Temple Gallery

Established 1959

It was a rather unorthodox introduction that brought RICHARD TEMPLE to his current level of expertise. He tells DAVID COOMBS all about it.

"The origin of my interest in icons is absolutely, undoubtedly, love at first sight," says Richard Temple.

"I walked into a shop in Cecil Court and saw a dark piece of painted wood with piercing eyes and was completely overwhelmed. I had just left school and I bought it for £11 - all the money I had in the world. When I was in the army, a fellow officer suggested I take the piece to the National Gallery. The curator on duty took it in his hands and quite literally looked down his nose and said, 'Oh, this is a Russian icon. We don't really count these as paintings,' and dismissed me, although he did have the grace to add: 'You should contact Professor David Talbot Rice at Edinburgh University.' David had a wonderful Russian wife, Tamara, and they befriended me and encouraged me in a very old-fashioned, gentle way."

"When I was leaving the army and looking for something to do, I bumped into a friend whose own experience inspired me to open a basement art gallery in Sloane Street, where I sold the 18th and 19th century prints I had been collecting. Then I began exhibiting pictures by friends who were painters. I used to hang around Sotheby's and antique shops and see icons - nobody even knew what they were in those days. I'd buy them, I didn't really know why, and bit by bit they took over my life."

"One day in about 1961 or 2, a local carpet dealer called me and offered me a collection of 20 icons he had taken in lieu of a debt. I took them down to the Talbot Rices who explained everything, and I put on an exhibition of these 20, plus a dozen I had bought myself. There was a new art critic for The Times at the time and he reviewed the exhibition and gave it half a page with a whacking great photograph. People started treating me as an expert, which I wasn't, but I had the passion. So I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Until then icons were very, very little known and neglected and editors liked something that was one-off."

"In the late 1960s and early '70s I helped build up some important collections of icons, including one for Eric Bradley - who became a friend, colleague and financial partner. I have the sort of mind that likes and wants and craves explanation. So I started reading and collecting books and went to Russia and spent days at a time in the museums. For 20 years as a non-academic I had a clear run fired by passion and love of the subject - which gave me the stature of an expert. Although I've been pushed slightly aside now by academic art historians, I still have a place as an expert, because if you do nothing but eat, sleep, dream and talk icons for 40 years, you are accepted."

"The early years of the 1990s were very, very difficult indeed. They were extremely painful. I had to rethink the gallery again from the beginning and I went back to dealing in what I thought I was too grand to deal in: 19th century icons. In the 19th century there was a revival in the Russian monasteries of the medieval style, within the sacred tradition, of icon painting. After 40 years of being fanatical about quality, I can find some 19th century icons that are very, very beautiful. This means that I now have a clientele who can spend from say £700 to £3000 buying not very old icons, but coming from the authentic tradition. That really pulled us out and it is a very good way of sowing the interest for people who graduate from a 19th or 18th century icon to a 17th, or 16th, or 15th century icon. Earlier icons are much more expensive with a value from £10,000 - £50,000 or even more for certain very rare examples."

"I no longer produce lavish art historical catalogues, but brochures, where we illustrate everything with a caption, the size and the price. And people love that. The Internet is fascinating. A friend set up a website for me, and for two or three years I was in despair. Then suddenly in the last two years we've been beginning to get a lot of response, particularly from America. It's very interesting. It's paying off and I foresee in the next 10 or 15 years that it'll be a big part of the market - especially for specialist subjects."

"This business is fascinating for me because it's a way of relating to people. I love it. It suits me that my gallery is the ground floor of my house - every single person that comes into my shop is coming into my house. I like it when people, who perhaps have never seen an icon in their life, come in and are touched. They're hearing a sound that they've never heard, that maybe reaches deeply into them. My interpretation and understanding of icons isn't quite conventional by art historical academic standards. What I'm really interested in is the meaning of art and I think that the icon conveys through beauty the sacred in a spiritual way. I'm not particularly interested in religion but I'm very interested in spirituality."

Favourite artist?
"The Russian monk, the great Andrey Rublyov, c.1360-c.1420. To stand in front of one of his icons in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow is, for me, an overwhelming experience."

Most admired dealer?
"John Stuart, formerly of Sotheby's, who now has his own gallery dealing in Russian paintings. He has great knowledge and great passion and is the one person to whom I would always defer."

Most regretted sale?
"In the Bradley Collection, there was a late 12th century Byzantine Head of the Madonna that is now in the Menil Collection, Texas. For me that is one of the greatest works of art ever."

Favourite deal?
"We once bought a very rare 13th century steatite icon at Sotheby's in Monaco. Told we could export it, my partner brought it back to London in his pocket. Then the Louvre decided they wanted it. So I had to smuggle it back to Paris where they gave us an export licence to exhibit and publish it. They then bought it for double the price."

Biggest mistakes?
"There was a period in my life when, because I had Eric Bradley's support behind me, I would buy as a collector rather than as a dealer. I was motivated by passion and desire rather than hard-headed business calculations. If you buy something like that it may take 10 years or more to sell."

Outside interests?
"I'm a passionate traveller - with a backpack and a pair of jeans. And I'm doing a PhD in Pieter Bruegel the Elder. All knowledge is in his paintings and my training in icons has allowed me to understand the symbolism."

David Coombs
Published w/e 12th October 2002 in the "Antiques Trade Gazette"

Antiques Trade Gazette


Pictured above: Richard Temple