Rex Irwin Art Dealer: World of ideas - Art Collector

Issue 34, October - December 2005

His crisp accent reveals a very British upbringing, yet Rex Irwin has been dealing in fine art from the same Queen Street premises for over 30 years. Eschewing the quick buck for the slow build, this mercurial player draws his delight simply from putting people in touch with beautiful things. Story by Carmel Dwyer.

In Queen Street, Woollahra, among the smartest shopping precincts in the country, art dealer Rex Irwin is one of the enduring identities. For 30 years, Irwin’s first floor gallery has been a fertile cocoon for artists and their champions. Irwin has not only nurtured the careers of such artists as Peter Booth, Gwynne Hansen Piggott and Nicolas Harding, he also helped launch the careers of such well known dealers as Tim Olsen, David Cook of Christie’s, Georgina Pemberton of Sotheby’s and Damian Hackett of Deutscher-Menzies. Irwin himself was also the inheritor of a tradition: like many who got their start in the 1960s, including Frank Watters, Irwin spent some of his formative years with Barry Stern Gallery. Frank McDonald at Clune Gallery was also an important employer and mentor.

And a sense of tradition seems very fitting for a chap like Rex Irwin, a child of the raj, his father part of the British military, his mother born in India. Not that he remembers anything about that. Irwin was a tiny boy when he moved back to Europe with his parents at the end of the Second World War and he says his first memories are of Christmas time in a war-ruined German town.

Irwin’s middle class British education is still evident in his well-bred accent, perfect manners and an air of cheerful efficiency that borders on crisp. Of course fellows like Irwin didn’t come to Australia for no reason and he has as much Australian candour and disregard for pomposity in his personality, as he has vestiges of his British background.

The first time her came to Australia, in the early 1960s as a twenty-one year old Irwin made the long journey by sea, in those days a six-week voyage. It was during this time that he first met Barry Stern. He returned to England for some years and came back to Australia in 1968 for good, soon after which he resumed his job at Sterns.

The strong attraction the art world held for Rex Irwin has been echoed in the tales of many an out-of-towner who stumbles serendipitously into this world of beautiful things, intriguing people and ideas. It remains as engrossing for him today, as it was a revelation in his 20s.

When Irwin eventually opened his own business, in 1976, he moved into the building he still occupies today. “We started off on the floor below us which is the first floor, then we got this floor, then we finally got the shop on the street. And before we got this floor of course I thought how on earth are we going to afford it and within a fortnight we thought how did we survive without it. Then when we got the shop it paid for itself for a year within a fortnight.” The ground floor shop front was taken on as a marketing vehicle to encourage people to visit the first floor gallery; it has never operated as a shop.

In a world that has developed a fixation with large white rectilinear exhibition spaces, the comparatively cosy interior of Rex Irwin’s first floor gallery might seem a little out of date. But
Irwin demurs: “I don’t think you need a big space. I think Sydney has this valued approach to
white walls and square metreage where if you look at London and Paris you can have a dealer who does twenty eight million pounds from a shop twice the size of that sofa. It has to do
with the person behind the counter not the walls.”

Irwin says he went into the gallery business as appose to the art world and wants to be clear
about that distinction. Over time, his own taste and style developed, heavily weighted towards
figurative two dimensional artworks, although he has begun to deal in ceramics in recent years and has had tremendous success with artists like Gwynne Hansen-Piggott and the late Anders Ousback. Among his most sought-after artists are Peter Booth, Nicholas Harding, Amanda Marburg, and Robert Dickerson. The estates of Fred Williams and John Brack have also been important to the development of the business.

Irwin diversified into selling artists of international acclaim, with access to works on paper by Pablo Picasso and Lucien Freud. Over the years he has also had shows including David
Hockey, Frank Aubach, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiller.

A particularly successful non-Australian exhibition took place in 2003 on the eve of the current war in Iraq when Irwin bought a suite of 80 Goya drawings, The Disasters of War, at auction
in London.

The subsequent show in Sydney benefited from the uncanny timing and was a sell-out. Friends, colleagues and connections in London and Europe have proven important in broadening Irwin’s business. The Freud and Picasso connections and the Schiller and Klimt shows are some of the jewels Irwin has produced from such sources.

His claim to be a gallery anchored in figurative art can be challenged. He has always had a couple of abstractionists, notably Alun Leach-Jones and Graham Kuo and more recently Irish heavyweight Sean Scully.

Now that the world is smaller through the internet, says Irwin, it is possible for dealers to do business internationally. But he says Sydney is a particularly vibrant city with people interested in art from many different quarters.

“The business has changed a lot in that prices have got very high but I think that there is interest from surprisingly ordinary walks of life. I swim at Maroubra and people in the steam room talk to me about the ABC arts program. And you wouldn’t think it, but people are interested. They may not put their bum on a seat at the Opera House, but they are interested in things and they don’t find it peculiar that I run an art gallery more than if I ran a newsagency.

“When I’ve told my London colleagues that I have clients that are 25 or 28, they can’t believe it, because, basically, in London or Paris you don’t have the money to buy anything at that age.
Here, school teachers, nurses, buy a pot or a picture – that’s wonderful – that’s very exciting.”

But there is also what Irwin calls the “the poisonous, pretentious part of the marketplace. It is where a lot of the money is; it’s not where the fun is. The fun is putting somebody in touch with something that excites them.”

His youngest client is a boy of 14 who bought two Peter Booth Drawings from him. He’s the son of a client and has been visiting galleries with his parents since he was about 10. He spent the cheque he received for his 14th birthday and his bar mitzvah on the two Booth drawings.

It’s not such an unusual story. Irwin has been in business long enough to be building a second generation of collectors who are the children of clients – a new sort of tradition that he has created in his own sphere.

He makes no claim to being a collector himself; he’s really the owner of a bower in which there is a collection which includes Harding, Freud, Picasso, Marburg, Booth and Williams and some New Guinean and African sculpture. “But not often as big and grand as the pictures my clients have because, by definition, my clients have to be richer than I am.”

Most of his friends are not arts people. A number of them are journalists and quite left wing, which Irwin says is surprising for him. One or two are politicians, some are musicians, singers, actors.

Some clients have become friends and some friends have become clients but it’s a haphazard pattern.

“I do think one should be safe from feeling you have to buy a picture because you know Rex – that would be awful. But then that’s how a lot of dealers make their living. I don’t go to art parties and I don’t go out a lot but if I did I would be more successful. If you can’t meet Peter Booth or Nicholas Harding or Picasso then meeting their dealer is the next best. Putting yourself about is terribly important but it’s not something I actually do.” What Irwin does make sure he does is run his business as efficiently as possible. It was something he had to learn but clearly places considerable importance on good management.
He has a silent partner who has been with him since he opened and, in the past few years has
offered shares in the business to the two Bretts, Stone and Ballard, who work with him “Something I feel quite strongly about is that the art world can be too precious. What we deal in might be precious but it’s no different from any other commercial world. We have to get to work on time and run our businesses.”