Focus: Out of the ashes - the new stars of Britart

Whatever you think of Damien or Tracey, last week's fire was a disaster for modern British art. But Mike Bygrave and Malcolm Doney see a new wave coming to the rescue
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The Independent Online

Laugh if you want. Lots of people have, in the wake of the fire that destroyed some of Britart's most famous works last week. Tracey Emin's tent and Chris Ofili's art made with excrement are easy targets. The giggling classes were typified by the audience and panel on Radio 4's Any Questions last night. One guest even joked about his artistic evaluation being "vindicated" by the flames. But then the host, Jonathan Dimbleby, quietly pointed out that the destruction of 50 paintings by the abstract artist Patrick Heron was actually a huge and serious loss to British art. The giggling stopped.

Laugh if you want. Lots of people have, in the wake of the fire that destroyed some of Britart's most famous works last week. Tracey Emin's tent and Chris Ofili's art made with excrement are easy targets. The giggling classes were typified by the audience and panel on Radio 4's Any Questions last night. One guest even joked about his artistic evaluation being "vindicated" by the flames. But then the host, Jonathan Dimbleby, quietly pointed out that the destruction of 50 paintings by the abstract artist Patrick Heron was actually a huge and serious loss to British art. The giggling stopped.

Dealers and collectors are taking the fire very seriously, as you would expect. As full details of exactly what was burned at the Momart warehouse in east London continue to emerge, many are asking how on earth such a thing could have been allowed to happen. The author and collector Shirley Conran and the painter Gillian Ayres, for example, have hired a lawyer to investigate a possible claim of negligence against Momart after paintings worth around £1m were lost. Eight of them were owned by Ayres and 12 by Conran "covering pretty much everything Gillian did for 10 years between the 1980s and 1990s", according to Razi Mireskandari of the lawyers Simons Muirhead and Burton. "It's not just the money, because people are insured. But something very close to her heart has gone. It's irreplaceable, so we'll be saying to Momart, 'please give us an explanation and what if anything could have been done to prevent it'. It's very early days and we must await the result of the fire brigade's investigation, but a storage facility like this should be no different from a museum. There seems to have been no security staff. You'd expect there to be some sort of advance system. Installation facilities that store very valuable material usually have a system of fireproof shutters."

By Thursday afternoon, Momart said it had given all its clients full lists of what was lost, but as the Crafts Council (which lost 21 pieces from its 1,300-piece permanent collection) points out: "They're lists of what Momart believes has gone." "We can't get on to the site," explained Momart spokeswoman Caroline Feltham. "It's all cordoned off." For the same reason "though we're hopeful something may be saved we need to take a look and we can't do that. Our insurers are satisfied we took the necessary steps to ensure the safekeeping of art works in our possession and we stand by that".

Momart is known as a specialist in handling, moving and storing contemporary art, with clients including the two Tate galleries, the National Gallery and Buckingham Palace. The razed warehouse was one of three Momart facilities in London. Besides having their own, limited liability insurance, such major storage companies will usually offer to arrange insurance for collectors' works, but most collectors have their works insured privately. The managing director of Momart, Eugene Boyle, described his firm as "deeply saddened", but stressed that "the fire, and the loss of any possessions, is an issue for our clients and their insurers. It would be wholly inappropriate for Momart to discuss such details in the media".

Clare Pardy of AXA Art insurers said: "If you're a collector and come to us, you agree with us a value upfront and the policy is written on that basis." Thereafter that value, while it can be increased by agreement or on renewal like ordinary insurance, is sacrosanct. "The agreed value is the agreed value and that's what we pay," Other insurers offer market value policies which means "at the time of the loss we have to establish what the market value is", says Robert Read of the leading art insurance company Hiscox. "We normally rely on experts to help us do that - Sotheby's, Christie's, prominent dealers and so on."

His own "guesstimate" of how much insurance money may be paid out is around £50m. Others says it could be twice as much. Attitudes to the loss vary just as wildly - Tracey Emin's comment that she was more concerned about the deaths in Iraq and the Dominican Republic may become as famous as her tent - but one question rings out loud and clear over the sirens. What happens now for British art? The Independent on Sunday's art critic Charles Darwent says history will "mark this as the moment when Britart ceased". So what comes next? The collectors will carry on buying, but will they do so with the enthusiasm of people who have just cleared out their attic and been given more cash to spend? And will they invest their insurance money in exciting new artists, revitalising a market that was becoming jaded?

Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, chairman of the Arts Council, would not put it as crassly as that, but he says: "Contemporary art is tidal and there is a strong tide against the 1990s Britart style." The landscape of the art world had begun to change before the fire, he says. To landscape, as it happens, and portraiture and abstraction. Painting, though it had never gone away, has began to make a bit of comeback. "For some time young artists have been trying to find a new idiom," says Sir Christopher. "In particular there's a new concentration on painting."

Sam Chatterton Dickson, a director of the Flowers East gallery, says: "There is a national instinct to enjoy newness. When people seem to be trotting out the same stuff they lose interest. In the same way that the tabloids turn on celebrities, people in the art world wait like vultures to signal the death of a movement."

Next month, Art Review magazine is to publish its list of the 25 best young British artists. Three of these, Daniel Sinsel, Varda Caivano and Pearl Shiung (none of whom, it turns out, was born in Britain), complete their MAs only this year, yet they already have had solo shows in prestigious galleries. Charlotte Edwards, deputy editor of Art Review, says: "Collectors are going into BA shows and picking up artists younger and younger in search of the next best thing. At this year's degree shows I saw barely any installations, barely any photography, barely any film. There's a revival of the traditions of landscape, portrait and wonderful abstract painting."

This crop of young painters is less autobiographical, or egocentric, than the most celebrated members of Britart. The gallery owner Alison Jacques, who worked as a curator with a number of Young British Artists, as the leading lights of Britart were also called, says the work she now shows is "more objective, less about the personality of the artist".

One of the major advantages contemporary British artists have - arguably a legacy of the YBAs - is that Britain, and London in particular, is seen by the art world as very sexy. Stuart Evans, former chair of the Patrons of New Art at the Tate and the curator of the art collection of lawyers Simmons & Simmons, says: "The scene here is very rich. There are very good artists, lots of younger artists and more and more come here in part because of that. If we've been the new Paris, it's been like that since the 1990s." Alison Jacques concurs. "British art is in good shape. It's the European centre for contemporary art. People love to come and work here. There's a buzz about the place."

Charlotte Edwards adds: "British art schools are producing generation after generation of technically skilled, talented artists. There is everything to be hopeful about."

'Terrible loss? YBAs made only a few star pieces'

By Ossian Ward

So does this blaze constitute a disaster for the Young British Artists that ruled the art world during the 1990s, or is it a value-enhancing stroke of luck for a bygone movement? By some estimates, the Momart warehouses in Leyton may have held the greatest concentration of British contemporary art from the past decade anywhere in the world. Although the YBA phenomenon produced only a handful of star pieces, the fire is unlikely to send their prices rocketing any higher because only a small portion was lost; just 100 of Charles Saatchi's 7,000-strong collection, in addition to works by Damien Hirst from his personal stockpile.

Jake and Dinos Chapman'swar sculpture was chief among a small number of important works destroyed. Saatchi commissioned the artists to make Hell for £50,000, but the installation would have been worth maybe 10 times that amount. The gruesomely detailed toy soldier diorama was the Chapman brothers' greatest work in terms of visual impact and scale. Displeased with the installation of Hell in its last outing at Saatchi's County Hall gallery in London and ambiguous about the loss ("It's only a work of art"), the Chapmans will surely miss their magnum opus in any retrospective. However, as their nomination for last year's Turner Prize proved, they are at the height of their powers and will surely make many more masterpieces.

Damien Hirst has been less sanguine but it is unclear whether any of his major pieces were destroyed. His giant £1.5m bronze Charity survived the fire, but many of his spin and butterfly paintings, worth between £85,000 and £250,000 each, perished. It will make little difference to Hirst's market value as almost all of his work is produced in editions and series. If works from his early career have been lost, they will be even harder to replace than they have been to conserve (think tanks of formaldehyde and rotting carcasses) and so the value of his scarce early-Nineties period artworks could increase.

Tracey Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, 1963-1995 gained iconic status during the YBA frenzy of 1997 when the Sensation exhibition opened at the Royal Academy. Lost alongside her version of a Margate beach hut, the embroidered tent will be missed, perhaps more so by the artist, pictured, than anyone else.

This year many of the so-called YBAs are turning 40. Perhaps some of them need to draw a line under their previous work in order to progress. On the other hand, Saatchi has a museum to fill and will no doubt regret selling 130 lesser works of YBA art and donating 100 to the Arts Council in 1999.

Ossian Ward was formerly editor of 'Art Review'


Untitled by Pearl C Hsiung

Postgraduate student at Goldsmiths College who won a prize promoting cultural exchange with China. Painter and photographer to be shown in this year's Royal Academy summer show

Untitled by Varda Caivano

Born in Buenos Aires in 1971, Caivano will graduate this summer from the painting course at the Royal College of Art. Work can currently be seen for free at the college's annual student show.

Untitled (Couple) by Daniel Sinsel

Born in Munich 27 years ago, Sinsel is another about to graduate from the painting course at the Royal College of Art in Kensington. His work is included in the college's annual student show


Doris Saatchi, private collector: 'Look again at the great art of the past. I would spend it on the minimalist masters, particularly Angus Martin and Robert Ryman.'

Sir Christopher Frayling, Arts Council chairman: 'Give scholarships to lots of students so the next generation can be as successful as the YBAs.'

Sam Chatterton Dixon, director of Flowers East gallery: 'Buy paintings by Trevor Hutton and Stephen Chambers. With the rest I'd buy a Vuillard.'