Waddington, Leslie (1934–2015), art dealer, was born in Upper Mount Street, Dublin, on 9 February 1934, the middle of three sons of Victor Waddington (qv), art dealer, and his wife Zelda (née Levine). His father’s gallery in South Anne Street, Dublin, was Ireland’s leading venue for avant-garde art during the 1940s and 1950s. Growing up in Victoria Road, Rathgar, Dublin, Leslie loved art and venerated his father yet later dismissed his Jewish family upbringing for comprising ‘endless card games, cheap cigars, and bad jokes’ (Guardian, 28 Dec. 2015).
EDUCATION AND EARLY CAREER
Bookish and rather precious, Waddington attended Sandford Park School, Ranelagh, Dublin, before boarding at Portrora Royal School, Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh, where he played for the school rugby team. He then worked for a year with his father in South Anne Street, framing, hanging and packing art. From 1953 he undertook a four-year diploma in art history and archaeology at the École du Louvre, Paris, going there as much for the literature as for the art, having developed a fascination with modernist fiction, particularly the work of James Joyce (qv). He became a radical socialist (partly in reaction to the war in Algeria), immersed himself in French literature and existentialism, and regularly played chess with his literary hero, and fellow Portrora alumnus, Samuel Beckett (qv).
Failing to get a diploma good enough to teach art history at a prestigious university, he resumed working for his father, who was relocating his gallery to London’s contemporary art district in Mayfair. Waddington Galleries opened at 2 Cork Street in March 1958 and quickly assembled a strong stable of avant-garde British artists, with an emphasis on the St Ives abstract school. From 1959 Leslie became enamoured with the second-generation abstract expressionist artists emanating from the US, taking his cues from this school’s foremost advocate, the New York critic Clement Greenburg (his many letters to Greenburg are held in the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC). Victor, however, was averse to exhibiting such art, precipitating growing tensions between father and son.
They agreed to split the business in 1966 with Leslie keeping 2 Cork Street, the Waddington Galleries name, the living artists, and all the debt, while Victor took the second gallery which they had recently opened across the street at 25 Cork Street. Alex Bernstein, the head of Granada Television, advanced Leslie the £25,000 in required funding, serving as a fifty per cent silent partner. Whereas Victor’s galleries projected Old World refinement, Leslie went for a bright, sleek minimalism. He continued his father’s policy of paying his artists a yearly advance in return for a fifty per cent commission and the right to claim unsold artworks in lieu of any shortfall.
Prior to going alone, Leslie had begun signing up a generation of American-influenced British ‘pop artists’, most particularly the radical abstract colour field sculptors associated with the St Martin’s School of Art in London. During this foundational period his most important collector was Alistair McAlpine, heir to the McAlpine construction fortune, who was also a close friend. Although Waddington enjoyed artists’ company, his lifestyle was conspicuously restrained in the context of the ‘swinging sixties’ milieu. The wisdom of his career-long preference for positioning himself near, rather than at, the cutting-edge was borne out when the market for British pop art imploded during 1966, financially crippling his main rivals and inaugurating his long reign as London’s foremost contemporary art dealer.
Though a late start hindered him from accumulating a first-rate inventory of ‘New American’ art, Waddington used various methods to secure the rights for American artists’ London shows, including reciprocal arrangements with powerful New York gallerists whereby they exhibited each other’s artists. He was the main European promoter of the pop art, abstract expressionism and colour field abstraction exemplified by his favourite US artists, including Kenneth Noland, Helen Frankenthaler, Alexander Calder, Morris Louis, Jack Bush and Jules Olitski. His idol, however, was the contemporary French avant-garde painter, Jean Dubuffet, who he exhibited from the early 1970s. (In 1994 his expertise enabled him to alert British police to forgeries that were being sold as Dubuffets.)
He dealt also in the previously sold works of earlier generations of modernist masters associated with the school of Paris – Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Joan Miró and Fernand Léger amongst others. Starting with acquisition of the drawings, which could be acquired in the 1960s for several thousand pounds, he worked upwards to artworks worth hundreds of thousands by the early 1980s, benefitting from the late twentieth century explosion in prices for ‘classical’ modern art. He made greater profit from this trade than from selling new art.
Shunning unproven talent, by the late 1970s he was representing almost all of Britain’s best living modern artists, including John Hoyland, Patrick Caulfield, Ivon Hitchens, William Turnbull, Allen Jones, Joe Tilson, Peter Blake, Elisabeth Frink, Ben Nicholson and Barry Flanagan. At his peak, Waddington had over thirty artists on his books, allowing them at least five years to deliver financially; moreover, unremunerative artists who he liked personally or admired artistically might be persevered with indefinitely. He was a skilled, energetic and immensely knowledgeable promoter, but there was only so much time and his lesser lights felt neglected; others found him to be impatient, interfering and averse to showing their work abroad. Certainly, he had a reputation for being highly strung, though if some of his artists left on bad terms, many stayed with him for years.
He spent his career bemoaning the lack of appreciation for modern art in Britain, with domestic sales typically accounting for five per cent of his yearly total. Thriving off tax arrangements that made it worthwhile to run international deals for second-hand art through London, he sold to North America (especially), northern Europe, Japan and Hong Kong, his most reliable (if, from Waddington’s perspective, regrettably knowledgeable) buyers being sophisticated Jewish professionals in east coast US cities. (In the 1990s attempts by the European Union to eliminate this tax advantage led him to reach an agreement with the customs authorities granting his galleries the status of a bonded warehouse.)
An aggressive buyer, if within set parameters, he believed that he could tell a great Picasso (or Léger or Dubuffet) from a good one whereas most people just saw the name. He stockpiled artworks in the well-founded belief that enough of them would eventually attract keen interest. His strength lay in selling, subtly stoking the vanity of his rich, insecure collectors. Often, he would digress about another work that he truly admired before transferring this infectious enthusiasm on to the object in question. Notably professional, business-like and welcoming in comparison with other British dealers, he treated each transaction as a mutually beneficial proposition, winning a reputation for straight dealing in a trade typified by sharp practice.
His gallery sported artworks in every modernist genre, irrespective of his abstract preferences and distaste for the trend towards minimalism and conceptualism. Surprising those who saw him as stuck in the 1960s (and earlier), in 1980 he recruited a younger generation of artists, before raising eyebrows again later that decade by hosting London shows for controversial international stars like Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons and Georg Baselitz. In 1988, he bought in uncharacteristically early to the Young British Artists hype by taking on Ian Davenport and Fiona Rae, neither having (yet) cemented their reputations. He could not resist publicly expressing his cynicism about artistic fads, even when it reflected on his inventory.
His stock shows were eagerly anticipated by those in the know as a rare chance to sample museum quality modern art in a commercial gallery. Most gallerists would only show their prize art privately to wealthy collectors, but Waddington exhibited his for all to see, creating striking (for some, egregious) juxtapositions between different styles and eras. An outspoken critic of the timidity shown by the curators at the British museums, reflected in their weak modern art collections (prior to the 1990s), he made his galleries a beacon for London’s otherwise deprived modern art lovers.
Most dealers kept a low profile, but Waddington gave media interviews where he held forth provocatively about art, spoke frankly about his business practices and bragged about his yearly profits, which he claimed peaked at over £20 million in the late 1980s. By then, his dominance found physical expression in five gleaming, ultra-chic galleries, employing over thirty staff, scattered about Cork Street. He cast himself as a ruthless money-driven impresario, likening his proliferating operation to a supermarket. Yet an underlying idealism kept breaking through; regarding art, he was alternately cold-eyed or passionately enthusiastic. The frizzled hair and pinched features accentuated the effect of a bustling personality that veered between garrulous self-promotion and a drier, more quizzical manner.
Borne aloft by the roaring 1980s market for modern art, Waddington dithered as prices rose unsustainably, forgoing big gains while remaining sufficiently committed to face ruin once the market crashed in 1990. But the extent of his £29 million debts stayed the bankers’ hand, as did his realism in marking down his stock, curtailing his purchases and shedding staff, artists and two of his galleries. He survived by going out on to the international art fair circuit, being early in grasping that these events – however costly, physically gruelling and reputationally risky – enabled dealers to combine their advertising clout against the big auction houses, which had started competing directly for vendors and collectors. At the Maastricht Art Fair, he was chairman of the modern picture section (1994–2004) and of the picture section (1996–2000).
Though no longer the dominant force, his leaner operation retained its status as a major player in what was, by the 2000s, a flourishing and far more competitive London contemporary art market. Latterly, he concentrated mainly on dealing in modernist masters, orchestrating a steep rise in the value of Josef Albers’ works upon gaining control of his estate in 1997. Turning down an OBE in 1986 and a CBE in 1999 (‘officer’ and ‘commander’ of the Order of the British Empire respectively), he was appointed to the Institute of Contemporary Art in 1977 and received a senior fellowship of the Royal College of Art in 1993, as well as a special award from the European Art Galleries Federation in 2013.
PERSONAL LIFE AND DEATH
In 1967 he married Ferriel Lyle. They lived in Hampstead and had two daughters before divorcing in 1983. His second marriage two years later to Clodagh Fanshawe, an antique jewellery expert, proved a happy union of complementary opposites. They settled in a terraced house in Chelsea, moving latterly to an apartment. At home, he could enjoy his select private art collection, featuring works by Dubuffet, Noland, Milton Amery, Caulfield and Francis Picabia. By the mid-1980s, his lifestyle was becoming more extravagant: he owned a Bentley, had a flat in Venice and entertained clients at some of London’s most exclusive restaurants, proving himself a witty, erudite and compelling raconteur of considerable intellectual depth.
He relaxed by playing backgammon and chess, and by reading literary, philosophical and aesthetic works (in English and French). Though fascinated by Joyce and Beckett, his love of Irish literature did not extend to Irish art. Yet from the late 1970s, he helped his younger brother Theo to continue their father’s work in managing the growing Irish market for Jack Yeats’s (qv) artworks. (Theo ran a gallery in Montreal before establishing himself in Cork Street in the 1980s.) Leslie retained elements of an Irish accent and considered himself Irish-Jewish; McAlpine saw him as Irish with a Jewish overlay.
Waddington kept working even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but as his condition deteriorated, the French art dealer Stéphane Custot, who had become his joint partner in 2011 (following Bernstein’s death), bought the full ownership of the Waddington Custot Gallery in summer 2015. Leslie Waddington died at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on 30 November 2015. The bulk of his private art collection was sold at auction in autumn 2016, fetching £30 million. The National Portrait Gallery, London, holds a portrait of him with his second wife Clodagh, by Peter Blake.