Thursday, December 10, 2009

Breaking with tradition: Sir Thomas Lighton joins Agnew's

It has just been announced that Sir Thomas Lighton (left), until recently Managing Director of Cork Street modern and contemporary art dealers Waddington Galleries, is to join the venerable old firm of Agnew's as Chief Executive.

This is interesting in that it signals Agnew's desire to move more bullishly into the 20th century and contemporary art fields after generations as one of the world's leading Old Master dealerships. The firm will continue to deal in its core specialities of Old Masters and British paintings, watercolours and drawings, but like just about everyone else it has clearly realised the need to embrace contemporary art more actively.

However, the appointment is also interesting in that up until now Agnew's has always been run by members of the family. Lighton will be the first Chief Executive who is not an Agnew.

The clannish ambience of Agnew's was brilliantly captured in a photograph by Lord Snowdon taken in the mid-1960s (right [click image to enlarge]) which shows the Agnews' board sitting together in a tight circle like members of the Gambino crime family (left to right: Richard Kingzett, Colin Agnew, Hugh Agnew [the chairman], Geoffrey Agnew, and Evelyn Joll). Notably, Messrs Kingzett and Joll were present by virtue of having married into the family. It seems they've subsequently dropped the need to wed an Agnewette as a qualification for membership.

I don't know Tom Lighton personally, but speaking with my journalist's hat on, he was unfailingly courteous and helpful on the few occasions I had reason to approach him while he was Waddington (once to request that he try and persuade the late great Barry Flanagan to return some books that I'd lent him — Barry never did).

If Agnew's elder statesmen give Lighton the latitude to do what he needs to do, there is no reason why he shouldn't bring the firm kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.

His old colleague at Waddington — Leslie W — helped initiate a similar change at the previously Old Master-dominated TEFAF fair in Maastricht, so Tom will have had some experience at teaching old master dogs new tricks.

But there is also distant modern pedigree at Agnews's on which to build. It was at Agnew's 'Young British Painters' exhibition in 1937 that a fresh-faced Francis Bacon made his debut.