Big space, big art, big ego

Jay Jopling is an unstoppable force in British art. As he prepares to open Europe's largest commercial gallery, Rob Sharp examines his influence
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A colossal south London warehouse packed with art worth millions: when White Cube Bermondsey opens today it will become Europe's biggest commercial gallery – and cement yet another victory for the gallery's mercurial owner.

Jay Jopling, 48, is the founder of London's White Cube gallery empire, which has launched its third outpost in the capital to coincide with the Frieze art fair. It will see thousands of the world's wealthiest collectors flock to London over the next three days.

Last night Jopling hosted hundreds of VIPs at the Bermondsey gallery's lavish official opening party and many luminaries attended a small gathering at his Marylebone home afterwards. This week, London auction houses will sell 25 works by Jopling's most famous artist, Damien Hirst, emphasising the gallerist's standing as one of a small group of elite overlords in London's aggressive commercial art world.

Jopling's buoyancy exists despite widespread economic uncertainty. One London-based art collector said yesterday that some poorer galleries are currently "walking on eggshells" because of the financial downturn. Yet Jopling's mixture of charm, savvy and bullish behaviour will make him this week's most sure-fire victor.

"Jay told me a long time ago that if he couldn't be the best at what he does he wasn't interested," says White Cube's exhibitions director Tim Marlow. "The Bermondsey gallery is an affirmation of that. He wants a complex of galleries that will allow him to do the best shows with the best possible artists."

Jopling – "JJ" to his friends – is recognisable by his signature thick-framed specs and tailor-made black suit and crisp white shirt. He exudes success, which creates the impression that his enterprises cannot fail – a useful trait in the tempestuous art world.

Throughout his career he has hit headlines – not least because of high-profile marriage to the artist Sam Taylor-Wood and short-lived fling with singer Lily Allen – along with a knack for representing attention-grabbing artists such as Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers, expanding while others contract through two financial downturns over the past 20 years.

Marlow says that part of his success is that White Cube owns all of its properties. Alongside Bermondsey, White Cube has spaces in the West End enclave of St James's and once edgy, now commercialised Hoxton – meaning Jopling is in little debt.

"It's all about keeping the momentum going," he says. "To some it might seem arrogant to be expanding in a recession, but we are taking a long-term view." The man himself rarely gives interviews, preferring, it seems, to let the stratospheric sums fetched by his artists around the world and the endless photographs of Jopling and his famous friends do the talking.

He has endured three eventful decades in the art world. The son of Tory baron Michael, he became interested in art as a teenager, reading Gilbert and George's 1974 book Dark Shadow in assembly while a pupil at Eton. "He genuinely loves art," says cultural commentator Michael Bracewell. "I think he's genuinely passionate about it". He studied art history at Edinburgh University and when there flew to New York to convince artists including Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat to participate in a charity auction.

When he moved to London in the 1980s, he became linked with the rising in-crowd of Young British Artists (YBAs). He dated Californian fashion designer Maia Norman, who introduced him to Damien Hirst, with whom she now has three children. Jopling and Norman hosted legendary dinner parties at Jopling's flat, attended by the likes of YBA Marc Quinn whom, like Hirst, Jopling now represents.

Quinn and Hirst later provided Jopling with two of his most lucrative sales: Hirst's shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living and Quinn's sculpture of his head created from his own frozen blood, Self. "Every cultural epoch throws up a figure who becomes a cultural ambassador for those times," adds Bracewell. "Jay came along in the 1980s and related to a new generation of artists. I met him when I was still working for the British Council and the art world was still incredibly academic. And here was this charming and smooth operator."

Jopling founded his first London gallery, White Cube, in St James's in 1993. According to Melanie Gerlis, art market editor of The Art Newspaper, Jopling's "business-like" approach appealed to bankers with loose wallets "who wanted to put art on bare walls". "He's astute, he runs galleries like a business, not a cottage industry."

This sentiment continued through White Cube's expansion. Jopling founded his Hoxton gallery in 2000. A fourth is planned in Hong Kong early next year.

"He does get a kick out of doing unusual things and doing them with absolute conviction," says sculptor Antony Gormley, whom Jopling represents. "You know he wants to push what's possible, and understands an artist's interest in that, as well as being a very good businessman."