Frank Cohen arrives at the staff entrance of luxury food store Fortnum & Mason in a bit of a flurry. As we walk through its gilded galleries he tells me “I am getting too old for this.” “This” is putting on exhibitions of his art collection, one of the most important private collections of international modern and contemporary art in the country. Last year, he loaned a selection of paintings by British artists to the store for the first Frank x Fortnum’s. This year, he has chosen to focus on just one artist, loaning 13 works by the late John Bellany RA, supplemented by works from the artist’s to make up the largest showing of his work since his death in 2013.
The truth is that Cohen seems to have as much energy and enthusiasm as he did when I first interviewed him some 13 years ago. Wearing his trademark spectacles which have one square and one round lens, this pair decorated with a green camouflage pattern, and dressed in jeans and trainers, the latter embroidered with rockets and space ships, his long blonde hair flops into his eyes. He looks nowhere near his 73 years. Cohen, who was born into a working-class Jewish home in Manchester and peppers his conversation with Yiddish phrases, made his fortune with a chain of DIY stores. He was introduced to art by his wife Cherryl, beginning by collecting prints by LS Lowry until he could afford the originals.
In the past decade, Cohen has shown his collection in spaces he set up in Wolverhampton and London so how did he come to work with the world’s oldest department store? He says that he’ll give me the spiel and reveals it all started with fellow-Mancunian, the writer Howard Jacobson.
“Howard is a very good friend of mine. I used to work for his dad selling tinned food on a stall in Garston market in Liverpool. Howard and I didn’t know each other well, he was very academic and went off to Cambridge University whilst I was still working the markets. I met him again many years later when I was at the Venice Biennale and went up to him. He said to me ‘Frankie Cohen, I can’t believe it. How can you have become an uber-art collector?’ He couldn’t get over it. “Anyway, Howard’s wife and Fortnum & Mason CEO Ewan Ventner’s wife are friends and Ewan and Howard share the same birthday so they celebrate together. I happened to get invited by Howard. I was sitting talking to Ewan and he says to me ‘Frank, how about having an art exhibition at Fortnum’s?’
“For a minute I wondered if he was kidding me. And then I thought why not? The store faces the Royal Academy, Ewan wanted to do it the same week as the Frieze Art Fair. He wanted to get his toe in the art world water because he is a very, very clever guy, and he does promotions in the store week in week out. He’s always got an event going on and he has built up this business over the years he has been here.’ In the five years that Ventner has been in charge, Fortnum’s has had record profits.
Cohen continues the story. “I agreed to do the exhibition of my collection with him. We discussed it and discussed it. It wasn’t easy, between the conversation and the actual fruition it took a couple of years. It all had to be planned and organised. You can’t just bring art in and bang it up on the walls. It had to have a theme. So that was how we started.”
The first exhibition last year was tremendously successful and so they decided to do it again. When trying to come up with a theme, Cohen felt “it had got to be something I’m personally involved with. But I happened to love an artist called John Bellany and I owned a lot of his wonderful early works so I approached Helen, his widow and her family and asked them if they would be prepared to put some works into the store if they could sell them.’
Despite having bought a number of the artist’s works, Cohen never actually met Bellany. He first came across the work about ten years ago when visiting the studio of his friend, the artist Damien Hirst. “I saw these two works on the wall and loved them. Damien told me that they were by John Bellany and that is when I started to investigate him.” Hirst has his own gallery and Cohen believes that he might have been planning a Bellany show “but I beat him to it.”
He feels that the paintings are perfect for the location. “The work in my honest opinion lends itself to this type of department store. Bellany came from a small fishing town in Scotland. Because this is a store most famous for its groceries, I thought the subject of fish would go very well.” There are almost 50 works spread around the store with a number placed prominently in the shop windows. In pride of place is a self-portrait of the artist with his friend David Bowie. “David loved Bellany’s work. It’s funny how the people who appreciate him, me, David, Damien, we all come from similar working class, council house backgrounds. We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths and we like his depictions of the working class.”
Cohen then informs me that he actually owns three more works by Bellany that he could not include in the show. “He went to Buchenwald concentration camp and what he saw upset him. He came back and made a series of pictures that are very powerful and tough. They should be in the Imperial War Museum.”
Once we have finished talking about Bellany, Cohen scrolls through images on his phone to show me some other works in his collection. He points out in particular the Jewish artists he collects explaining “I don’t just buy go out and buy a work because the artist is Jewish but there are some great Jewish artists.” He owns works by Kossoff, Auerbach and “the good Yiddishe boy” Richard Eurich. He proudly shows me a beautiful drawing he owns by David Bomberg entitled Family Bereavement, which shows a family sitting shiva, a yarhzeit candle prominent in the background.
“I like Jews” he says, “I’m not religious but I’ve got a Jewish thing.” He speaks of his regret at not having yet been able to acquire a work by the Jewish artist Soutine. “I think he is my favourite of all time. I wish I could own one.”
For my last question, I ask Frank about his plans for the future. He explains that his London art space, the Dairy, came up for redevelopment “and that was the end of that. I won’t be opening any more spaces. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’d rather do a one off show like this once a year. It is more fun and I’m not committed to it 52 weeks of the year.” He is also slowing down a little on the collecting. ‘I’m buying only if I see something sensational. I’m more discriminating now. I only buy the top works.’
Fortnum’s X Frank 17 continues at Fortnum & Mason until October 28