To buy a picture from Freddy Mayor you not only had to know him, but be liked by him. Otherwise there was no hope. And if you were friends, you were friends for life.
His gallery prices were reasonable. And should you have to sell one of his pictures, you always returned it to Freddy - always.
I can not recall either how or when we first met. But I do remember when I bought my first picture from him.
So I must have known Freddy for some time just to be admitted to the inner sanctum of the Mayor Gallery, then at 14 Brook Street, London, W.1.
The gallery was small. There was a picture or two on display in the window, and one or two beyond. Public, interested in art, might venture in – but not too far in, then leave.
You had to pass through an inner door to meet the owner. That passing over the threshold was, in itself, somewhat of a privilege.
On gaining entry, Freddy would be seen at his desk, probably working out which horses to back for that day. The smell of fine Havana cigars enhanced the air. He would be surrounded by a selection of wonderful works of art both large and small, for Freddy Mayor had one of the most perceptive eyes in the art business. Each painting would be of the top flight – among the best, and sometimes very avant garde. For he was a pioneer of modern art.
Besides having a fine eye for a painting and an appreciative eye for a pretty girl, he possessed an absolutely lousy eye for a horse. If he would be on a bad streak, he might back each horse in a race to be sure of a winner (which seems rather a good idea to me).
I was clearly a bit flush with cash at the time, and in work, either designing or painting scenery in the theatre (ice shows paid well, and when working on ice I wore my wartime pilot’s sheepskin-lined boots to keep my feet dry and warm).
So it was that, on the 16th of February 1956, I was allowed into the holy of holies. There I saw a lovely little Matthew Smith painting (a study for a larger one, and originally given to the British consul, William Ashcroft, in the South of France), and bought it for £145. After that I expect Freddy and I went out for a Guinness or lunch. When really flush we might also visit Carlins to select a box of Havana cigars, where they opened several boxes for you to smell before you bought. And you were given a fine cigar on the house to smoke on your way home.
I still have the receipt for that painting from THE MAYOR GALLERY Ltd with its 2d stamp over-signed by Freddy. I treasure it.
Over the years I continued to buy from the gallery – a Paul Nash, two Edward Burras, an Henri Gaudier-Brezska, and bronzes by Lynn Chadwick and Kadishman – each now worth a small fortune to their present owners. For reasons of solvency, all, except for a bronze dog, were returned to the gallery for re-sale.
In a 1960 exhibition of drawings, done on a yearlong voyage around the world in 1958 and 1959, I entered the world of Cork Street art galleries for the first time, exhibiting at the Reid Gallery there. Most were sold, with some more going to Japan for a 1961 exhibition in Osaka. I then used one hundred of them to illustrate my Mudlark Press account of the trip - “Harbours, Girls and a Slumbering World”.
Nearby, in Cork Street, was the most recent Mayor Gallery, now run, internationally successfully, by the late Freddy Mayor’s son, James.
In 1969, James came to a show I had at the Qantas Gallery (The Relief of Kut), in Bond Street nearby, where he bought one of The Nine Logs from the Tigris. It was a jetsam paddle, withdrawn from the Thames in Limehouse, in a way that those of our army might have done from the Tigris when they were besieged by the Turks in Kut during 1916 (in what was Mesopotamia, now Iraq). On the paddle was inscribed “God Punish England”, a common graffito in that distant Arab land. So I was delighted, in this creative way, to rekindle my association with James Mayor and his Mayor Gallery - and Cork Street.
In either Freddy’s or James’s day the idea of me ever exhibiting my work at their gallery would not have entered my head, their offerings being so exalted.
In 2006, when I abandoned writing books and articles and returned to painting after a writing break of 25 years, James Gould, the 20th century expert on English art at Christie’s, South Kensington, saw my 1954 painting of “The Shed”, Chelsea Football Ground, and asked if he could sell it at his auction house. It went for an enormous sum, re-establishing me as an artist of that period.
I continued to work, now with pastels, depicting my ideas in shape and colour of the garden, the shadows of aircraft, and the relationship of yacht sails and boats’ hulls on land. As it took some 55 years for my early stuff to come to light again, so these, I thought, might, with any luck, do the same in the distant future.
So, in 2009, it came as a complete and wonderful surprise when James Mayor offered me a November/December show of Aircraft Shadows at his Cork Street Gallery.
With nice words written for it by James May (television writer and Top Gear presenter), Geoff Cowart, (editor of h&f News) and Christopher Neve (art critic and author), and a piece in Aeroplane, the show did splendidly well – making me, in the process, both a 20th and then a 21st century painter.
But most of all, it is the connection with the Mayors and the Mayor Gallery that pleases me the most.