Michele Hewitson Interview: Sir James Wallace

By Michele Hewitson

Canny but philanthropic arts patron hard to prod out of his shell.

Sir James Wallace says the NBR Rich List estimate that he is worth $100 million is absolute nonsense. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sir James Wallace says the NBR Rich List estimate that he is worth $100 million is absolute nonsense. Photo / Richard Robinson

The great arts patron and philanthropist Sir James Wallace said, absolutely seriously, that he was relying on me to "censor most of this conversation. You'll be kind, won't you?"

This was baffling. Most of the conversation had been like poking an amiable but perplexed turtle with a stick - the questions being the stick. (I did rather desperately resort to some pretty daft ones, I admit.) Every now and then the turtle would put its head out of its shell, look at me hopefully, only to find the stick again raised.

I should say that I am very fond of turtles, and don't enjoy poking them with sticks, but also that they are not the most forthcoming of creatures.

The trouble was Sir James is really only interested in talking about art and meat and I was really only interested in talking about him.

We got off to a strange start. He has just been knighted and was photographed for the Herald wearing his kilt. "Yes, and the Herald did me very badly for my investiture by taking hundreds of photos and choosing one that looked very silly."

That was pretty much the first thing he said and there was a bit of a silence before the photographer said, "Thankfully that wasn't me!"

"No, I know it wasn't," said Sir James. I said, "Did you think you looked silly?", thinking this had all got very silly very quickly. "Yes." Well, why did he? I remember that picture and he looked as unsilly as a man in a kilt can look. "Well, I was caught side-on ... And, anyway."

Does he mind what he looks like? "Well, yes and no. We all have our own egos ..." I'd have liked to have asked about his ego, but I think he thought I was accusing him of being vain because he hurriedly went on to say that he was dressed up today because he was going to Sir Paul Reeves' state funeral: "Not for the interview."

Was all of this a bit rude? I really can't decide. He is known to be the most generous of hosts, and he lets people come to his beautiful house, full of rare and lovely things, and have parties. And while he does hope people have clean shoes, he'd never dream of asking you to remove them.

He doesn't even mind people getting drunk. He says that at the yearly Wallace Arts Award dinners he holds here the winners "normally get quite jolly" and he doesn't mind that at all.

I'd have thought he worried about red wine being spilt and he said, "Well, yes. You have to be pretty fatalistic about that sort of thing". Surely he doesn't get drunk? "Nooo."

Also, he has just celebrated, last week, the 130,000th visitor to the Wallace Arts Trust since it moved, a year ago, to its permanent home in the Pah Homestead in Hillsborough. So he doesn't just let any old one come and look at his art, he doesn't even own it any more: the trust does. Perhaps he doesn't regard journalists as guests, but as people who come around poking sticks, which would be fair enough, I suppose.

Still, somebody once described him as a remote and aloof figure. I'd have said, after that initial exchange, slightly imperious too. I asked what he thought of that "remote and aloof" and he said anyone who thought that didn't know him. "In fact, I'm quite shy with people I don't know," he said. Although on paper he appears tremendously social, he only really likes occasions where he knows the people and speaks the language, which will be either arts or business.

This may be partly why he became a philanthropist (he can be sure of seldom being out of his shy depths) but that would have been a psychological poke too far. He is a Scot, after all, and: "Perhaps my Scottish background makes me a bit austere."

He recoils, politely, but recoil he does, if you ask him anything personal. That might be evidence of his austerity of personality. Or his shyness. And yet if you judged him by all of his things, and his house, without having met him, you'd think he must be a flamboyant eccentric, perhaps even a cape wearer.

He's a very canny, successful businessman. (He bought his Epsom Arts and Crafts house after the crash of the 80s, after the bank had foreclosed on its formerly high-flying property-dealing owners.)

The one other thing everyone knows about him is that he has made some of his money from his meat rendering plant. He once said that some people might think he led a "schizophrenic life just because I collect dead cows as well as art". I suspect that he much enjoys the apparent incongruity: A large Dick Frizzell, Cleansed by the Blood of the Lamb, hangs prominently in the drawing room. He pointed out the boy, standing, frozen, while the lamb is about to have its throat cut. "He knows he's never going to be a farmer". Is that boy him? "I am a farmer!"

His house, besides being wonderful, is large; it has four storeys, all art-clad, including the basement. (Actually I'm not allowed to say "his" house, because it belongs to the trust and he pays it $1000 a week to live here. He scarcely owns a sausage, except for the Porsche and a Mini and a rather good gold watch.) He has staff: a housekeeping couple; and usually a couple of "custodians", who might be young artists who make sure somebody is always in the house and to drive him places and presumably provide him with conversation when he wants it, in a quid pro quo deal for a rather nice roof over their heads.

I risked a poke: Does he have a partner? "No, no!" What did he mean, "no, no!" "Well, I could never have afforded all of this if I had a wife dangling about." A wife might have been an extravagance too far? "Ha, ha, yes." I said that perhaps another reason he didn't have a wife might be that wives might reasonably object to being referred to as "dangling about". But that was an intrusion too far, and so he completely ignored it.

That was about as personal as things got. So I was racking my brain then, and am racking it now, about censoring the interview. It is an odd thing to ask a journalist, odd that he would think I'd agree, and very odd that he thought he'd said anything contentious enough to be considered censorable. So, "what," I asked, bewildered, "am I supposed to be censoring, exactly?"

"Well, I mean, not sensationalise anything," he said. But, honestly, what is it about our interview that I am not to sensationalise? There certainly couldn't be anything in his answers that I could make shocking, even in the unlikely event that I'd have wanted to.

He wouldn't even tell me how old he was: "Too old. No, not too old. I'm still skiing, extremely vigorously." He was 16 in 1955, he later told me, so he wasn't hiding his age; he just wasn't going to help me out by answering a boring question directly.

There had been, he said, some very strange things written about him. Had there really? I couldn't find any, I said, and he seemed disinclined to help me do so.

What he really means is that he hates anything being written about money. In the latest NBR Rich List he is estimated to be worth $100 million.

He is very cross about this and says it's absolute nonsense and that he has told NBR so. He says that they say they add in the Wallace Arts Trust's worth. And that, he says, really is nonsense because the trust money is not his money, and as it has never sold a painting and never will, it is ridiculous to estimate its wealth, let alone his, by such a calculation. "I don't have a personal fortune of anything like that."

He says he "really shrivels at stressing anything about wealth". But you can't quite ignore it, can you? Because whoever has the money, him or the trust, there's obviously a bit of it.

It's misleading, he said. He really does perceivably shrivel when you talk about, or try to talk about money - hence the turtle and stick image. I suspect that his crossness comes not just from his preferred emphasis, that he "controls some wealth", rather than has it, but that he finds talking about money a bit common, if not rude.

He is not snobby about anything - and certainly not about art; he wants everyone to love it and have access to it the way he does - except rudeness. "I bridle at bad manners, but otherwise I couldn't be more egalitarian." He has to be egalitarian because he has to get on with his meat workers and tanners. "You can't be snobbish or snooty or whatever, that would be counterproductive, I can tell you."

I was looking at him, sitting up very straight, in his nice Hugo Boss suit and his pointy, squeaky, patent leather Italian boots and his gold Piaget watch (you can imagine how delighted he was at having all of that dragged out of him) on the red velvet couch.

This couch is a replica of the one at the other end of the room which came from Knole. Knole was Vita Sackville-West's ancestral home and I already knew this because I have an obsession with Sackville-West, which is what you might call the very opposite of an egalitarian sort of obsession.

He is the only person I've interviewed who has proper live-in staff. He has one of those little brass bells used for tinkling for the staff, in his dining room. Which is by way of saying I can imagine him being able to talk to anyone about art or the Sackville-Wests but it's harder to imagine him being blokey, say, or matey. "No, not blokey! But reasonably egalitarian."

I do believe this because he can talk about his meat-processing factory with exactly the enthusiasm he has when he talks about art. The meat part of his life is the only thing written about him that you could take to be strange in any way, but he can't mean that because it's simply fact. He collects art and owns a meat rendering factory so the dead animals pay for the art, presumably. Is that strange? Is he? I have not the foggiest idea.

All I can be certain of is that he is quite the best and most distinguished turtle I have ever interviewed. And I'm delighted he has his knighthood because he's exactly the sort of person who really deserves one. Also, he let me sit on the Knole couch and, when I said, "oh!" because it is very, very sinky, told me that the last person to sit there was the King of Tonga and, even better, that it took two people to help him up.

He is very kind to the arts and, as he asked that I be kind to him, I am more than happy to oblige. So I hereby promise to never again try to poke him with a stick.

- NZ Herald

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