Charley Hill

I went through a portal in Brixton

Lesley Hilling, Tracey Citron

Lesley Hilling and the Art Detective’s Muse

Saturday, 29th March at about 11 AM I went through a portal in Brixton. It happened when I was standing in the artist Lesley Hilling’s front room in amongst her clutter and bric-a-brac. All of a sudden I went back in time and space to a state of being I hadn’t felt in decades.

The invite from the Knight Webb Gallery in Brixton was for “a coffee morning with artist studio visit”. The plan was to meet at the gallery at 10.00am, have a quick cuppa there, then walk over to the artist’s house where she would speak about her work over more tea and cake. No mention of portals.

Lesley Hilling

A sculpture by Lesley Hilling

There was already a dozen people at the gallery by 10.00 AM. I took a couple of photos and noticed many of the sculptures had already been sold. ‘Excellent examples of British art’, I heard someone call them and I kinda understood what they meant, but what made them so special for me was how a load of old junk, disparate bits of wood, glass and bric-a-brac, had been forged into such beautiful, cohesive and perfectly balanced works of art.

It was a lovely bright sunny morning as Rufus Webb Knight, director of the gallery, led the way over to Lesley’s house. We chatted about the area which I’m not very familiar with and the Brixton art scene and Lesley. By the time we got there, I was feeling rather curious about what to expect.

Rufus Knight Webb entering Lesley Hilling's house in Brixton

Rufus Knight Webb entering Lesley Hilling’s house in Brixton

Walking through the front door, I noticed the walls were covered from top to toe with drawings, photos and paintings of people and animals and how the sliding door of the loo was plastered with pages from one of my favourite books, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli) by Carlo Levi. In Italian, unread and unknown to the artist, she’d stuck the pages on her wall.

About 8 of us tried to cram into her studio as she chatted about a door she’s making from mementos that once sat on a mantle piece and belonged to a dear friend’s mum who had recently passed away. Upstairs on her first floor, I saw two more doors made the same way, they looked great in situ and I thought of how they’d make amazing gifts.

Lesley Hilling's house

A load of old rubbish!

As in the hall and studio, Lesley’s front room was loaded with stuff: shelves upon shelves of all sorts of everything. I saw wooden frames, a naked plastic doll, a tin airplane, snooker balls, old clocks, an empty birdcage, a jar of feathers, a vinyl record and basically anything I would have thrown into a black sack given half the chance.

Then in a split second it all appeared completely different. Nothing had changed but I no longer saw a load of old junk. Now I was looking at pieces of life and each piece was in its rightful place. I no longer needed to judge or label it. In fact, I no longer needed to judge anything or anyone including myself. We were all just entities, like the bric-a-brac, perfect as we were in time and space. I felt expansive, harmonious and calm, devoid of worry, judgment, waiting or hoping, or any feeling that hankered with the shear perfection of life! All was truly well in that moment and everything was in sync.

It was just a fleeting second and obviously I didn’t mention it there and then (what would I have said?) but the memory of it lingered throughout the day. I’m sure I was absorbing the energy of Lesley’s house, there was such a strong creative flow there. When I asked her if I could have a photo of us together she said yes, but that she wasn’t too happy about wearing her mum’s old jumper. ‘Who cares,’ I thought, I just felt so much gratitude for her, for living her life the way she wants, doing what she does. It had brought me back to my own essence, my own creative flow.

Lesley Hilling doors

Sculptured doors by Lesley Hilling

I wandered up to the top floor, to the kitchen and living room, where her partner was organising the second batch of tea and cake. I tucked into a piece of yummy chocolate cake and chatted with two other women who like me, are feeling the need to create – write, paint, sculpt, whatever. I told them about this blog and about working with Charley and how we want to recover the missing pages (stolen and sold on the black market) of an ancient Hebrew bible called the Aleppo Codex. They said it sounded like a Harrison Ford movie and that I should write about it. I told Charley I’d start this week…

I was happy as I walked down Atlantic Road back to Brixton tube station and so thankful for having been invited and for having gone. It was a strong reminder of how art and artists are so essential and the joy, not to mention the importance, of being inspired. I’d felt more than inspiration though, I’d gone through some type of portal, or shift on a soul level at least for a split second.  In any case, I started writing the minute I got home and didn’t stop until I went to bed about 10 hours later.

Since then, I’ve been wondering what it would be like to live in that state of being continually and how Lesley relates to all the pieces of life she collects. I must remember to ask her the next time we meet.

For more info about her work please contact Rufus or Mirri at the Knight Webb Gallery Brixton.

Art Detective Charley Hill featured in Garage magazine

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Sandwiched between interviews with founder of Net-A-Porter.com Natalie Massenet and fashion doyen Sonia Rykiel, the A.D. recounts three famous cases of art theft and speaks about his experiences as an art detective in the latest edition of Garage.

Garage is a biannual glossy art and fashion magazine headed by Dasha Zhukova, girlfriend of Russian oligarch and Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich. It features the vanguard of international art, fashionistas and arty photo shoots. It’s the in-crowd in print.

Charley’s feature spans pages 150 – 157. He fits in as he does in real life – he doesn’t – but his inimitable voice rings through loud and clear and  his knowledge of the art world, the characters that inhabit it and his own trials and tribulations make for an entertaining and intriguing read.

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The magazine isn’t online as yet and if you can’t get your hands on a copy don’t worry; here’s the gist of it along with some of my own musings. All text in quote marks comes directly from Garage.

Case 1: the A.D. recounts the largest art heist in history and what I call one of the Holy Grails of stolen art – the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum Heist in Boston, 1990. (The other one is Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence stolen from the 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo in 1969)

The entire heist is estimated to be worth around $500 million although in reality it’s impossible to give it a monetary value because 1) from the present owner’s point of view it’s worthless – who’s going to buy famous stolen art? And 2) if – or should I say when – recovered, all the art works will be returned to the Isabella Gardner Museum. However, giving them a hypothetical market value is also unrealistic as there really is no limit to what art collectors are paying for art these days.

Who did it and where the loot is now remains a mystery. The A.D. gives three current strands of enquiry including his own. He writes: “My strand of enquiry leads to Ireland as well, although I admit it may be as speculative as the FBI’s ideas. The robbery at the Gardner Museum was inspired, if that is the right word, by Martin Cahill’s art thefts in Ireland including the great heist at Sir Alfred and Lady Beit’s home, Russborough.”

He believes that the original thieves are now long gone “went to meet our Maker,” as he puts it, but that the artworks are stashed in the land purported to have no snakes. He concludes, “The people who hold the artworks now are not the people who stole them. In my opinion, the reason why they are hidden away is because no one wants to get caught in possession, and those who now hold them are unsure what to do with them. As I see it, my task is to provide them with a few good ideas about how best to deliver those pictures, the finial and the beaker back to Boston.”

There’s also a reward of $5 million for finding them.

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Case 2: Recovering Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Charley speaks about recovering The Scream on the BBC World Service if you fancy a listen. However, something I hadn’t heard him say before was, “Munch was an artistic genius and a reprehensible creep. When he died, he was given a state funeral by Vidkun Quisling’s Nazi collaborationist government.” Does this mean he wasn’t a degenerate artist? I must ask the A.D.

Case 3: Lucian Freud’s portrait of Francis Bacon. I’m glad the A.D. brought this case up not only because I’d forgotten about it, but more importantly because there’s a real possibility that the present owner might actually read Garage and be moved to make amends.

The story is that Lucian Freud painted this portrait of Francis Bacon his “sometimes friend” as Charley says, in 1952 and the Tate Gallery bought it the same year. In 1988 the Tate lent it to a Freud retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin where it was pinched off the wall and smuggled out of the gallery. It’s an oil on copper affair, seemingly no bigger than a large postcard so sticking it under a coat or in a bag would have been easy. Many people including Freud himself speculated that a fan/student took it probably on the spur of the moment only later realizing the enormity of the theft. There’s a great article about this story in The Guardian.

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In 2001, in a plea to have it returned and in conjunction with an upcoming Freud retrospective at Tate Modern, Freud designed a wanted style poster showing a similar image of the one stolen and offering a reward of 300,000 deutsche marks. 2,500 copies were posted around Berlin but no one came forward. Has the painting vanished forever? I hope not.

The A.D. writes, “Now is a good time to recover the Bacon portrait, because an inferior painting, a triptych portrait of Freud by Bacon, recently sold for an eye-watering $142 million in New York. Because it is in institutional ownership, the Bacon portrait by Freud cannot have such a price tag. However, it can be put on display for us all to admire and contemplate. Recovering that portrait is in the public interest.

“Some poor soul is probably anxious about having the painting and keeping it hidden. Don’t suffer if you have it or know the person who does. If individuals paint these masterpieces, and individuals can steal them, then individuals can recover them. It’s something for us all to consider doing. We have a common bond of humanity and civilization that can embolden us.”

“Garage readers in Berlin can ask around. There may well be a reward comparable to the one advertised on the 2001 poster but that has yet to be decided. However, money is legally available for information leading to the recovery of the painting. Contact info@garagemag.com and we will work out a way to restore the painting to the Tate.”

The three cases are followed by an interview in which the A.D. discusses how he became an art detective, his relationship with the criminal world and the late art collector George Oritz who he describes as, “the most successful, unprosecuted, dishonest handler of stolen works of art, ever.”

Here’s two of my favourite questions and answers:

Garage: How do you maintain a successful relationship with the criminal world?

The AD: I no longer do undercover work. I did it as a police office because I was asked to. You’ve got to keep your lies to a minimum but you’ve got to present yourself as somebody people want you to be… which is the fashion world all over, I suppose. I’ll only ever lie if I absolutely have to. My patter is pretty much the same – I go as me, a retired police officer, and since I’m pushing 70, it’s easily done.  I’m as straight as I can be with people but with a reasonable amount of charm. I once had dinner with Judge Giovanni Falcone, the world’s most famous Mafia prosecutor, and I asked him, “How do you get the pentiti [Mafia informants] to talk to you?” He said, “When I tell somebody I’ll do something, I do it.” It riveted itself on my brain. Whatever I may think about people personally, I keep it to myself and just treat them as human beings, and that includes people you wouldn’t want to take home to meet your mother.

Garage: Your one of the most renowned people in your field. What marks you apart?

The AD: Bullshit. I’m a straight talker and paradoxically a big bullshitter. Also I tend not to be frightened of anybody other than myself – and I’m not all that frightened of myself either.

Garage Magazine

Garage Magazine

Art Detective Charley Hill interviewed on BBC World Service TV about recovering ‘The Scream’

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Today is the anniversary of the theft of Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream (1893). It was stolen on 12th February 1994, the same day as the start of the Winter Olympics taking place in Lillehammer. It took the thieves 50 seconds to climb a ladder, smash a window, grab the painting and get away. They also had time to leave a note which said, “Thanks for the poor security” – well at least they had a sense of humour.

Several months later Charley et al., recovered The Scream. He talks about it in an interview on the BBC World Service TV which you can watch here.