Elton and Bowie: the pop stars who rocked the art world

As one star’s photography collection goes on show and another’s paintings are sold, we report on pop’s big spenders


The year is 1997. A youthful Tony Blair leads the Labour Party to a landslide election victory. Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in London introduces a generation of young British artists to the wider public and causes, well, a sensation with its bold, provocative works and explicit themes. Stars of the show, such as Damien Hirst with his shark in a tank, become household names. British bands such as Oasis are busy conquering the globe. The mood is buoyant, optimistic; Britain is cool again — probably for the first time since the Sixties.

Art collectors from around the world were seduced by this creative energy and snapped up works by the Sensation artists. But one man’s gaze was fixed resolutely elsewhere — David Bowie, a musician whose hallmark had always been originality and innovation. Although he befriended Hirst (and would go on to make one of the artist’s trademark spin paintings with him), Bowie’s obsession was British early 20th-century and postwar art, then deeply unfashionable and undervalued.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange, from Sir Elton John’s collectionTHE SIR ELTON JOHN PHOTOGRAPHY COLLECTION

“While everyone else was travelling to the East End to see the work of young artists, David and I were going up and down Cork Street [in Mayfair] to look at paintings by Peter Lanyon and Harold Gilman. We were searching for things that other people weren’t interested in,” recalls Kate Chertavian, who worked as the curator of Bowie’s art collection for eight years.

The British portraits, landscapes and abstract works assembled by the late musician over 20 years are now on display at Sotheby’s in London where they will be auctioned this coming week; the association with Bowie is likely to boost prices for work that is still inexpensive compared with art produced at the same time in America.

The show gives us a rare glimpse into the private passions of one of our great cultural icons. And on the same day that the Bowie auctions begin, another remarkable collection not seen before by the public will be revealed at Tate Modern, this one assembled by another rock star — Sir Elton John.

Frank Auerbach’s Head of Gerda Boehm from David Bowie’s collectionSOTHEBY’S

While Bowie was buying British art, Sir Elton was collecting what was then an equally overlooked field: photography. He spent decades acquiring about 7,000 images, including vintage prints of modernist works, creating a collection unrivalled by any museum in this country. The Tate show will display more than 150 modernist pieces belonging to Sir Elton including seminal names such as Man Ray, André Kertész, Edward Steichen and Aleksandr Rodchenko.

Rock and pop stars have always collected art. It is the ultimate status symbol, signifying success more than multiple homes, cars and yachts because it bestows an instant air of refinement on its purchaser. However, it is about more than that. Creative individuals are drawn to one another, finding inspiration in each other’s work. The American rapper Jay Z has assembled a wide-ranging contemporary art collection.

“When I started going to galleries people in hip-hop were like, ‘art is too bourgeois’ but artists, we’re alike, we’re cousins,” he explained in an interview (which, in quite a meta way, opens the video to his song Picasso Baby, in which the performance artist Marina Abramovic also appeared). With his wife Beyoncé, he has bought pieces by Hirst, the Americans Richard Prince, George Condo, David Hammons, Ed Ruscha and many more. The couple have also ventured into blue-chip modern art territory acquiring pieces by Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

A chair by Peter Shire, from David Bowie’s collectionSOTHEBY’S

Other hip-hop artists who collect art include Swizz Beatz, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. Madonna has focused on modern classics, especially female painters such as the Mexican modernist Frida Kahlo and the Polish art deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. “I have a ton of her paintings in New York,” she told Vanity Fair. “I have a Lempicka museum.” She also owns work by Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Kahlo’s husband, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Auctions have also revealed the collecting tastes of Eric Clapton, who is selling an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter at Christie’s in New York on November 15. He bought three works by the German artist at auction for £2 million in 2001. He sold one of them for £21.3 million 11 years later and another for $20.9 million (£13.1 million at the time) the next year. The third has a high estimate of $25 million (£20.5 million) so Clapton stands to make a £52.9 million profit on the Richter trio, making him the savviest investor among musician collectors.

However, Bowie and Sir Elton are unique among musicians who buy art in the depth of the collections they assembled and the fields they chose to focus on. For Bowie, buying art was “less a reflection of success than an expression of identity”, writes the historian Dominic Sandbrook in an essay for the Sotheby’s auction catalogue. His collection is unexpected. “Who would have guessed that the man who invented Ziggy Stardust would have such a fascination with David Bomberg or St Ives abstraction?” asks Sandbrook. “Somebody who knew Bowie only through his music might have expected his collection to be dominated by German expressionism and American pop art.”

Bowie’s Picasso plateSOTHEBY’S

But Bowie was British. Born in Brixton, south London, brought up in Bromley and fascinated by the political and social history of his time and the way painting in particular could “help him understand pre- and postwar London”, says Beth Greenacre of Rokeby Gallery, who took over as the curator of Bowie’s collection in 2000. The singer once said: “It’s good to take long drinks from the past and understand what made us who we are, how we . . . define our lives now and see our way to the future.”

A case in point is Harold Gilman’s Interior (Mrs Mounter) from 1917, a view of a charlady cleaning a dreary room, possibly a bedsit, which Sotheby’s has estimated at £150,000 to £250,000. The work looks ordinary enough today but at the time it was painted it was “a revolutionary picture”, says Frances Christie, the head of the modern British department at Sotheby’s. “In 1917 the Royal Academy was displaying views of aristocratic interiors but Gilman was painting the reality of city life with its drab, grubby suburban lodgings. At the time that was radical.”

All the artists that appealed to Bowie were pushing boundaries in one way or another, adds Christie. Peter Lanyon’s monumental canvas Witness, estimated at £250,000 to £350,000, is an abstract composition in black, blue, grey and white, painted in St Ives in 1961 as an attempt to capture the experience of gliding, seeing the Cornish landscape from above, while soaring through the blue with the wind in your face. (Lanyon died three years later in a gliding accident, aged 46).

Norman Catherine’s Back Chat II, from Bowie’s collectionSOTHEBY’S

Another highlight is Frank Auerbach’s Head of Gerda Boehm from 1965, a depiction of the artist’s cousin built up in thick daubs of paint, which is estimated at £300,000 to £500,000. Born to Jewish parents in Berlin in 1931, Auerbach was sent to England as a child to escape the Nazis. His parents died in concentration camps. The only member of his family he saw again was Gerda. Bowie once said that Auerbach’s portrait of her gave “spiritual weight” to his own “angst”. He added that the “same painting on a different day can produce in me an incredible feeling of the triumph of trying to express myself as an artist”.

As well as British art, Bowie was drawn to an eclectic array of other works. Sothebys’ auctions will include pieces by the French-born conceptualist Marcel Duchamp, a chess set by Man Ray, a Tintoretto altarpiece, Picasso ceramics, works by South African artists bought by Bowie on a trip to Johannesburg for the magazine Modern Painters(he was on the editorial board), and furniture by the Italian design group Memphis Milano led by Ettore Sottsass. “David was a man of infinite curiosity and range,” says Chertavian.

So is Sir Elton. When he first started making money the musician assembled large collections of art deco and art nouveau objects and then sold them all in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s in 1988 that made £4.8 million. Then he turned to photography as well as glass and crystal objects (he now owns about 4,000 glass pieces designed by the French glassmakers Lalique and the Venetian glasshouse Venini, among others). After a stint in rehab in 1990, Sir Elton was staying with friends at a chateau in Cahors, southwest France, when other guests, the Los Angeles gallery owner David Fahey and the photographer Herb Ritts, showed him photos by Ritts, Horst P Horst and Irving Penn. “I looked at them and thought, oh my God, these are so beautiful — I bought about twelve on the spot,” he told Tate Etc.magazine.

Martine Bedin’s Super LampSOTHEBY’S

“I felt as if my eyes were opened by photography . . . [it] became this incredible companion. I was like a kid in a candy store.” Like the British pictures that fascinated Bowie, vintage photography was relatively inexpensive in the 1990s. Sir Elton added: “The timing couldn’t have been better . . . If I had started collecting 20 years later, most of the vintage works would no longer have been available and the prices would have been drastically different. I wouldn’t have been able to amass the collection I’ve got now.”

Tate has said that the musician’s photography show “marks the beginning of a long-term relationship between Tate and the Sir Elton John Collection”. The gallery’s management declined to say more but exhibitions of private collections in public museums are often a prelude to a donation of works from the collector.

That would be good for the British public, no doubt, but gifting part of his photography collection to Tate Modern or lending it to the gallery long-term would also enable Sir Elton to embark on a new collection in an entirely new category. For the very rich, dispensing with art is less about raising money than clearing wall space. In 1994 Barbra Streisand’s collection of 20th-century art deco and art nouveau objects made £4.1 million at Christie’s in New York. Writing in the catalogue for the sale, Streisand said: “I want to simplify my life. I want only two houses instead of seven.” Five years later the megastar teamed up with the auction house again to sell her American arts and crafts furniture. Today she still lives surrounded by art and collectibles. In 2012 a journalist for Time magazine visited Streisand at home in Malibu and reported being led “to a stately room overlooking the ocean that was filled with paintings by John Singer Sargent, Chippendale furniture and a disturbing number of dolls”. Heaven help the museum that gets that bequest.