Byline: Godfrey Barker
Ivor Braka, the Chelsea art dealer, is the number one man in London for collectors of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. In addition to his art prowess, he is well known for his friendships with beauties such as Jerry Hall and his dedication to the London party scene. It is a remarkable and unique combination to pull off, implying both all-night stamina and a bulging brain.
But we meet away from Chelsea, at Gunton Park in Norfolk, which Ivor has been restoring for the past 20 years. While lunching on venison sausages at a sun-dappled table in his orchard, Braka, 54, tells me how he came to be London's most successful dealer to Britain's most successful contemporary artists (Jay Jopling at White Cube sells Damien Hirst, like Ivor, but rarely goes near Bacon, who sells for up to $86 million, or Freud, up to $36 million).
Braka's success is based on his disregard for the rules. Most top London galleries have three to ten directors and as many assistants. Not Ivor: he is a one-man band. Most galleries have plate-glass windows, stage exhibitions and invite the public. Not Ivor: you visit him by private appointment at his Chelsea residence. And he does not purchase art to order; he buys the paintings that he would like to have hanging in his own home.
Ivor Braka grew up in a Cheshire farmhouse, near Macclesfield. An only child, he was devoted to wildlife and possessed a number of great crested newts. At Oundle School he was a biology fanatic. He played squash and tennis and rowed. He then studied English at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he gulped down rock music, preferably Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Roxy Music and David Bowie. He grew his hair long, and it has remained that way.
This was just one of many acts of rebellion. 'It was "no" to my father and his tweed jacket and his conventional attitudes,' explains Ivor. The Brakas had cash. His father, of Lebanese/ Syrian Jewish descent, was born in Fog Lane, Didsbury, in Manchester, the same street as 'Black Jack' Dellal. The street nourished wealth. Joseph Braka was a success in textile conversion (he made curtain fabrics). He married Betty Dodds, daughter of a local ironmonger. 'I never wanted for anything,' says Ivor. 'But my parents chose to live very modestly, which I don't. My father's main expense was tennis balls, my mother's was Staffordshire pottery. They had the money but were unflash.'
One of Joseph Braka's great friends was the gallerist Andras Kalman. In 1949, Joseph had set Andras up with a gallery in Manchester from where he sold Freuds and Lowrys. By 1957, Kalman had opened the Crane Kalman Gallery in Knightsbridge and it was there, aged 24, that Ivor got his first taste of the art world, making the coffee for six months. 'Andras is my reason for being an art dealer,' he explains. 'He was the only one of my father's friends who actually seemed to love what he was doing.' Prior to this, Ivor had taken the Sotheby's works of art course on the prompting of a girlfriend, and there he studied with future Bond Street eminenti Richard Nagy and Melanie Clore. They, Kalman and Ivor's inspirational Oundle art master, John Booth, were the foundations of Ivor's judgement.
Ivor's father capitalised him on demand, keeping him afloat for ten years and putting him in a two-bedroom flat in Pont Street. (Ivor now lives in a freehold house nearby.) He plunged into Wyndham Lewis drawings; Rossetti, JW Waterhouse, Popova and Russian Constructivism, Mondrian and Ben Nicholson followed in no particular order and certainly not in a straight line. 'Eccentric, sir,' was the Bond Street sniff. He certainly looked eccentric, and still does, with his Dante Gabriel Rossetti hair, Huntsman suits and jeans. 'A deconstructed look,' he calls it.
'I have not changed my style since school. I am a product of the English Revolution, 1968-73. That was the moment of revolt against army-length hair and bowler hats, against umbrellas and suits, the uniform of the English gentleman. …