nothing you could cook that would be as good as just some Weetabix with sugar and milk,’ so I should retaliate really, but I found that very endearing.”

MORE: Saving Cork Street: Is London’s Historic Art District Under Threat?