The art of the deal: financing a real passion for art
John Daly is very proud of the fact that his house was built by his great-grandfather. However he's not beyond re-mortgaging it to finance his passion for art. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by David Conachy
Great, big, life-size stone lions flanking a gate or door were commonly used in Asia as a symbol of strength or power, but the stone lions that flank the front door of gallery owner John Daly's house are there for different reasons altogether. They relate to two of his great passions - art and family.
John is addicted to buying art, and so couldn't resist the sculptured lions. The other key thing about these lions is they are Chinese, as is John's wife Yandan, and he wants their baby son Daniel to have reminders around him of that part of his heritage.
There is certainly no shortage of reminders of what Daniel's dad does for a living. John owns and runs Hillsboro Fine Art, on Parnell Square, where he specialises in contemporary art, and every square inch of the spacious family home in Dublin is devoted to paintings, sculptures and other artworks by the cream of Irish, British, American and European contemporary artists. There are works by top Irish artists, Michael Warren, Alice Maher and Eilis O'Connell; by British artists Gillian Ayres and Anthony Caro; by American artists Robert Motherwell and Frank Stella; while the Italian Sandro Chia is a big presence.
These artworks are not necessarily pretty, but that's not what interests John. "Someone once said, there are two types of music, good and bad - it's the same with art. For me, the link between all the different artworks is just integrity. I don't veer towards figurative or abstract, I veer towards honesty. When you look at something long enough, you know when it's not there," John explains.
And John has been looking at art for a very long time - since his teens, in fact. "I read a book and saw a TV programme about Picasso, how he could paint like an old master at 15 and yet he prefered to explore other ways of doing things. It took incredible bravery, so much self-belief," he marvels.
It was around the same time that he started collecting serious art. "I spent two years working part-time as a lounge boy in my local pub and I spent all my earnings for those two years on one piece - a painting by Victor Pasmore, the artist who pioneered the development of abstract art in Britain. At the time all my contemporaries were buying motorbikes; my parents, who had no interest in art, couldn't understand it. They said 'at least he won't be killed off it, like with a motobike'." John recounts with a laugh.
It isn't that John's parents were philistines, they were just more interested in other aspects of life and culture. His mother was a pharmacist, while his father was a businessman.
"They were very pro-education, but weren't pushy about what my brother, my sister and I did," he notes, which is just as well in John's case, as he did, in his own words "three and a half degrees" before finally settling down to any type of job. He went to boarding school in Clongowes Wood, which he loved - seven-month-old Daniel's name is down for a place - and then did communications in DCU before heading off to a Master's in social anthropology in Keble College, Oxford.
He also later did a doctorate on James Joyce in Sussex; he's still passionate about Joyce, and one of the bookcases in his study is filled with Joyce's works. "I always read Joyce, I got that interest in him in Clongowes - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man opens on the playing fields of Clongowes. There were other coincidences too. My great-grandfather built this house in 1882, the year Joyce was born, and the Joyce family lived on this road, one of the many houses they lived in," John explains. John's 'half degree' was an MBA; he had gone to work for academic publisher Fallons and the employer paid his college fees. He stayed at that company for seven years and could have made it a lucrative lifelong career, but art was calling all the time. As well as the publishing, he lectured at the Open University and NCAD, and meanwhile he was continually adding to his collection. Finally, he decided to abandon the day job and open a gallery. He started in 1995, by holding exhibitions in the family home, which is purely John's now; his parents live around the corner.
"All my parents' friends came to the first exhibition, looking for scenes of children playing on beaches," he says. Sadly, he didn't have that genre of painting. What he did have was works by top international artists on the recommendation of the celebrated British artist, the late Sir Terry Frost, who had become a great friend. "He told them all I had the best gallery in Ireland," John notes with a laugh, adding that he knew that if he got big artists from abroad, big Irish artists would want to exhibit with him and that's the way it has worked out. It helped too that he had prestigious clients; the late Campbell Bruce, who was head of NCAD, bought the first painting. "I went to his house to deliver the painting and I noticed the house was stacked with unwrapped pictures. I said, 'the last thing you need is another painting'. And he said, 'ah, but you need a start'. He saw what I was trying to do -that gave me confidence," John says.
The exhibitions were a success and he went on to open a permanent gallery, first in in St Anne's Lane off Grafton Street in Dublin, then in Parnell Square, next to the Hugh Lane Gallery; he's been here nine years. "I called the gallery Hillsboro Fine Art, because my great-grandfather was originally from a townland called Hillsboro, in Kilkenny," he says. He also exhibits at Vue, the national contemporary art fair, which is currently on at the RHA Gallery.
If he ever runs out of work for the gallery, he can start exhibiting the contents of his house where all the rooms - including the elegant receptions rooms, the hall, and even the kitchen - are hosts to his artworks. Fortunately Yandan, who worked as an accountant in her native China, is quite happy to be surrounded by modern art. The couple met through a friend of a friend. "We were more or less set up - she's been here ten years, we met two years ago," he says adding with fervour, "Every day I wake up and thank God for her and so does my mother - all my family adore her. In this life, loads of people are lucky, but many don't know it. But I know it."
He's also pretty enthusiastic about new fatherhood. "It's something I didn't think was ever going to be part of my life," he says. "It's wonderful - tiring but wonderful".
Daniel's arrival means that soon some of the precious artworks will have to be put out of reach of chubby little hands, but not just yet, which is just as well as John is very attached to them all. "I re-mortgaged the house twice to buy pieces of art, a Robert Motherwell and an Anthony Caro. And then I discovered I couldn't get the Caro into the house, it was too big," he says, adding "It's a form of madness, an addiction but it's a harmless addiction. You could get a lot worse," he laughs. Vue continues today at the RHA Gallery, 15 Ely Place, D2. Hillsboro Fine Art Gallery, hillsborofineart.com