The taste of a painting
By REBECCA SWIRSKY
Can one taste an artwork? This was the synaesthesia-based conundrum I pondered while dining at a pop-up restaurant at Sotheby’s in New Bond Street. Chef Ollie Dabbous, dubbed by the food critic Jay Rayner "the most wanted chef in Britain", served six courses to coincide with the launch of the auction’s house Modern & Post-War British Art Sale (June 13 and 14).
Dabbous, whose restaurant (also called Dabbous) has received a Michelin star, said he was "drawn to the colours and textures, particularly with the more shape-driven abstract artworks that diners will be surrounded by”. As the pouring of wine commenced and paper bags containing warm bread were handed to tables, my fellow immaculately dressed diners were upstaged by even better-dressed walls: there were pieces by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Elisabeth Frink, Lucian Freud, L. S. Lowry and Frank Auerbach.
Dabbous’s inspiration was most evident in his third course, entitled "A Homage to Hepworth". A slice of bronzed kohlrabi sat atop a tasty offering of braised salt marsh lamb and wild garlic pickle; the dish bore a close resemblance to Hepworth’s "Forms in Movement (Gaillard)" (1956), one of the most valuable Hepworth lots in the two-day sale. Another lot, a white Seravezza marble sculpture entitled "Quiet Form" (1973), was a gift from the artist to her old headmistress, Miss Margaret Knott, on her retirement; Knott later re-gifted it to Hepworth’s alma mater, Wakefield Girls' High. Both sculptures were being sold in an effort to release funds for bursaries for future generations. "Forms in Movement", a structure consisting of three copper swirls, represents one of Hepworth’s earliest forays into sheet metal, and was acquired to celebrate the opening of the school’s gymnasium in 1960. The work was sold by Hepworth for the price of 200 guineas, half its market value at the time. Pupils were reportedly thrilled at its presence, with one poetically commenting that, “it gleams like the setting sun, radiating a warm glow, and yet it has such a delicate hue”. Since Hepworth herself enjoyed two scholarships, first at the Leeds College of Art, then the Royal College of Art, the sale of both works to release bursary funds represents an agreeable circularity. “I shall never forget the joy of going to school and the gorgeous smell of the paint I was allowed to use, nor the inspiration and help the Headmistress, Miss McCroben, gave me”, wrote Hepworth in A Pictorial Autobiography (1970).
“Ollie got a bit carried away by the naming”, acknowledged Graham Burton, general manager at Dabbous. He was referring to a green concoction of raw peas and iced mint tea, arriving with the title "England’s Green and Pleasant Land". The dish’s construction bore a natural resemblance to Patrick Heron’s ludic painting of Sydney’s botanical garden, "Sydney Garden Painting" (see pictures below), included in the auction. Heron, whose bright canvases are limned with dynamic unfurlings of colour, once said of his Antipodean experience: "I had a wonderful time [in Australia] in 1989–90 . . . . It wasn’t so much the landscape as the vegetation that got into the work". Biting into the vegetable crunch of Dabbous’s joyous pea-and-tea creation felt close enough to tasting a painting.