Obituary: Leslie Waddington, contemporary art dealer

Art dealer ran one of the most progressive and adventurous galleries in London. Picture: Getty
Art dealer ran one of the most progressive and adventurous galleries in London. Picture: Getty
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Born: 9 February 1934 in Dublin. Died: 30 November 2015 in London, aged 81.

In the art world Leslie Waddington was a legend. The art dealer ran one of the most progressive and adventurous galleries in London and held exhibitions that showed innovative and exciting new talent. He had the most discriminating and cultured eye for a picture, could sum it up with his perceptive mind and decide in an instant its worth, saleability and the artist’s prospects. Waddington himself was a delight: wiry haired, slight of build but with the rigid determination of a commercial art dealer. Waddington was one of the most influential and commercial of international art dealers: a true pioneer.

The Edinburgh gallery supremo Richard Demarco told to The Scotsman yesterday that he set up his gallery in 1966 with the “magnificent assistance” of Waddington. “I went to London to ask Leslie’s advice about opening a similar space in Edinburgh. He represented the key artists of the era and I wanted to capture that spirit of avant-gardeism in Scotland.

“When I walked into his gallery I was dumb-founded. I though this is what Scotland needs. For three years I worked with him and exhibited in Edinburgh new artists to Scotland. It caused quite a rumpus and complaining letters flowed into The Scotsman moaning that I was showing ‘Non-art’. It proved an enterprising start and struck quite the right chord.”

Waddington was educated in Ireland and studied art history in Paris. He and his father Victor opened an art gallery in London’s Mayfair in 1957 and their expertise and sheer knowledge built up a thriving business: within twenty years they represented many of the leading artists of the world and their business was worth many millions. Waddington helped to promote many of the St Ives school (notably Barbara Hepworth) in the early 1960s and held solo exhibitions for Andy Warhol and Peter Blake.

Independent of his father Waddington opened his own gallery in Cork Street with a £25,000 loan from Alex Bernstein of Granada Television. It became something of a Mecca for artists and collectors and enjoyed spectacular success. Waddington regularly had artists of the calibre of Picasso, Matisse, Arp, Laurens, Léger and Miró on his walls. Such names attracted wealthy collectors - notably the building tycoon Lord McAlpine. Cannily, Waddington would draw their attention to emerging British artists such as Elizabeth Frink, Patrick Caulfield, Anthony Caro and David Hockney amongst many others.

Waddington was an early supporter of the Scottish figurative artist Craigie Aitchison and greatly admired his larger landscapes – especially those of views of Scotland’s west coast, Holy Island and the Isle of Arran. Waddington gave the artist a major retrospective solo exhibition in 2013.

Waddington had remarkable understanding (and love) of art and artists. His supreme expertise was in the UK, French and American schools but he was a valued – and, often witty – observer of many other aspects of the graphic arts.

Waddington maintained more than 30 artists under contracts many of which ran for 15 or 20 years. The artists included Frink, Ivon Hitchens, Blake, Caulfield, Barry Flanagan and Ben Nicholson.

Lord Bernstein died in 2005 and his interest in the Gallery was sold to the London-based French dealer Stéphane Custot. Waddington continued as chairman and remained an enthusiastic consultant.

In 2012 the Tate director Nicholas Serota presented Waddington with an award from the Federation of European Art Galleries for his contribution to popularising contemporary art.

Waddington was respected not only for his business acumen but for his integrity. A long lost collage by Richard Hamilton, which was the original design for the inside cover of the Beatles’ White Album, turned up in his stockroom. Waddington phoned the artist and returned it to his great joy.

“Thanks to Leslie the Demarco Gallery was given a bold and imaginative start. The artists alone were provocative and challenged the norm. Leslie was generous with his artists to me and gracious with his advice.” Demarco then added with obvious affection and a warm smile, “I so admired the wide range of his knowledge and enthusiasms. He had an eye like a hawk.”

Waddington’s first marriage to Ferriel Lyle in 1967 was dissolved in 1983. In 1985 he married Clodagh Fanshawe who survives him along with two daughters from his first ­