Friday, June 19, 2009

David & Elton's New Art Gallery

So this is a surreal moment. I've driven deep into the Berkshire countryside, past pretty village streets and blooming rhododendron bushes, and now I'm standing inside a clean white box gazing at an iconic Damien Hirst work.

On the wall above hangs a huge Gilbert & George, on the other side of the room, expertly lit, a classic Antony Gormley from the key show Blind Light.

A grisly spoof by the Chapman Brothers hangs on the far wall; to the right sits a sculpture by Grayson Perry.

I spy a large self-portrait by Gillian Wearing; an Andreas Gursky; a beautiful series by Louise Bourgeois; and a colourful painting with a snake motif by Phillip Taafe that once hung, rather extraordinarily, in the New York townhouse of Gianni Versace.

Welcome to the art gallery that Elton John and David Furnish built.

It's taken more than a year to construct, was finished barely a month ago, and it nestles between their chintzy country house, the floodlit tennis court and the finely-manicured acres of garden.

Designed by London architect Jack Schneider, it has waterfalls cascading down one wall, and copper cladding on another.

On the mezzanine level there's an exhaustive library of art books — indexed using the latest technology by a professional librarian — and in the roof, hi-tech photo-sensitive grilles that control the light levels.

I could spend all day in Sir Elton's office upstairs, with views from cleverly-placed windows into the gallery space itself, outside towards the garden and over a cunningly built bed of lilies apparently floating in space between the two.

Furnish, who's giving me the guided tour, pulls out a concealed drawer to reveal a laptop.

“He's a complete computer-phobe,” he whispers, “but I've got it all set up for the BBC sports page. He can just about manage the football scores.”

Though he won't say how much it cost to build, Furnish is very proud of his Alice in Wonderland gallery, which you access via small white doors.

“Elton loves it. I've never known him give so many lunches and dinners as he has in the last two weeks. He wants to show it off.”

Next week all their friends get to see it(and friends in this very strange context mean the likes of Elizabeth Hurley, Elle Macpherson and Justin Timberlake) when it opens officially as the centrepiece of the annual fundraising gala for the Elton John Aids Foundation, The White Tie and Tiara Ball.

In the gallery's honour, the £30,000-a-table extravaganza — probably the smartest garden party of the year — is this year built around a contemporary art theme.

And presumably the artists are all showing up, too? “Oh, I think so. White Cube has taken a table.

Damien is coming, Tracey and the Chapmans and Gary Hume. They're all friends of ours as well.”

Furnish and John, almost certainly the world's most famous gay couple, are often also described as the world's best-connected couple.

So how do they compile the guest list? Who gets the nod, and who is left languishing outside the heavily guarded electronic gates?

“We always go back to the people who've supported us in the past,” says Furnish.

“We get requests from people who've never been before but we very much want to be loyal to the people who are loyal to us.”

Madonna, then — or Guy? This question alarms him. He's such a friendly, open, wholesomely Canadian sort of chap, you can't imagine him falling out with anyone. Not even Lily Allen.

“Erm. I've heard mention of Madonna. I haven't heard mention of Guy,” he replies carefully.

“Part of the fun is that people who buy tables often don't submit their guest list until the day of the event, when we do the place cards.

So I don't actually know who's coming exactly.” But would he let Lily Allen in?

It was Allen, of course, who threw a hissy fit at Sir Elton while the two were co-hosting the GQ Awards last year.

She swore; he quipped back; and handbags, it seemed, were very publicly drawn.

“Sure, Lily's coming,” beams Furnish. “In fact, she's staying at our house in the South of France right now. That whole thing was way over-played.

I got lots of texts the next day from people saying: how dare she speak to Elton like that?

I think Lily was upset by it but it was a bit of fun. They've always been friends.”

This is the 11th year of the White Tie Ball — it raised £10.8 million last year, and the Foundation has spent $150 million on grassroots projects around prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDS in 17 countries. (Furnish is proud of the fact that their agency “gets its hands dirty” in areas other charities won't touch — needle exchange and work in prisons, for example).

It's more than three years, meanwhile, since Furnish and John got “married”, on the first day of single sex unions in Britain.

Has the novelty worn off yet? “Not at all,” he replies.

“We did it for symbolic reasons but when all the craziness died down, we both felt a surprising level of contentment. And it hasn't stopped yet.”

Sometimes, he says, he is referred to solely as “Elton John's husband” — surely that gets annoying after a while?

“Initially it makes you laugh, and then you think beyond it. Actually, it makes me think the world is really changing and what a great thing it is that a man can be described that way at all.”

Furnish has always been deeply serious on gay rights.

He's at his warmest, almost angry, when talking about the retraction of gay marriage in California.

“When I see what's going on there and how confused the world is, I feel very grateful and proud of my civil partnership, and proud that we live in a country that gives us the chance to make that commitment to each other.

I spent so much of my 20s ashamed of my sexuality, afraid of persecution. Now, it's kind of like, wow….” He tails off, grinning as though at his immense good fortune.

Not that he and Sir Elton are always in the same country.

Yesterday, Furnish was back from New York, where he saw Billy Elliot — he's executive producer of the musical — pick up 10 Tony Awards.

He also spends time in LA and Toronto with his film-maker hat on.

Meanwhile, Elton, now 62, has been touring with Billy Joel.

“I used to have this utopian vision that maybe when he turned 65 we might be able to slow down and enjoy our beautiful homes [they have others in Venice, Holland Park and Atlanta],” says Furnish.

“But I don't think that day will ever come. I don't think Elton is wired that way, and I've come to accept it. He's too driven.

He's the most future-focused person I know, one of the least nostalgic.

Once something is enjoyed, it's in the past. He only interested in new music, for example, and new artists.”

A few years ago Furnish told me that, shortly after their civil partnership, he and John tthought hard about adopting a child — specifically, a three-year-old Aids orphan from Soweto whom they met on a field trip for the Foundation.

In fact, after researching the boy's background, they found he had a grandmother and two sisters, and was well looked after within his own community.

But ever since, they have paid for this boy's clothes, food and schoolbooks.

“He and his family came to one of Elton's concerts in Johannesburg, and he remembered Elton.

He's five now. He gave us all big hugs and wouldn't leave Elton's side.

The record company came to present Elton with a couple of discs and this little boy is in all the photos.

“But as all this was happening, his sister broke down in tears. She was sobbing: “They're going to take him away. ” And we were like, no no no: that's not going to happen. It would be so wrong to break up a family like that.”

What does he think of Mercy, Madonna's adopted daughter? Is it right that she leaves Malawi?

“It's a different situation,” he replies, narrowing his eyes a little.

“Mercy has been living in an orphanage and didn't have any active parenting.

A lot of these kids have relatives who don't want to know. Those are the ones that need help.”

The time for him and Sir Elton has passed, in any case. “We're too busy, and we're not at the right stage in our lives. Maybe if we'd met 20 years ago …”

Meanwhile, he has a Ball to put on, and surprisingly, a few tickets going spare.

By “reconfiguring” the marquee, he says, they've squeezed an extra 50 covers in — making a total of 650 guests — and apparently this year there's no waiting list.

“The culture we've created, by going back to the same people, means a lot of others think they'll never be able to get a table.

So they've given up trying.” Anyone with a spare £30,000 is therefore welcome to buy one.

“Justin [Timberlake] is doing the music and it's going to be amazing,” says Furnish.

“We've had real pinch-me moments in the past — Elton, Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach singing together.

Elton, Barry Manilow and Donna Summer. But this year, with Justin, it's a fresh feel.”

Before putting the final touches to this year's bash, Furnish is off on a weekend break.

No, not Brighton or Whitstable. Furnish is flying to Nice, where he'll call on the Beckhams in their newly done-up French place.

“We know a lot of people,” he concedes, as I raise my eyebrows. Do they ever eat beans on toast in front of the telly?

“Oh, those are the best nights,” he replies. “If I didn't have those nights, I really couldn't do any of the rest.”

To learn more about the Elton John Aids Foundation and information on the Ball, visit


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