The designer tells Vogue why she has chosen 16 rich, dramatic portraits from a forthcoming Sotheby’s sale to adorn the walls of her futuristic Dover Street store – and how Old Master paintings came to be her most exciting source of inspiration.
“I will admit I am learning,” laughs Victoria Beckham, with characteristic self-deprecation, of her experience curating an exhibition of Old Master paintings for her Dover Street, London, store. “Old Masters is a new passion, something that I am excited to learn more about.”
The designer has partnered with Sotheby’s ahead of its Old Master sale in July to exhibit a selection of 16 portraits dating from the 15th to the early-19th century in the hyper-modern confines of her flagship boutique. Sumptuous works by Rubens, Cranach and Larkin will be on display, hung across several floors between Beckham’s Pre-Fall collection, between 22 and 27 June, as part of Mayfair Art Weekend.
Beckham was entirely up front about her novice art historian status. The designer has a dazzling contemporary art collection in her home, assembled by herself and her husband David, which is chock full with works by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Banksy, and Julian Schnabel, but Old Master paintings, officially defined as work made by a skilled painter between the 13th and 19th centuries, is new territory.
“David and myself have been collecting contemporary art for some time now,” she tells Vogue, “but it wasn’t until I visited the Frick in New York a few months ago that I developed an interest in Old Masters. This project is a quite a surprising thing for me to do, but when I first opened my store I had big dreams to showcase other people’s work here. Partnering with Sotheby’s, who have been so generous with their time, is everything and so much more.”
The feeling is mutual. “It’s been such a delight working with someone who is not an art historian, but who has a very clear reaction to imagery and a strong aesthetic sense,” says Chloe Stead, deputy director specialist of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s, who worked with Beckham to curate a series of paintings from the upcoming sale. “Victoria is so enamored with the Old Masters world and it’s been fun introducing her to a new genre.”
Beckham contacted Sotheby’s around six months ago with the idea to partner with the auction house. “I was busy assembling paintings for the July sale, and for me the exercise was about trying to deliver the information to Victoria so she could choose what she liked,” says Stead.
In time, a pattern emerged. “She has very strong opinions and many of the paintings she picked out were portraits, so we decided to pursue that theme,” said Stead. “What’s interesting is that the 16 paintings that will be on show in her Dover Street store are representational of different periods, from the 15th century to the early 19th century. We were lucky in this sale that we have a series of wonderful portraits, which doesn’t happen often.”
Beckham’s favorite painting in the collection is the Rubens, a portrait of a swarthy Venetian nobleman valued between £3 million and £4 million (SAR/AED 14.5 million and SAR/AED 19.4 million). The piece was first unveiled in Dubai in March, the first time it went on public display in 40 years. Asked if she was tempted to bid on it herself at auction, Beckham laughed. “I’d love to if you’re offering to buy me one! I don’t own any Old Masters paintings at the moment but if there ever was a time to be inspired, it would definitely be now.”
Will we be seeing a rich emerald crop up in a future fashion collections, akin to the velvet sleeve of Mary of Burgundy, a late 15th century oil from the Netherlandish or South German school, or a spotted (faux) fur collar similar to the one sported by a man in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of a gentleman? “I’m certainly feeling motivated by the richness and drama in these paintings,” says Beckham. “But it’s also the storytelling behind the portraits that I found so interesting. With the Rubens, wearing black was a sign of wealth as it cost more money to put pigment in the fabrics. I’m just hoping customers will come in and enjoy looking at these incredible pieces.”
The project is part of a Sotheby’s push to introduce Old Master paintings to a new audience. “We never compromise ourselves in terms of our level of academia, as we cater to so many collectors and extraordinary scholars in their own right,” asserts Stead, “but we also need to ensure we are an open book. We want to make Old Masters accessible to people who have a visceral response to the work in the same way that they might if they looked at a Warhol, as well as to people who might want to view the other two versions and study the requisite literature.
“You shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t know the whole provenance, and I hope an exercise like this will recontextualize these paintings.” Does Stead have a favorite painting? “We are hanging the most glorious, sweeping English baroque double portrait by Sir Peter Lely. My colleague thinks it’s one of the best Lelys left in private hands, comparable in finish and execution with the Lelys in the Royal Collection.”
And as for what the grouping of portraits says about Beckham’s tastes? “I found it pertinent that one of the most photographed women on the planet would choose paintings that are enduring examples of self-presentation,” says Stead. “The process of recording oneself, in the 15th or 21st century, and the way you would like yourself to be portrayed, must have been interesting to Victoria.”
This article first appeared on Vogue.co.uk