Few artists since the Renaissance have sold their works to a more diverse bunch of celebrities than the late Tony White – let alone seen photos of clients wearing them.
White, who died in Sydney in May, created unique pieces of jewellery for eclectic models including Kylie Minogue, Pope John Paul II, Cate Blanchett, Julia Gillard, Barbara Bush, Lauren Bacall and the future Queen of the United Kingdom, Kate Middleton.
Tony White (centre) with one of his clients, Pope John Paul II.
At the home White shared with his architect partner, Alexander, there was a large viewing room where White entertained clients like Blanchett.
"Tony never had a shop front," explains Fiona Frith, fine jewellery specialist at Bonhams auctioneers. "He didn't see himself as a commercial jeweller. He made individual pieces of art."
On Sunday, more than 250 pieces from White's personal collection – including jewellery he made and artworks he collected – will go under the hammer in Woollahra, with several of the artist's favourite paintings having already sold privately.
Fiona Frith, fine jewellery expert at Bonhams, wears White’s impressive ruby and diamond necklace, valued between $12,000 and $22,000.Credit:Lyndal Irons
In Australia, White's collections were always unveiled in the most prestigious fine art galleries. In the US, he held boutique showings in New York, LA, Chicago and Dallas where his rich but classy clientele lived. But the more discerning local customers – such as Blanchett, Ita Buttrose, Gai Waterhouse and Jill Wran – were invited to the viewing room in his home, described as "part Vatican, part bordello".
Frith, more discreet, describes White's viewing room as plush.
The walls were covered in fabrics, "press studded with gilt bumble bees," she says. The central drum table was decorated by "timber busts draped in Tony's jewellery". Art deco glass and chrome collector's cabinets displayed many of White's inspirations: "Chinese porcelain, sea shells, ostrich eggs…"
The potential client, seated on White's chaise lounge, could also hardly ignore the "good strong art" by Charles Blackman and White's other artistic friends.
Inside White’s plush viewing room.
But, says Frith, the coup de grace was the "19th century gilt-framed, Rococo-style mirror" where potential customers could view themselves wearing White's jewellery.
"Tony was never 'just' a jeweller," Frith says. "He was well read, well versed and a highly intelligent person who drew inspiration from collecting interesting and unusual things. An artist, but also a charming salesman."
White often swapped a piece of his jewellery for a painting or a sculpture. Frith's favourite example is Blackman's The Dining Table, estimated to sell for around $200,000.
"Tony never spoke to me about what he made for the Pope," Frith says. "He knew a lot of important people, here in Australia and around the world. But he was always discreet."
And yet he kept a visitor's book, which guests to his viewing room could sign. Among them, Frith says, "are the Coburns, the Olsens and the Whiteleys".
Her favourite unexpected signature? Ricky Martin.
White’s famous guest book.Credit:Lyndal Irons
"Tony had a great eye," says Stuart Purves, director of Australian Galleries and long-time friend and exhibitor of White's work. "He was very stylish and only interested in quality. People love pre-owned things, knowing someone with confidence and taste valued them."
So what was the essence of White's jewellery genius?
"Tony was never into 'high jewellery'," Frith explains, referring to the show-off diamonds and pearls that can easily sell for $1 million to the super rich. Instead he used things he had discovered himself: particular shells, polished coral, tumbled tanzanite beads.
Frith's favourite? "In one piece, he's used polished coral, found the perfect pearl, and then added a dash of gold at the top. When you see it you recognise it as a bird on the branch of a tree."
Tony White: The Jeweller's Eye starts 2pm Sunday, October 11, bonhams.com/auctions.
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