The art of be­ing Frank

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JU­LIA WEINER

FRANK COHEN ar­rives at the staff en­trance of lux­ury food store Fort­num & Ma­son in a bit of a flurry. As we walk through its gilded gal­leries he tells me “I am get­ting too old for this.” “This” is putting on ex­hi­bi­tions of his art col­lec­tion, one of the most im­por­tant pri­vate col­lec­tions of in­ter­na­tional mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art in the coun­try. Last year, he loaned a se­lec­tion of paint­ings by Bri­tish artists to the store for the first Frank x Fort­num’s. This year, he has cho­sen to fo­cus on just one artist, loan­ing 13 works by the late John Bel­lany RA, sup­ple­mented by works from the artist’s to make up the largest show­ing of his work since his death in 2013.

The truth is that Cohen seems to have as much en­ergy and en­thu­si­asm as he did when I first in­ter­viewed him some 13 years ago. Wear­ing his trade­mark spec­ta­cles which have one square and one round lens, this pair dec­o­rated with a green cam­ou­flage pat­tern, and dressed in jeans and train­ers, the lat­ter em­broi­dered with rock­ets and space ships, his long blonde hair flops into his eyes. He looks nowhere near his 73 years. Cohen, who was born into a work­ing-class Jewish home in Manch­ester and pep­pers his con­ver­sa­tion with Yid­dish phrases, made his for­tune with a chain of DIY stores. He was in­tro­duced to art by his wife Cher­ryl, be­gin­ning by col­lect­ing prints by LS Lowry un­til he could af­ford the orig­i­nals.

In the past decade, Cohen has shown his col­lec­tion in spa­ces he set up in Wolver­hamp­ton and Lon­don so how did he come to work with the world’s old­est depart­ment store? He says that he’ll give me the spiel and re­veals it all started with fel­low-Man­cu­nian, the writer Howard Ja­cob­son.

“Howard is a very good friend of mine. I used to work for his dad selling tinned food on a stall in Garston mar­ket in Liver­pool. Howard and I didn’t know each other well, he was very aca­demic and went off to Cambridge Univer­sity whilst I was still work­ing the mar­kets. I met him again many years later when I was at the Venice Bi­en­nale and went up to him. He said to me ‘Frankie Cohen, I can’t be­lieve it. How can you have be­come an uber-art col­lec­tor?’ He couldn’t get over it. “Any­way, Howard’s wife and Fort­num & Ma­son CEO Ewan Vent­ner’s wife are friends and Ewan and Howard share the same birthday so they cel­e­brate to­gether. I hap­pened to get in­vited by Howard. I was sit­ting talk­ing to Ewan and he says to me ‘Frank, how about hav­ing an art ex­hi­bi­tion at Fort­num’s?’

“For a minute I won­dered if he was kid­ding me. And then I thought why not? The store faces the Royal Academy, Ewan wanted to do it the same week as the Frieze Art Fair. He wanted to get his toe in the art world wa­ter be­cause he is a very, very clever guy, and he does pro­mo­tions in the store week in week out. He’s al­ways got an event go­ing on and he has built up this busi­ness over the years he has been here.’ In the five years that Vent­ner has been in charge, Fort­num’s has had record prof­its.

Cohen con­tin­ues the story. “I agreed to do the ex­hi­bi­tion of my col­lec­tion with him. We dis­cussed it and dis­cussed it. It wasn’t easy, be­tween the con­ver­sa­tion and the ac­tual fruition it took a cou­ple of years. It all had to be planned and or­gan­ised. You can’t just bring art in and bang it up on the walls. It had to have a theme. So that was how we started.”

The first ex­hi­bi­tion last year was tremen­dously suc­cess­ful and so they de­cided to do it again. When try­ing to come up with a theme, Cohen felt “it had got to be some­thing I’m per­son­ally in­volved with. But I hap­pened to love an artist called John Bel­lany and I owned a lot of his won­der­ful early works so I ap­proached He­len, his widow and her fam­ily and asked them if they would be pre­pared to put some works into the store if they could sell them.’

De­spite hav­ing bought a num­ber of the artist’s works, Cohen never ac­tu­ally met Bel­lany. He first came across the work about ten years ago when vis­it­ing the stu­dio of his friend, the artist Damien Hirst. “I saw th­ese two works on the wall and loved them. Damien told me that they were by John Bel­lany and that is when I started to in­ves­ti­gate him.” Hirst has his own gallery and Cohen be­lieves that he might have been plan­ning a Bel­lany show “but I beat him to it.”

He feels that the paint­ings are per­fect for the lo­ca­tion. “The work in my hon­est opin­ion lends it­self to this type of depart­ment store. Bel­lany came from a small fish­ing town in Scot­land. Be­cause this is a store most fa­mous for its gro­ceries, I thought the sub­ject of fish would go very well.” There are al­most 50 works spread around the store with a num­ber placed promi­nently in the shop win­dows. In pride of place is a self-por­trait of the artist with his friend David Bowie. “David loved Bel­lany’s work. It’s funny how the peo­ple who ap­pre­ci­ate him, me, David, Damien, we all come from sim­i­lar work­ing class, coun­cil house back­grounds. We weren’t born with sil­ver spoons in our mouths and we like his de­pic­tions of the work­ing class.”

Cohen then in­forms me that he ac­tu­ally owns three more works by Bel­lany that he could not in­clude in the show. “He went to Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp and what he saw up­set him. He came back and made a se­ries of pic­tures that are very pow­er­ful and tough. They should be in the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum.”

Once we have fin­ished talk­ing about Bel­lany, Cohen scrolls through images on his phone to show me some other works in his col­lec­tion. He points out in par­tic­u­lar the Jewish artists he col­lects ex­plain­ing “I don’t just buy go out and buy a work be­cause the artist is Jewish but there are some great Jewish artists.” He owns works by Kos­soff, Auer­bach and “the good Yid­dishe boy” Richard Eurich. He proudly shows me a beau­ti­ful draw­ing he owns by David Bomberg en­ti­tled Fam­ily Be­reave­ment, which shows a fam­ily sit­ting shiva, a yarhzeit can­dle prom­i­nent in the back­ground.

“I like Jews” he says, “I’m not re­li­gious but I’ve got a Jewish thing.” He speaks of his re­gret at not hav­ing yet been able to ac­quire a work by the Jewish artist Sou­tine. “I think he is my favourite of all time. I wish I could own one.”

For my last ques­tion, I ask Frank about his plans for the fu­ture. He ex­plains that his Lon­don art space, the Dairy, came up for re­de­vel­op­ment “and that was the end of that. I won’t be open­ing any more spa­ces. I don’t want to do it any­more. I’d rather do a one off show like this once a year. It is more fun and I’m not com­mit­ted to it 52 weeks of the year.” He is also slow­ing down a lit­tle on the col­lect­ing. ‘I’m buy­ing only if I see some­thing sen­sa­tional. I’m more dis­crim­i­nat­ing now. I only buy the top works.’

I like Jews. I’m not re­li­gious but I have a Jewish thing

Fort­num’s X Frank 17 con­tin­ues at Fort­num & Ma­son un­til Oc­to­ber 28



Frank Cohen stands next to a John Bel­lany paint­ing at Fort­nums X Frank (left). The stair­case at the store, with John Bel­lany paint­ings (above), Bel­lany’s Perdu (be­low)

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