Life & Culture

Art from the heart: the families commissioning art

'The art on your walls should produce the same conversation as a favourite song or novel,'


"Imagine what it would be like if you had a film of your great-great grandfather talking about his life."

This idea is becoming a reality for many families. They are investing in a particular genre of art, centred on their own history and celebrations.

And there to help is Richard Williamson, the American founder of McKay Williamson, an art gallery off Ladbroke Grove in London which also runs a creative agency, encompassing advice, photography and film. Williamson is not Jewish, but many of his clients are.

“I feel very honoured to have been invited into the community the way I have,” he says.

Videos are a popular part of his work. It’s a far cry from the wedding or barmitzvah party video that you watch when it arrives — and then never watch again. Perhaps his most popular offering involves interviewing children every year, asking similar questions and seeing how their answers change with awareness and maturity.   

“If you ask a four-year-old ‘Do each of your parents have different rules?’ you will probably get a blank look, whereas by eight they will explain in an animated way exactly what they can get away with, with each one! Watching these reactions is fascinating so that the video becomes a form of art that lasts generations, as well as growing in value emotionally,” he says.

One client who has signed up for this is Jonathan Barnett, known as the world’s top soccer agent, the founder of ICM Stellar Sports. He decided to create videos mapping the development of each of his grandchildren.

He plans to give them the full movie on each of their 18th birthdays — “however many grandchildren I eventually have. Currently five, with one on the way!”

Another client, former banker Mike Sherwood, had a professional video made of his parents and their cousins, so future generations could  get to know them better.

“My children were young at the time, and I am so glad I decided to do this professionally made video, as poignantly, my father passed away quite soon after it was made. It has turned out to be a good way to keep his memory alive.”

It is canvases, though, that are Williamson’s bread and butter, and he passionately believes that paintings should be both personal and eternal, advising clients on how to pick works they will love.

“The art on your walls,” he says, “should produce the same conversation as a favourite song, or novel; really connecting and moving its owner. It should sing to your soul.

“I was once called an ‘art whisperer’, which is about the coolest compliment I’ve ever had. After all, art lasts generations in a way that almost nothing else does.”

“People talk about art either as an investment or decoration. I think while that is true, it is even more important than either of these things.” He says his gallery is client-centred, rather than artist-centred, and he visits people in their homes to work out the best art for them.

“In this capacity” he adds, laughing, “I suppose I actually don’t believe the customer is always right”.

The canvases in his gallery encompass a huge range of subject matter, from avant-garde to figurative; pop art to surrealism, while a particularly popular request with his clients is  creating family portraits and then re-creating them in a favourite location, in a painting.

He shows me around the section of the gallery devoted to painted portraits. While not all instantly grabbed me, I would have loved to take a few home there and then.

His offices seemed extremely busy, with his team of 18 people working full time. Maybe the pandemic has made people think more about art and the memories they want to treasure.

Looking around at the faces on the walls, depicted by a selection of the artists on his books, what strikes me is the enormous variety of styles.

“The difference between these and a photograph is that the expression on the subject’s face must make us, the viewer, be intrigued and wonder what they are thinking,” says Williamson.

One client is Countdown maths wizard, Rachel Riley, patron of the charity Grassroots Soccer, which educates at-risk young people in developing countries to help them overcome their health challenges and live healthier and more productive lives.

At an auction in aid of the charity, Riley bid for a photography package donated by the gallery.

She says: “Pre-pandemic, Oly, the photographer, came to our home and proceeded to put us at ease so he could get some lovely shots. I was eight months pregnant, and they were of me, my husband, Pasha and our daughter Maven.

“A day or two later we were invited to the studio and, while listening to music and relaxing, we chose the pictures that we really wanted. One was selected over the others and is now in a bright neon pink frame and takes pride of place in our daughter’s bedroom. It was a great experience and now I feel it is only fair to go back and include daughter number two, Noa.

“I also think that eventually I shall ask Richard and his team for professional help to organise all the many baby pictures we have taken over the last couple of years”.

This is a high-tech advance on the old-fashioned tradition of creating family albums.

Some years ago, City lawyer, Michael Francies was looking through a box of photography negatives of past family holidays  and thought “What’s the point? They could possibly stay in these boxes for the rest of my life.” When someone recommended McKay Williamson, he used its “Keepsaker” service to organise, digitalise and create easily accessible albums.

“It helps preserves memories in an effortless way and we use it every year for our family photos — which now includes three grandchildren. Subsequently my wife asked for some help in making a compilation video for my recent significant birthday,  as a surprise for me.

The couple also commissioned a painting from the artist Vincent Poole for their anniversary. “We loved the way he combines pop art and fashion, with a dash of humour,” says Francies.

Soon after their wedding, young couple Jodie and Ed asked McKay Williamson to create a centrepiece picture for their home.  Initially they sent the gallery a selection of beautiful photographs from their special day, taken by the celebrated photographer, Chiko.

From these, one was chosen to be interpreted and used as the basis of an original painting by artist Patrick Reeves. It is a joyous depiction of them dancing the hora — a celebration of the couple entering the community as one, after the rituals of the day had been completed.

None of this comes cheap. The pictures cost £3k-£50k; fees for organising your photos start at £500. The annual kids interview filming will set you back £15k for five years of interviews.

And then there are family history/biography films, for a bespoke price. Jonathan Barnett, his wife, Nava and their three sons are planning a trip to Lithuania and Poland to find out their family’s Shoah history, accompanied by Jewish genealogist, Laurence Harris, who also works on the television programme Who Do You Think You Are?

Their plans have been temporarily postponed because of the war in Ukraine but it will be a poignant experience, as many members of  Nava’s family were killed in Stutthof concentration camp in Poland, including her father’s first wife and children. Her own parents, both survivors, met in Israel. The trip will include a visit to Vilnius Holocaust Museum and meeting relatives whose existence they did not know about until recently. Nava’s family history has been traced back to the 19th century.

The film is to be directed and produced by Allyson Bari-Guida, a Jewish New Yorker whose own family suffered through the concentration camps, which she says “means I can relate well with McKay Williamson’s many Jewish clients”. Bari-Guida has worked for the company for six years, both on the family histories and the films with children.

I left the gallery wondering how intrigued Millie Schier, my own grandmother and a graduate of the Slade School of Art, would have felt by the wonderful variety of artistic options on offer in the 21st century — for those who have the money to afford them.

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