On the way out of Sheffield’s Graves Gallery, I suddenly realise I’m walking alone and talking to myself.
What’s particularly odd about this is that I could have sworn I was, moments earlier, chatting to multi-millionaire art collector Anthony d’Offay about the Andy Warhol self-portraits he commissioned and which we had just been examining together up in the Graves.
I turn around and d’Offay is indeed standing outside the gallery. While I was walking through the brisk April afternoon towards a warming coffee, thinking he was alongside me, d’Offay was standing outside the gallery taking a picture of a poster advertising the exhibition inside.
What on earth is the man doing? He commissioned the art being installed inside the gallery. He owned it – before he sold it back to the nation. Why is he standing in the cold Sheffield early spring, taking pictures of the poster advertising the exhibition? Particularly when doing so meant I was left walking down the street talking to myself?
Simple answer: he’s an enthusiast. There is also a complicated answer that lies some time back in his personal history.
When I ask him, essentially, what he’s playing at, he says... No he doesn’t, he declares: “This is my job. What a lovely job I have.”
The reason this description of d’Offay and his enthusiasm is so prominent here is because, well, it needs saying, because d’Offay has a frankly odd reputation.
Journalists have said he has “unreadable eyes”, called him an enigma. He is portrayed as a dark, serious figure skulking in the background of British art. Matthew Collings described him as “dark and pale with a vampire air” – prompting most interviewers who have met him since to comment on the vampiric nature of the man. Vampire became, essentially, a nickname.
I don’t know who they’ve all been interviewing because the fellow taking photographs in the streets of Sheffield is about as far from a bloodsucker as you might imagine.
He’s stylishly dressed and his business card is no flimsy 100 for £2.99 deal, but an impressively thick card number – so he has a style which I suppose could put you in mind of some portrayals of Count Dracula. But no vampire here. He’s actually a giver of life, but that we’ll come on to.
For now, I want to know why the 72-year- old’s enthusiasm is such that I’ve been left on my own in the street while he takes pictures.
The answer begins one of a series of thoughtful monologues.
“What do we have in this country?” he asks.
“We have a mix of society of people from the four corners of the world and we have the ability to produce very bright people. Now, how to they get bright? By tapping into their creativity and one of the very best ways to do that is to get them to ask the right questions of themselves and looking at contemporary art brings up those questions.
“If you look at a Robert Mapplethorpe and you are a teenager you are confronted by awkward and difficult and sometimes embarrassing questions. And Mapplethorpe suggests an answer for you.”
D’Offay, born in Sheffield and raised in Leicester, was educated at Edinburgh University before heading to London in the 1960s and creating the epicentre of the UK art scene.
In 1969, he moved his groundbreaking gallery into a building on Dering Street and set about, through the 1970s, setting himself as the most important art dealer in the country. Lucian Freud, Gilbert and George, Eduardo Paolozzi, Frank Auerbach – they all were shown by d’Offay.
The seeds for all this were sown when he was a boy in Leicester – and so to the complicated reason why he was standing outside the Sheffield Graves Gallery.
“When I was 13, growing up in Leicester, the local museum got a painting by Francis Bacon and it was an extraordinary event for me. I used to sit in front of that painting and wonder how it was that, the more extreme an image was, the more real the thing it described, was,” he says.
“It was so exciting to sit there and see this painting and be moved almost to tears by this strange thing which I couldn’t explain, that was so distorted and beyond anything I imagined in my life before.
“When we got the gallery in 1971, I started to represent Lucian Freud and through him I became friends with Francis. It was so thrilling to be able to reach back into your childhood and find a dream that you had seen come true and you actually got to meet and come to know this great person.”
In 1980 d’Offay closed the gallery and moved to a different London location, this time named after its owner, but what didn’t change was the success he continued to have.
Through the 1980s and 1990s he first represented Joseph Beuys. The work of Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Robert Mapplethorpe followed into his collection.
In 2001, he stunned the art world by announcing he was to close his gallery – a gallery at which Damien Hirst had worked as an assistant.
Why did he do that? “How many adventures can you have in one lifetime?” he answers the question with another question.
“Not so many. I had a big adventure when I opened my first gallery when I was 25, then a much bigger adventure when we opened the big international gallery in 1980. By the time I was 61 I had been doing this literally night and day, around the clock for 21 years. London had changed, the Tate Modern had opened, Damian and all those young people had fantastic reputations I felt there was a possibility of another adventure.”
The next adventure turned out to be what Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, called “one of the most generous gifts that has ever been made to museums in this country”. It was d’Offay’s collection, comprising 725 works by 25 artists and worth £125m, which he sold to the nation at essentially cost price .
The money came from The Scottish Executive, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and other public bodies – and the deal was that d’Offay remained attached to the collection, although only in a hands-on sense.
“The collection is called Artist Rooms so that it’s in no way dependent on me,” he says. “We have a fantastic team of people running the project and since 2009 19.5 million people have seen an Artist Room exhibition.”
The works are grouped together and travel around the country – Leeds can thank d’Offay for its Damien Hirst exhibition at the city art gallery last year and Sheffield this summer gets his – now our – collection of late Warhol self-portraits.
This is why vampire is such an inappropriate term for d’Offay and why he is the diametric opposite of that – the man’s a life-giver.
“Can you remember a time at school when some teacher put their hand on your should and said ‘you should read Charles Dickens’ or ‘you should go and see the new Italian film playing at the local cinema’?”
I explain that my experience was Shakespeare, but I see what he’s driving at.
It’s fortunate we’re in a corner of Sheffield Millennium Galleries cafe and it’s busy, because when I tell him this d’Offay claps his hands, grabs me by the shoulder and loudly claims “That’s my boy”.
“It can start anywhere, can’t it? Imagine the joy when you first discover TS Eliot or WH Auden or Keats. Doesn’t that start to change you, to make you a different person, make you want to write poetry, to read and see the world in a different way?”
And that’s why he gave his collection to the nation, forgoing a possible £100m profit on selling the art he owned.
“I don’t even feel like it’s my collection. Great art belongs to everyone in any case,” he says.
“And it definitely shouldn’t be kept in the big metropolitan centres like London and Glasgow.
“I’m a colonial boy and if I didn’t have the chance to see great art where I lived then it would have been an absolute disaster. It’s incredibly important that everyone has an equal opportunity to see great art.”
Which is what brings us together in Sheffield, the opportunity to see Andy Warhol’s self-portraits, commissioned and hand-picked by d’Offay himself.
He might be the ultimate socialist, he might be a great philanthropist, but he must have had some sort of magic touch?
Maybe this is why people think there is something dark about the man. You don’t become one of the key figures in the art world in the way d’Offay has over the past half a century and not have some secrets.
“I get on well with artists because I know how much to shut up and when to say something – and what to say,” he insists.
Come on d’Offay, there’s more to it than that. He thinks for a minute, and says: “Where does the magic touch come from? I’m a Yorkshireman, a man of the people.”
He laughs, you guessed it, enthusiastically.
Andy Warhol, Sheffield Graves Gallery, to December 1.