Out to lunch with Anthony Green RA

Published 17 May 2010

A classic French bistro delights the Academician, who tells us why the future of the RA belongs to its Friends.

  • From the Summer 2010 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    As we arrive at Bellamy’s, a cosy French bistro tucked in a mews off Berkeley Square, Anthony Green roars with laughter. “The Colonel used to take me here for Champagne,” he says, referring to the legendary art dealer Alex Gregory-Hood, a retired colonel in the Grenadier Guards who owned the nearby Rowan Gallery and took Green on as an artist in the 1960s. “Of course it wasn’t the same – it was a caviar restaurant then,” he says. “I can’t wait to see it again.”

    Phew! It’s not easy finding a place to take a half-French descendent of chefs, who has grown up eating, cooking and talking about the best French food. But, as I suspected, Green prefers the classic staples of cuisine bourgeois to anything complicated, so Bellamy’s hits the spot. Indeed, sinking into its dark green banquettes and admiring the French art posters and the menu of old school favourites like sole meunière, quenelles, steak frites and coq au vin, we almost feel transported to Paris for the afternoon.

    Green’s eyes light upon the salt cod on the menu of the day. “One almost never sees that these days. Salt cod saved my family in the War,” he declares. “My grandfather had a restaurant and one of his fish suppliers in Billingsgate went bankrupt, so he took over the company to get his money back. But it was 1940, the bombs were falling and the only thing you could buy without a Government license was salt cod. The trawlers weren’t going out so you couldn’t get fresh fish. But if you knew what to do with horrible salt cod, you could give it added value by making fish cakes – French style, with special seasoning. So that’s what he did, supplying clubs, restaurants and boarding schools with fish cakes. He made a small fortune and retired back to France. End of story. What are you going to have for lunch?”

    Salt-cod saga notwithstanding, I opt for the filets of sole in butter and lemon, simple yet succulent and reminiscent of holidays in France. Since Bellamy’s has an oyster bar, I can’t resist ordering a mix of half a dozen rocks and natives. Green begins with scrambled eggs and Perigord truffles because his family comes from the region and this is a dish of his youth. To accompany the meal, he orders a light but flavourful Sancerre blanc from the all-French wine list, something of a rarity in London these days. Then we tuck into the dense baguette and tackle the topic of the day: the RA.

    Green is here in his guise as éminence grise at the Academy, where he has been an RA since 1977. An artist well known to anyone who frequents the Summer Exhibition, his colourful painting is an ongoing expression of his passion for his wife Mary and the intimacy of their family life. But, unusually for an artist, he says, “I don’t want to talk about my work”. Instead he prefers to discuss his behind-the-scenes role at the Academy, sitting on the Friends Council and chairing the Exhibitions Committee. What is it about the institution that he finds so important?

    “Most of the artists who join do so because they have done something remarkable in art and, with a bit of luck, they’re going to keep the flag of civilization flying, not in a nasty academic way but in a generous way. To be an artist over a period of 50 years, you can’t just do it through inspiration. You’ve got to have artistic intelligence, to think your way through your art and plan, achieve, develop.”

    He sees it as the Academy’s role to share this “artistic intelligence” and one of the best ways we do that, he believes, is through the art we show. “Exhibitions are the life blood of the Academy. We need them to be successful in a critical and artistic sense, of course, and to encompass the range of what happens in art, both historic and contemporary. But because we are self-funding and receive no Government money, we need the public and the revenue they generate. The more people who come through the door, the more cakes we sell in the café, the more books we sell in the shop and – most importantly – the more Friends who join the RA, the better able we are to support ourselves for the future.”

    Now Green is in full flow because for him, it is the Friends of the RA who make the institution tick: “The Friends are key to the future of the RA because they provide both a constant public for our art and an income stream we can rely on in good times and bad. I am not supposed to talk like that. I am supposed to be an artist, but if you don’t have financial support, you run from one tragedy to another. I’ve been here ever since Hugh Casson created the Friends in 1977 and they’ve grown to about 97,000. But, as we saw during The Real Van Gogh, we are full to bursting. So we’re planning to open up the whole of the right hand side of Burlington House – what’s known as the Keeper’s House – to expand the Friends’ facilities. There will be two levels and a suite of reception areas, a bar that is open at night as a private members’ club for Friends and, of course, more ladies’ loos.”

    How will this come about? “The funds are coming from the Friends’ subscriptions, which also fund the exhibition programme,” he says. “What really excites me is that the RA Members room and an exhibition space for Academicians’ work will be above the Friends Room, which could provide more scope for mingling between the artists and the Friends.”

    As we choose our desserts – he picks Ile Flottante, a favourite boyhood treat, while I have tangy pineapple carpaccio – he rolls off a list of exhibitions being planned for the future. There are treasures from the Budapest museums and British sculpture later this year. Looking ahead, Degas, possibly Daumier, German Expressionism, Vienna, Syria and David Hockney RA are among the eclectic mix. If Green could curate a show, what would it be? “Idiosyncratic artists are a real British speciality and I would put together an exhibition of them that spans from Blake to today – it could include Richard Dadd, Stanley Spencer, Carel Weight – the list goes on. But I’ll have to wait until I retire, because I would want to be in it too.”

  • Anthony Green shows in A Selected New English Exhibition at Messum’s Fine Art, London, 020 7437 5545, until 3 July 2010.
    Sarah Greenberg is former Editor of RA Magazine

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