The rise and rise of Jay Jopling

Many in the art world aspire to be movers and shakers. But few have succeeded quite as spectacularly as the suave, self-assured and seriously sociable gallery owner Jay Jopling. As his White Cube empire expands once again, Louise Jury charts the life and times of the man who brought - and sold - Britart to the world

Thursday 28 September 2006 00:00 BST

It may not look like much. An unprepossessing grey building tucked away behind the London Library in the heart of London's "Establishment" quarter, St James's. But last night this unassuming building was playing host to one of the most eagerly anticipated gallery openings for years. Jay Jopling's White Cube Mason's Yard, the third addition to the empire of the Old Etonian dealer, had opened its doors.

The photographer Andreas Gursky flew in from Germany to mark the occasion, as did the painter Anselm Kiefer, who travelled from his home in France to join a clutch of former Turner Prize-winners, models, musicians, celebrities and collectors to celebrate Jopling's latest triumph.

White Cube Mason's Yard is destined to be one of the most talked-about new additions to the capital's cultural scene, a venue for exhibitions from the likes of Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers, and the North Americans Chuck Close and Jeff Wall.

Thirteen years after he launched his first gallery - the original White Cube - in a tiny 13ft by 13ft room on the opposite side of Duke Street, and six years since he opened the doors to his second, in the grittier surroundings of Hoxton, east London, the sparkling £12m venue will run in parallel with White Cube Hoxton. "London is unarguably the pre-eminent city for contemporary art in Europe. White Cube Mason's Yard will allow us to showcase artists in the centre of the capital as well as continuing to present their work in... the East End. The new White Cube will more than double our gallery space and provide a broader platform for bringing world-class art to a world-class city," he said.

It is perhaps a mark of Jopling's ambition that in taking over a former electricity sub-station and creating in its place a cool emporium of culture, the project echoes nothing less than Tate Modern, the gallery that has contributed most to the huge expansion of public interest in art in Britain in the last decade.

And just as Hoxton Square played host to 2,000 people when Tracey Emin opened her last show there, Mason's Yard is set to be party central for the extraordinary collection of creatives that any reader of the society and gossip columns would recognise as the Jopling gang.

If there is one thing that defines Jopling, even more than the stable of Young British Artists whom he has known and nurtured since the early Nineties, it is parties. He is a man always willing to be tempted into moving on for a final nightcap. "He's got a zest for life and he doesn't want to miss out on anything," says Tim Marlow, the arts broadcaster who has been White Cube's director of exhibitions since 2002.

With his wife, the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, Jopling was among the handful of guests at the civil partnership ceremony for Sir Elton John and David Furnish. And at the select drinks hosted by Selfridge's when Taylor-Wood wrapped its store in the largest photograph ever seen, the couple joined fashion designer Stella McCartney and musicians such as Alex James .

For her project Crying Men, Taylor-Wood persuaded a galaxy of A-list actors including Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Paul Newman, Willem Dafoe and Laurence Fishburne to be pictured in tears. Though most were not friends, it was an idea which required the kind of networking skills at which the couple have proved adept.

And as the British contemporary art scene has blossomed in the last 15 years to become both lucrative and fashionable, Jopling, with his wife at his side, has ridden the wave of celebrity to the benefit of his stable of high-profile artists - and himself.

Jay Jopling was born in 1963, the son of Michael Jopling, a Yorkshire landowner better known as chief whip and Minister of Agriculture in Margaret Thatcher's government.

He grew up on the family farm but was sent to boarding school in Scarborough from the age of seven, and then on to Eton. In an early sign of his passion for art and business savvy, he persuaded Bridget Riley to create a cover for the school magazine. He bought his first work of art from the Anthony d'Offay Gallery at 14 - a limited-edition Gilbert and George book that cost £16. And while his father was working late at Westminster, he spent hours just down the road at the Tate.

By now convinced that he wanted to work in the art world, he decided to study art history at Edinburgh University, and it was there that he started dealing on a small scale.

In his final year, inspired by Band Aid, he and some friends organised a charity art auction - at a time when such events were comparatively uncommon - with a rare energy and drive. Jopling went to New York to persuade major names such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Keith Haring to donate their work. The auction raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for Africa.

After university, he moved to London where he became friends with the emerging Young British Artists - Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn - and began staging shows in warehouses.

He found the funds to enable the young Hirst to turn his paper dreams of a shark sculpture into reality, then sold the finished work to Charles Saatchi for £25,000. When he met Emin in a pub, she persuaded him to give her £10 in return for a series of letters that soon began arriving on his doorstep, containing the kind of personal confessions that later came to chracterise her art.

Then in 1993, he pulled off a coup. Pointing out that Christie's had at one time provided Constable with a studio, Jopling persuaded the auction house to allow him to have a tiny gallery space in Duke Street, rent-free. White Cube was born.

Here, Emin was one of the first to exhibit, with My Major Retrospective 1963-1993 (in case she never warranted a genuine retrospective) with the likes of Mona Hatoum, Gary Hume, Cerith Wyn Evans, Franz Ackermann, Luc Tuymans and Nan Goldin to follow. He showed no artist more than once, which made each show an unmissable - and severely overcrowded - event.

"It was very exciting for artists," recalls one art world insider. "He showed people who you only read about in magazines. It was the start of London becoming hip - it was like being in a provincial town that suddenly got exciting. It was good that someone was doing something that was adventurous without it looking all grungey and squat. It was a small room but it was quite grand because of where it was.

"And if you were an art collector/investor and you bought something each month from Jay Jopling in those days, that collection would be worth quite a lot of money. You wouldn't have been able to do that with most other galleries."

For several years, Jopling went out with an American designer Maia Norman, but with that relationship crumbling, he introduced her to Hirst whom she subsequently married. All three are now friends.

Jopling in turn had met Sam Taylor-Wood at her 1994 video installation, Killing Time. They fell in love and married in 1997. Their daughter Angelica was born the same year.

It has not all been easy. That same year, Taylor-Wood was diagnosed with cancer and on Christmas Eve 1997 surgeons removed several feet of her colon. She faced another cancer scare in 2000, and instead of attending the opening of his new gallery in Hoxton, Jopling was by her side in hospital in America.

Today, the couple live in a beautiful Robert Adam Georgian house not far from the BBC's Broadcasting House, with another home in Yorkshire and - miraculously - she is due to give birth to their second child any day soon.

"Here's a man who has spent five years on a £12m development and the amazing thing is that he's becoming a father for the second time and they're dealing with that, too," says Tim Marlow. "I [think] he will miss the opening of this [gallery] as well."

Despite being very visible as man about town, Jopling is loath to discuss himself in public. "He doesn't want to become the story," says Marlow. "He doesn't call the gallery Jay Jopling Fine Arts. It's White Cube, which is historically coded [from the art book Inside the White Cube, the Ideology of the Gallery Space by Brian O'Doherty] and smart. It's not about him, it's a broader, smarter vision."

Marlow regards the celebrity couple of the gossip pages as a natural consequence of success. "People pick up on the fact that he's glamorous and mixes with celebrities. It's an inevitable consequence of the connectedness of the creative community.

"If you are very successful at what you do, you meet other very successful people. Jay is one of the most successful people in his particular area, which has became an increasingly important and glamorous world in the last decade. The art world is unrecognisable from what it was 15 years ago."

But not all Jopling's friends are household names. Among those with whom he shares his passion for Leeds United and the poetry of John Cooper Clarke and Philip Larkin are the artist and writer Harland Miller, who would never register in the pages of Heat.

Antony Gormley, one of the artists he represents, says: "He's very loyal and a good friend and he's very generous with his friendship. With meeting Jay, you do meet a lot of people you wouldn't have met otherwise. They're all stimulating people. There's just a sense he enjoys people that are making the world a bit different."

Johnnie Shand Kydd, the society photographer who has known Jopling since his Edinburgh days, says: "He's one of the most loyal people I know. Once he decides he's behind you, he's behind you through thick and thin. And he's unbelievably fun, just lovely and naughty. He works hard and he plays hard."

So at a Jay Jopling party, Little Britain star David Walliams or any number of hardened Groucho Club party-people are likely to be found mingling with the many artists Jopling represents.

But not everyone has fallen under Jopling's spell. Rosie Millard, who examined the contemporary art scene in her book The Tastemakers, says: "His shameless courting of celebrities is, frankly, a bit naff. I don't think you can come across as particularly serious if you're so besotted with famous people. I suspect it might do him down in the long run, because he just comes across as shallow." But those close to him insist that it is the art that counts. "He's genuinely passionate about the work," Marlow says. "There are plenty of gallerists who cannot disguise the fact that all they are interested in is whether they can sell it or not. He's not a philanthropist. White Cube is a commercial gallery. But he's able to talk to artists about what they do and why they do it with genuine knowledge and enthusiasm."

And he thinks big. Anselm Kiefer could scarcely believe that White Cube was willing to bring to Hoxton the type of pavilion in which he shows his work at home in southern France, but it did last year.

He has also been inventive, with projects such as fig-1, a series of exhibitions and events that included writers such as Will Self and fashion designers such as Philip Treacy alongside artists. Yet there are others who are said to have fallen by the wayside when they responded to Jopling's interventionist suggestions on their work.

Most artists, though, defend him to the hilt. "He is supremely enthusiastic and he's very capable of communicating his passions in a way that makes you want to have the same experience that Jay seems to have in his relationship with art," says Antony Gormley.

"He's very exciting and it's exciting to be around whatever is happening around him. I think he wants you to take risks and wants you to be part of risk-taking. There's not a tired attitude of art as some kind of commodity but a relationship and an involvement."

So when Gormley needed feedback on the major retrospective of his work that is being planned at the Hayward Gallery, Jopling was on the phone brimming with ideas.

To his fans, Jopling is a charming, impeccably turned out workaholic. Johnnie Shand Kydd laughs at how pernickety he is over his clothes. "Sam gives me all his cast-offs. I don't mind a frayed cuff."

"The buildings he builds, his house, everything about him is beautifully judged. He's got very astute taste, a very refined sensibility," adds Marlow.

"Sam has a balance that may have something to do with her life experiences. She works incredibly hard because she's a mother and because women, on the whole, do balance life-work better. But Jay's a workaholic. He's working and thinking about his work all the time, he's absolutely driven that way."

If he has woken at 7am with a thought on a new project, he will think nothing of calling Marlow to talk about it. "He always says if he can't be the best at what he's doing, he doesn't want to do it. But he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth as far as the art world is concerned." Jopling's Mason's Yard development was a massive investment. The electricity sub-station, a rare development opportunity in St James's, had been in Jopling's sight from before he opened his second gallery in Hoxton. But it had not been for sale. Then, out of the blue, he had a telephone call to say that sealed bids were being sought. He won.

For the new gallery, he has recruited more talent to his fold, including the Canadian Jeff Wall and the photographer Andreas Gursky, one of the most highly-sought after artists in the world at present.

Although some believe that Hauser and Wirth, nearby, is currently London's trendiest gallery and the New Yorker Larry Gagosian is a bigger hitter globally, White Cube Mason's Yard is already a landmark in the national art scene.

For Jopling's part, he says he is proud and excited to see the project come to fruition. "Coming back to St James's is a little bit like coming home," he says. "I've always missed this area, I have to say. I've always wanted to collide the avant-garde with the Establishment."

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