Lost and found: secret life of an unseen Warhol

It was 1963, and she was his first commission. Now Andy Warhol's 1963 portrait of Manhattan heiress Edith Scull goes on display for the first time. Jonathan Brown reports
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The Independent Online

When Andy Warhol arrived at the elegant upper Fifth Avenue apartment of Ethel Scull to honour her husband's commission to paint her portrait, their encounter was to enter modern art legend.

Recalling the event in later years, she described how Warhol was carrying with him a hundred dollars-worth of silver coins. "He came up for me that day and he said, 'All right, we're off.' And I said, 'Well, where are we going?' 'Just down to Forty-second and Broadway.' I said, 'What are we going to do there?' He said, 'I'm going to take pictures of you.' I said, 'For what?' He said, 'For the portrait.' I said, 'In those things?' My God, I'll look terrible.'"

Reassuring the taxicab heiress as she sat in the Time Square booth that all would be well, he began inserting the coins. "Now start smiling and talking, this is costing me money," he said.

She was later to recall: "They were so sensational... I was so pleased, I think I'll go there for all my pictures from now on."

The results of their meeting in the four-for-a-quarter Photomat displayed a vivacious and coquettish side to the heiress as, encouraged by Warhol, she experimented with a variety of poses. Ethel Scull Thirty-Six Times became a Pop-Art standard.

Tomorrow, Warhol's previously undisplayed private version of the work - over-sprayed in silver paint - goes on display, for sale at an undisclosed price, at the Haunch of Venison gallery in Mayfair, central London.

Harry Blain, director of the Haunch of Venison, said: "We are delighted to exhibit this major work as part of our Andy Warhol exhibition. We expect huge interest in Ethel Scull, 1963 as very few great Warhols from the 1960s come on to the market. It's a rare opportunity for a museum or private collector to fill a gap in their collection."

Ethel Scull donated her copy to the Museum of American Art in the mid-Eighties.

When Andy met Ethel in 1963, they were exciting times for both subject and artist. Warhol had just rented his first studio, and Ethel Scull was his first portrait commission. The previous summer he had produced his celebrated silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.

Ethel Redner Scull and her husband, Robert, were already on the way to converting their considerable fortune into the social status and renown they craved. And art was their chosen social ascent vehicle.

The couple were unworried by claims that they used culture to scale the heights of New York society. Asked by an interviewer if such claims were indeed true, Mr Scull replied: "It's all true. I'd rather use art to climb than anything else."

For Edith Scull, her journey to become the feted darling of the city's art scene began just a few miles north in the tough streets of the Bronx. Her father, Ben Redner, owned a taxicab company, and she and her two sisters enjoyed a prosperous upbringing as the business thrived. She was tall and attractive and met her future husband aged 23, while studying advertising at the Parsons School of Design - an institution considered more a finishing school for the offspring of Manhattan's upper classes at the time than a place for serious artists, she said.

Robert was a sometime freelance illustrator and industrial designer whose school career had been cut prematurely short by the Depression.

They married and shared an apartment close to the Museum of Modern Art. Edith continued painting at the Art Students League, concentrating her energy on producing realist canvases.

But the Sculls' fortunes - both financial and social - were to be transformed by the death of Edith's father, who bequeathed each of his sons-in-law a share in the family business. With great energy, Robert Scull built his share of the fleet up to 130 cabs, operated by an army of 400 drivers.

The couple soon sold the house bought for them in Great Neck, New York state, and went in search of recognition in Manhattan's metropolitan big pond.

As they moved to the city, Abstract Impressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Arshile Gorky were making art hip. More importantly they were making big money. And in the claustrophobic world of New York's social elite, this bought glamour and prestige.

It was into this fertile breeding ground that Andy Warhol and a new wave of artists such as Robert Morris, Mark di Suvero and Larry Poons were to burst forth. They cultivated them, adding then-unknown artists, such as Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer to their collections, often for just a few hundred dollars.

The Sculls' upper East Side apartment, opposite the stately Metropolitan Museum of Art, was to become a stage for the nascent scene.

Ethel was entranced by fashion and art in equal measures. Wearing a Courrèges dress, she was cast in plaster by George Segal. Every summer the couple decamped to the artists' colony at East Hampton. She also loved parties and dressed in the latest Yves St Laurent or Adolfo creation, showcasing her growing art collection at the couple's increasingly lavish soirées. Such was her influence that in 1970 The New York Times ran an article headlined: "When Ethel Scull decorates, it's art news."

"My life has all the glamour and glitter of a Hollywood starlet's," the mother-of-three said.

In the mid-Sixties the couple had established the Robert and Ethel Scull Foundation. There were environmental projects and stipends for struggling artists, and they helped to establish the Green Gallery for its short but innovative life. They soon earned the name the "Mom and Pop of Pop Art".

In 1973 something unexpected happened: the Sculls sold up. They offloaded 50 works, often acquired very cheaply, fetching $2.2m at Sotheby's in New York.

There was a welter of criticism and some in the city's avant-garde responded by creating deliberately uncollectable items. The art patrons, thought of in the Sixties as part-saint, part-admirable entrepreneur, were to become regarded somewhat more cynically.

But the negative feeling towards them was not universally held. Vincent Fremont, who worked with Warhol from 1969 until his death in 1987, believes the sale was necessary.

"She was a good thing for art ... when they did that sale in '73 it was the prices that upset people. They bought at a very low rate - some canvases were as little as $100. Andy wasn't angry, we were just all shocked at the prices," he told The Independent yesterday.

Mr Fremont knew the Sculls socially. "She was a force to be reckoned with. She and Bob were always someone who you knew was in the room. She was a force and she polarised people between liking and not liking," he said.

But Ethel Scull's fortunes had reached their high-water mark. She suffered a serious back injury, and was often to be seen arriving at an event in the back of her own Chequered cab - its back seat large enough for her to lie down. Mr Fremont recalls that during one film screening they attended together she was unable to sit and paced the theatre for the duration of the film.

Worse was to follow. The Sculls' 30-year marriage foundered in 1975 and the good life came to an abrupt halt.

She swapped the illustrious Fifth Avenue home for a small one-bedroom apartment. She told an interviewer in 1986 that she had "not enough for a sea urchin to live on".

As the money went, so too did the invitations. "When you are not giving parties and not having the big shots of the world over, you are not invited. And if your name is not in the columns, you fade away from the social scene," she said.

A 10-year legal wrangle with her former husband in which she maintained that she had played an equal part in choosing the collection ended in 1985, when a state supreme court awarded her 35 per cent of the Sculls' art holdings. This amounted to $2.5m-worth of paintings and $1m in cash generated since the 1973 sale.

The warring parties met at the warehouse to split the collection by the flip of a coin.

She left with Jasper Johns' 1959 Out the Window, which she later sold for $3.63m - then the highest price paid for a living artist. Increasingly in need of medical attention for her bad back and apparently reluctant to curb her high living, the money disappeared.

Robert Scull died in 1986 aged 70, but his former wife continued to do legal battle with his estate. She stayed in her beloved Manhattan, dying from a stroke and heart attack at a retirement home two weeks before the 11 September attacks.