Russian Art and Culture: Interview with Theodora Clarke


James Butterwick is not your average art dealer. First of all, you will not find him in Mayfair or the West End where most galleries are based. His work space is at his house in the leafy West London suburb of Ravenscourt Park. He explains his philosophy, “I can achieve what I need to here and it allows me to have a lifestyle that suits me. I can see my family every day”. He has even built a gallery here, in order to display his collection, which opened to visitors in May this year. The exhibition space is in the form of an extension to his house which stretches out into the garden. James shows me around his house before we walk out to the gallery. Over a cup of tea he explains his approach to collecting.

One of the most important issues with art collecting, he explains, is that of authenticity. “There are significant problems with Russian Art when it comes to authenticating works for example by Natalia Goncharova”, says James. There has been a major recent controversy regarding the reproduction of several images in Denise Bazetoux’s catalogue raisonne on the artist – works were reproduced from Russian museum collections, such as the Tretyakov Gallery, without permission and a number of the works published are considered fakes.

Goncharova’s works, as the most expensive female artist ever, are frequently forged. The Tretyakov Gallery regard themselves as the guardian of Goncharova’s legacy and have campaigned vigorously against the forgeries of her work which are reproduced in the two publications. James also points out that the Tretyakov experts claims that as many as 50% of the works illustrated in Bazetoux’s book are fake and that Parton’s book even has a fake reproduced on its cover.

“Much of any dealers reputation depends on the authenticity of the works they collect”, he says. So how does he deal with fakes as a dealer? “For me it’s not much of a problem. It comes down in the end to years of experience and knowing what you are looking at. You need to have adequate provenance for your pictures”. James visits Russia regularly and employs a specialist researcher to check the history of his pictures. Provenance, he states, is the one of the most important parts of picture collecting. He researches every picture to see who owned it, where it was exhibited and in which publications it can be found.

James is a specialist in the true sense of the word. Over many years he has built up expertise and knowledge of Russian works from 1890-1930. He tends not to advertise and stays away from many big corporate events. Buyers, it seems, just know where to find him. Most of his work is to act as a finder of paintings, not always Russian, for private collectors. The majority of these buyers are Russians who are interested in acquiring works by both Russian and European artists of the period.

So what does he think is also essential to being a good dealer and collector? “First of all you must have a good eye but second you need to have good provenance”. He guarantees the authenticity of all his works putting his reputation on the line and demonstrating his commitment to accuracy. He is unusual in being a foreigner who is well regarded in Russia. In 2008 he was elected to the Russian International Confederation of Antique and Art Dealers, the only Westerner who is a member which is a considerable mark of respect and sign of his expertise.

I ask him what initially attracted him to Russian art. The first work he acquired was a Leon Bakst pencil drawing in 1987. He acquired a taste for Russian Art when he studied in the Soviet Union. He read Russian Studies and History of Art at university and got his first art-related job at Sotheby’s. However, his first major find was in 1994 when he discovered a Self-Portrait by Mikhail Vrubel. This small work on paper depicts the artist staring straight at the viewer with only half his face visible. James says, “it is challenging work as it depicts Vrubel when he was ill. The artist drew it between 1882-83 when he was in the middle of one of his nervous breakdowns”.

He offers as an interesting anecdote the story of its discovery. “I was offered the picture when I was living in Moscow for just a couple of thousand dollars. Whilst there, I was having tea at the apartment of Alexander Volkov’s son, Valery. When I mentioned the self-portrait to him, Valery recognised the picture straightaway, said that his father adored Vrubel’s work and had been a colossal influence on him. He disappeared into his study and moments later he reappeared holding an article from an old Soviet newspaper of 1924 which had on the front page an article entitled, ‘The Unpublished Vrubel’ and with the same portrait reproduced underneath. In addition there was full information on the provenance”. James owns a beautiful small pencil drawing by Vrubel of Vova Mamontov reading. This work also has a full provenance, being was originally acquired from the wife of the artist and exhibited in 1956 at the Vrubel personal exhibition in Moscow.

Well-known artists who are displayed at the gallery include Kuzma Petrov Vodkin, Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Boris Grigoriev and Natan Altman. Larionov’s watercolour is a costume design for ‘Soleil de Nuit’ in 1915. The artist was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to create the designs for this Ballets Russes production in Paris. The work depicts a Young Jester who is wearing brightly coloured native clothes which are dominated by swirling, foliage-like motifs. The image recalls his partner Goncharova’s designs for ‘Le Coq D’Or’ created one year earlier. With this design we can see how Larionov turned to native Russian folk art and Neo-Primitivist imagery for inspiration. Most striking, on a neighbouring wall, are three images by Alexander Volkov ‘Nude in a Mountainous Landscape’, ‘Golgotha’ and ‘Eastern Fantasy’. Volkov is an artist who is still relatively unknown in the West. However, he is enjoying a surge in popularity in London as demonstrated by the recent Christie’s exhibition of his work, ‘Of Sand and Silk’.

Who are the most popular artists on the market today? James replies that Petrov-Vodkin is still proving popular to collectors but adds, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to find works by the top artists”. Regarding recent sales he suggests that the Russian market has also become more selective. Originally, Russian art attracted him as it “struck me as being a market completely underexposed” where there was still room to find major works. In October he will exhibit at the Moscow Salon and plans another show for next year in the spring. Like other dealers he is also interested to see how the major auction houses do in Russian art week in London this November. In difficult economic times it remains to be seen how buoyant the Russian art market remains.

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