EXCLUSIVE: This Collector Is Selling Her Vast Art Collection for Charity
Meeting Christina Smith, ‘Queen of Covent Garden’
by Mark Beech
Christina Smith is for the first time putting on show the cream of her vast art collection built up over six decades – with many of the works on sale to benefit some of her favourite charities.
Smith, a leading figure on the London arts scene, has many claims to fame apart from being a collector. She became known as “The Queen of Covent Garden”, partly because she became one of the area’s largest property-owners, including her own gallery; Neal Street East; Smiths Restaurant and The Tea House, which became famous throughout London and elsewhere.
Smith was also in the front line of saving Covent Garden from destruction from the 1970s planners. Now aged 83, she remains active in preserving and protecting the central area.
Starting with importing of furniture and adding Oriental goods, she is both a pioneer for female entrepreneurs and a leading philanthropist. Last but not least, she played a part in the creation of Habitat and is the woman who introduced the duvet to Terence Conran and hence Britain.
This slightly enigmatic figure is also an incorrigible hoarder. We meet for this interview in her incredibly central Neal Street office. Her visitors step off a narrow, noisy street bustling with tourists and shoppers into a quiet oasis piled high with archives.
On the day I visit, some of the paintings are being moved by her curators ready to be put on show in a building nearby. Christina is wearing purple today. We have obviously colour coordinated, she jokes: my sweater is the same shade. She sits with her hair pulled back and puts her trademark large glasses on the computer desk. She speaks slowly, measuring each word as she recalls figures and faces from years ago.
Christina was part of the Covent Garden Set, with names to rival the earlier Bloomsbury Set – including Conran; many artists counted her as a close friend, subject, patron and supporter.
She is in a jolly mood this afternoon after “having a giggle” while assembling material for the show in the morning. A walk down memory lane has unearthed a toy steam engine from her youth and some photos of her at her formidable best. Christina is further cheered as a friend pops out to fetch hot chocolate, and she happily points out pinned-up reproductions of Gary Larson’s The Far Side series.
She admits to just a few mixed feelings, looking wistfully at a David Gentleman sketch which she has just uncovered and loves again. The pictures are “old friends,” she says. She has finally decided not to move from her Neal Street base which is absolutely crammed to its high proportioned ceiling with books and memories of a lifetime. But the time has come to declutter a little, rationalise, sort things out and help needy theatres and arts organisations.
Besides David Gentleman, the list of boldface name artists going into the selling exhibition includes Elisabeth Frink, Maggi Hambling, David Hockney, Henri Matisse, Cedric Morris and David Remfry.
Christina’s love for art dates back to childhood. Her father, the doctor at Rugby School, and her Finnish mother, had a huge influence on her life. While still in Rugby, Christina bought her first piece of art. She was aged just 16 and it was a Picasso print of a dancing girl.
In the world of work, she started as a telephonist in the City. Later she imported Bentwood furniture and Vico Magistretti chairs. She played a part in the early Habitat, which then had just one shop, in Chelsea. It later of course became a department store with branches all over the world selling home furniture and design. She worked closely with (now Sir) Terence Conran and became rather more than just his assistant.
With her Finnish origins, she advocated Scandinavian design and on one of their Finnish island trips she showed Conran a duvet – a revelation at a time when British beds were inevitably fussily made with heavy sheets, over-blankets and bedspreads. The two discovered that a good duvet was lighter and warmer. Plus, the bed could be made in seconds. Conran was convinced. The result was to change the sleeping habits of Britain and many other nations as Habitat led the way. (The store also popularised bean bags, chicken bricks, flat-pack furniture and much more.)
After seven years of marriage and two children, Conran’s second wife Shirley divorced him in 1962 on the grounds of adultery. This led to speculation that he would marry Christina but he finally settled with food writer Caroline Herbert.
Christina strategically shifted to America and started moving into in retail herself. She later chose Covent Garden as a base, leasing her first building with backing from Simon Sainsbury of the supermarket family. As managing director of Goods & Chattels, she had a range of successful products such as tote bags.
Serendipity led her to meet Vera Russell, who managed the Garage Gallery, in the 70,000-square-foot Seven Dials Warehouse off Neal Street, which Christina subsequently bought. At one stage, she owned five freeholds and six leaseholds and was the area’s largest private landlord (landlady) with some 45 tenants – including The Creative Business, Conran Associates, Neal Street Restaurant, Cafe Des Amis and Lynne Franks.
Her gallery had an impressive roster of shows, including David Hockney’s first public exhibition. Latterly, it officially became Smith’s Gallery, three spaces which became seminal and where others could put on events for about a week. For a decade there were about 60 exhibitions a year. These included The Sainsbury Contemporary Art show; Readers Digest Graphic Exhibition; Robin Campbell Arts Council Memorial exhibition; Caroline Wiseman’s first print exhibition and London Art College degree shows. Later she had a preference for degree shows from the provinces of rising stars.
One of Christina’s largest roles has been at the forefront of the fight for Covent Garden. By the 1970s, the Fruit & Vegetable Market needed to relocate and the whole site was proposed for demolition and redevelopment. The campaign led by her and others has resulted in one of London’s most attractive spaces, a shopping and cultural destination and tourist attraction. Christina has sponsored many events for the Seven Dials Trust, including a reception for HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Prince Claus on the unveiling of the Sundial Pillar.
Christina commissioned David Gentleman to do two series of prints recording the transformation of Covent Garden. The first set, of immense historical interest, shows the site when it was still working as a fresh fruit and vegetable market. The second series is also unique, showing the scene once the Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA) had won the fight.
“I knew David already when all the rows about Covent Garden started, and I had no idea he was so political,” she recalls. “He still is. I was rather lucky. I thought David could do something about it. The AA (Architectural Association) did a long piece in its magazine which certainly showed what was there then. I still have some 20 copies. We were lucky because you can describe a place but only show it with pictures. David did it well.”
Gentleman, now 87, is also known for his murals at Charing Cross underground station. She says: “He is still going strong. He is phenomenal. When he did his book London, You’re Beautiful: An Artist’s Year (2012) he went out every day. Artists need to stimulate, it is like breathing to them. That is true too of Howard Hodgkin (84) who died recently.”
Alongside the large and meticulously detailed Gentlemen works of London, Christina picks up his simple sketch of Paris and declares it her favourite. She examines its confident simplicity, the green tree conveyed in a few lines, inky hints at moving pedestrians and watery sky.
“This little sketch I picked up again this morning. It is a very small picture of a typical bit of Paris. I am very fond of Paris – it’s really about places you have loved or still loved or the people,” she says.
A label on the back of the frame says that the sketch was purchased from the Mercury Gallery of 26 Cork Street on April 18th, 1991. The subject is the Institut de France and the sketch was used in his book on Paris published by Hodder & Stoughton in that year. (The sale also includes a David Hockey print of a French shop from 1971.)
The choice of a French scene may appear perverse given her love for a different city on the other end of the Eurostar line. Christina became a founder trustee of the Seven Dials Trust and is a founder member of the Covent Garden Community Association. One can still see her actively looking at every planning application to try to see the best outcome exists for the community, business and visitors.
Another of Christina’s achievements was with the emporium Neal Street East, which sold a myriad of Oriental and Asian goods, clothes and furniture. On her travels, she found a wealth of objects not commonly found in the west. Sitting on her bookshelves even now are some Japanese daruma dolls with slightly sinister papier-mâché heads, their white eyes waiting to be painted in as dreams are decided upon and met.
The Tea House also reflects the fruits of her extensive travel. It is still open and trading in Neal Street, now a family business and selling a wonderful selection of teas and tea accessories. Along the way there have been myriad other ventures, even at one stage a flower shop called Flowersmith.
The number of her staff reached a peak at 200 with the opening of Smith’s Restaurant, as she developed her fascination with cooking and food. Her ventures included the Casbar, Macreadys and Peg’s Club. A fair few paintings for sale have a food, wine and restaurant theme, especially fish.
It is difficult to imagine what audacity she needed to succeed during a time when a woman in business was rarely considered to be serious. That includes dealing with developers, banks, lawyers, opera houses, museums, galleries, retailers, accountants and builders. Back in the day, market traders showed her respect and loved her being around, and she has repaid that faith. Those who worked with her say she always looked you square in the eye – and if you blinked, you knew she had the upper hand.
Christina has always championed women and that has been a constant theme in the purchase of her vast art collection. She has long been very supportive of friends and gives an eye to the challenging.
Lastly, when all other contemporaries were hanging up their boots, Christina found a new outlet in the theatre. She backed the musical Carmen Jones, at the Old Vic, put on by Rosemary Squires and Howard Panter. Having lost money on her first investment on that show, she then went on to be a great supporter and financial backer of the Ambassador Theatre Group, ending up on the board. The Donmar has been a love affair during the tenure of three directors and is a great source of pleasure for Christina. Now she is also focused on the Trafalgar Studios. She was awarded an OBE in 2014 for philanthropic services to Conservation and the Arts.
Apart from the Paris picture, she has other favourites such as animal images – try to guess the sex of the sheep in one, many hours of happiness.
Elsewhere, there are keynote pieces which are portraits of Christina herself – Maggi Hambling’s version from 1989 against a large floral background and a 1988 watercolour of Smith juggling food and wine by Remfry. His artwork was used for the graphics of Smith’s Restaurant and on the packaging for Neal Street East in Christina’s favourite red. Speaking of the works she has by artists named David, Christina jokes: “I have well over 60 Davids!”
Her collection is an eclectic mix which in part mirrors the 1970s and 1980s at its core. The greatest single influence was the Contemporary Arts Society, of which Christina has been a great supporter, staging a famous post-exhibition lunch for artists in Smith’s Restaurant.
The second influence was Christina’s friends, Cork Street Galleries. (The Cork Street area is also changing, with galleries under threat and moving out as developers and high overheads take their toll.)
A fuller list of those in the exhibition is: Dame Elizabeth Blackadder RA, Sandra Blow RA, Edward Cullinan RA, Dame Elisabeth Frink RA, Anthony Fry, David Gentleman, Maggi Hambling CBE, Gwen Hardie, Nicola Hicks, David Hockney OM RA, Lin Jammet, Henri Matisse, Neil Macpherson, Robert Medley CBE RA, Sir Cedric Morris, Dhruva Mistry CBE RA, Mary Newcomb, Simon Nicholson, Yoko Terauchi, David Remfry RA, Colin Self, Michael B. White and Scottie Wilson. There are also a large number of other paintings and prints by various artists which are not included in the main catalogue.
All prices are, at this point, on request. All works will be on show for the week of the 27th March 2017.
The exhibition would not be possible without the generosity of Kohn Pedersen Fox in hosting it. The leading architectural practice based in Covent Garden is responsible for the next Master Plan of the area.
At the private view on March 27, there will also be a selection of Christina refers to as her hoard, which includes lacquer boxes, scrolls, silk scarves, lengths of material, kimonos, basket ware and a host of trinkets. Christina feels the time is right to pass some of the items on to those who can best enjoy them rather than them sitting in store.
The food will be donated by some of Christina’s favourite restaurants: Spring, L’Escargot, St. John, The Delaunay and Mon Plaisir.
Beneficiaries include the Architectural Association, Covent Garden Community Association, the Donmar, Royal Academy Schools and Trafalgar Studios.
The event is also planned as a celebration – of Christina and her 83rd birthday and diverse interests that have become her business and personal life. While it focuses on Christina’s art, but as with every conversation with her, it ventures into other fields.
A reference to the Architectural Association for example will take her off to sing the praises of her architect friends Wright & Wright and their new library at Magdalen College, Oxford. Then on again to new plays and old friends.
She is sorting out artwork as I leave and as a friend offers to help, she says: “I’ll do it my way.” That’s the story of your life, I remark to her. Christina smiles back. It is the story of her success too.
Christina Anne Smith’s Exhibition runs 27 – 31st March 2017 at Kohn Pederson Fox 7a Langley Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2 9 JA