Obituary: Irvine Sellar

A man whose short stature belied a larger-than-life personality and a drive to match, and who had a huge capacity to bounce back quickly when life knocked him down. 


The lunch during which London’s glass pyramid, the Shard, was conceived, didn’t start well. Property developer Irvine Sellar, who has died aged 82, had flown to Berlin to meet star architect Renzo Piano to convince him to design a tower unlike any other. It would be London’s own Eiffel Tower – only more striking. 

Unfortunately Piano, it turned out, hated tall buildings that he found “arrogant and aggressive, like fortresses.” A lesser man would have thrown the napkin but Sellar did not give up that easily. Then Piano started sketching on the back of the menu and within seconds the Shard had come to life. The two men shook hands on the deal.

It may have been Piano’s creative genius that, inspired by “the energy of the railway lines, the beauty of the Thames and the churches’ spires” created that iconic building. But it had all started with Sellar’s original idea to build a “vertical town” on the site then occupied by Southwark Towers.

Sellar had not intended to redevelop the former PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) head office when he acquired it in 1998. It was supposed to be a “dry”, safe investment in an unexciting area. But then the publication of a government white paper the following year, encouraging the development of high-rise buildings near transport hubs opened up new possibilities. 

But there were obstacles aplenty: the decidedly unglamorous London Bridge area, the opposition of those worried that the new building would interfere with the view of St Pauls, suspicions of tall glass towers post-9/11 and a very big question mark about Sellar’s ability to pull off such a huge project, given that he was not exactly heavy-weight in the property field. That the odds seemed so overwhelmingly stacked against it, appeared to fire up Sellar even more. He battled against the opposition of English Heritage and came through a public inquiry chaired by then deputy prime minister John Prescott. 

The scheme had its supporters, among them Southwark Council and then London mayor Ken Livingstone, and financial backing from CLS Holding and developer Simon Halabi.
In 2007, however, it all appeared to come crashing down when he fell out with his partners. Sellar, who had been bankrupt once before, looked set for a repeat – and with the 2008 financial crisis looming, finding new backers for such an outlandish project seemed unlikely. 

But the wheeler-dealer extraordinaire again succeeded against all odds: this time he turned to the Middle East for backing and secured £150 million from the Qataris. Now construction of the Shard could finally get under-way.

Irvine Gerald Sellar was born into a Jewish family in Southgate, north London, to Esther and Jonas, a glove shopkeeper and manufacturer. Jonas’s father had emigrated from Poland where he was a boot-maker. Jonas wanted Irvine to become an accountant and on leaving school at 16 Irvine trained with a firm in Clerkenwell but was soon bored and left after six months.  Instead, impressed by the wads of cash flaunted by his market trader friends, he bought a consignment of slightly faulty gloves and found a stall. He was in business.

That first stall was just the start and in no time five more were added. Soon he was managing his father’s men’s outfitters in St Albans where he started selling the sharp suits favoured by the youth of the time. 

But it was only when he opened his own shop in 1960s London’s most trendsetting location, Carnaby Street, that Sellar’s business took off. Mates, by Irvine Sellar, pioneered unisex clothing and numbered 90 stores by the time he sold it in 1981.

Fashion had made him a millionaire but now he was ready for his next challenge – property. He started the Ford Sellar Morris company, specialising in out-of-town shopping centres such as Stockton Retail and Leisure Park and made tens of millions in annual profits.

But having borrowed heavily in 1989, Ford Sellar Morris was brought down by the 1991 property crash. Sellar was made bankrupt, losing £30 million of his personal fortune. 

However, the man whose short stature belied a larger-than-life personality and a drive to match, had a huge capacity to bounce back quickly when life knocked him down. 

And so it was:  his climb-back started with the purchase of the old PwC building, and the set of events that would lead to the inception of the Shard. 

But even as the “unbuildable” building was taking shape, the naysayers were predicting disaster for the £1.4bn scheme. Who would pay the premium prices needed to make it viable? Plenty of people, it would turn out and Sellar had the satisfaction of seeing his £3bn baby 97% let by January this year.

Piano, the man who shared Sellar’s dream, called him “an adventurer” and a “very creative man, a man with obstinacy and determination”. Their collaboration had not ended with the Shard, and Piano has been engaged by Sellar’s property company to design another controversial project, a 14-storey, 775m glass ‘cube’ near Paddington station. The original plan for a 72-storey tower was shelved due to public opposition. 

Sellar supported various charities, including Norwood and World Jewish Relief. In 1986 on the Liberal Jewish Synagogue’s 75th anniversary, he presented it with the “Sellar Scroll” in memory of his mother Esther and funded the scroll’s restoration in 2008. Together with his brother Maurice, he donated a  mural by William Utermohlen. 

Sellar married Elizabeth Fitzpatrick in 1964. She survives him together with their two sons: James – who has taken over the running of the company – and Paul, and a daughter, Caroline.


Irvine Sellar, born September 9, 1934. Died February 26, 2017

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