To maintain his reputation as one of the world's leading specialist dealers in icons, Richard Temple makes stringent checks on provenance and liaises with official sources. When he is offered a Russian icon, for example, he asks the Ministry of Culture in Moscow to check its 'wanted list'. Once, he actually paid a handler pounds 100 for an icon, told him he was lucky not to be arrested for smuggling it out of Greece, and then, through the Greek Embassy in London, returned it to the Archbishop of Rhodes, from whom it had been stolen.
Temple is a true scholar, an intellectual who can discuss Plato and Hellenistic philosophy and their relevance to the history of icons with impressive fluency. He has devoted the last 30 years to the study of icons, publishing books and scholarly catalogues to accompany exhibitions. His latest show has some 30 jewel-like masterpieces of the Byzantine, Novgorod, Moscow and Cretan schools. It is a large exhibition crammed into a deceptively tiny space, the Temple Gallery in West London.
Among the exhibits is the first icon Temple ever bought - some 30 years ago in a junk shop in Charing Cross Road. He was 17 then and the idea of becoming a dealer could not have been further from his mind. But the icon inspired him to fork out pounds 11 for it. It was not unusual to pick up icons for next to nothing at that time. Temple recalls that, when he started trading, 'no one wanted icons and you could go to Istanbul or Athens, root around the souks and buy what they considered 'junk' for little money. There were no restrictions on export. I'd bring them back, research them and discover I'd saved a 15th-century icon.'
Seven years after that first purchase, he sold the icon to a Greek collector for pounds 300; 20 years later it turned up at Sotheby's, where Temple bought it for pounds 4,000. Its price in his gallery today is pounds 5,000. By the standards of Old Master paintings, the price is low. Indeed, the auction- record for an icon is only pounds 120,000 (for a 15th-century Novgorod work sold by Sotheby's in 1990).
It is not just supply that has limited the number of icon collectors. Temple is scathing of public galleries in the West for not buying icons - let alone displaying them adequately - and complains how often icons are dismissed simply because they do not fit into accepted Western art traditions and history. He cites the case of someone who asked to study icons at a leading teaching institution, only to be told, 'You don't want to study that Sixties stuff.'
Although Temple is widely admired in Russia, where they make television programmes about him, in the West, his lifelong interest in Christian mysticism has, he says, set him apart as 'a phoney mystic, a crank, a heretic'. The problem is that icons are not understood. 'They don't fit into Western art history, into discussions of perspective and foreshortening, light and shade, and modelling. But these are optical tricks.'
The word icon comes from the Greek for 'image'. The smaller icons were portable: everyone, rich or poor, had one. The larger ones, displayed in churches, were part of the sacrament. As Temple says, it is so different from the Western church, where art was primarily decoration.
Yet only relatively recently have the Greeks or Russians themselves begun to appreciate their cultural heritage. For centuries, the Russians saw icons only as religious objects (it was only in 1913 that they first exhibited them as art). They believed that the saints were present in the image of an icon. If your icon needed restoration, you just took it to a local artist to paint over it. Layer after layer was thus built up over the centuries; restorers this century have in turn removed each layer until, for the lucky ones, they came to a 15th-century masterpiece underneath.
By the 1930s, icons had fallen victim to political events in the Soviet Union. There was systematic destruction of icons and other church imagery. The better icons were sold in tiny government shops scattered around the world. In the late 1950s and 1960s, restrictions were imposed on art exports, but they proved nominal. Temple recalls how, as a Westerner, you couldn't stand around anywhere for longer than two minutes before someone approached you. The patter was always the same: 'You want to change money? I change money. You want girls? I get you girls. You want boys? I get you boys. You want icons? I get you icons . . .' It was always in that order, he recalls. Only in the 1970s did the cultural authorities really become serious about protecting their heritage.
Now politics have begun to affect icons once again. The Orthodox Church, reinstated by the new Russian Government, has requested the return of icons that slipped into the hands of museums after the Revolution, arguing that these icons play an important role in the Orthodox liturgy. Meanwhile, a new class of wealthy Russian is coming to the fore. As Temple says, the rise in cultural nationalism that inspired the Japanese, the Indians and the Australians to buy back indigenous art, is just as strong in Russia. Emigre Russians, such as the cellist Rostropovich, and private banking corporations in Moscow have started buying Russian paintings dating from around 1880 to 1930. It is only a matter of time before they turn their attention to icons.
After 30 years, Temple's devotion is as strong as ever. His attempt to convert others is a veritable religious crusade. His enthusiasm is infectious. Pointing to a 15th-century representation of the Madonna and Child, he wants us all to share the wonder of the 'austere medieval rigour, coupled with such compassion and spirituality. Such purity. It's overwhelming . . . The effect is intuitive, not intellectual. It's like music that ravishes the depths of one's soul.'
He talks, too, of the Modernism in the art, referring to an almost Cubist treatment of a Nativity of the Virgin (circa 1500, Moscow School). 'This was not an attempt to create real space. That would be banal in relation to creating atmosphere, which has the quality of being dream-like and enchanting. Icons represent the higher world, not the earthly world. This is outside time and space and therefore in the divine world.' Yet, however spiritual, the icons rarely lack a human touch. In an early 16th-century image of St Demetrius, depicted as a warrior, the inside of his shield bears an inscription: 'Please answer my prayer, St Demetrius. Please help me find a wife.' Beneath that is another inscription, inserted perhaps a year or two later: 'Thank you, St Demetrius, for helping me find a wife.'
Continues at Temple Gallery, 6 Clarendon Cross, London W11 (071-727 3809) until 23 December. Opening hours: Monday-Friday 10am-6pm, Saturday 10am-12.30pm
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