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Holding back the years: Interview with Richard Demarco

Image credit: Holyrood/David Anderson

Holding back the years: Interview with Richard Demarco

Richard Demarco: artist, showman, raconteur, co-founder of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, Europhile, enfant terrible, enigma. He is a man of many parts and a nightmare to interview. His brain and his mouth never stop, and as randomly related thoughts and memories flit through his consciousness, he punctuates sentences midway with yet another anecdote, another timeframe, as he paints a colourful, and very abstract, picture of his own life with words.

He barely stops to draw breath, but every now and again, he will bring a small camera, which he hangs around his neck, up to his face and – ‘click’ – he captures the moment and you became part of his story.

A lengthy interview which spans centuries as he takes you through the Demarco family history from Italy to Portobello via Paris and County Down is then followed up with telephone calls, emails, newspaper cuttings and handwritten letters. He’s a man on a mission to educate the world about art, love and passion, and he will never stop. It’s what he lives for.

And Demarco has lived a life that is full, but with just months to go before his 90th birthday on July 9th, there is no sign of this nonagenarian slowing down.

Demarco’s energy is enviable and death only concerns him because of the Herculean task of finding a permanent home for his massive archive of artworks, memorabilia and photographs featuring work by some of the most important figures in 20th-century art. Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop once described his archive as being “a unique record of international development in the country through the arts in the post-war years”.

Demarco has had to move the collection, which is said to contain more than 5,000 individual works of art, around Edinburgh several times since the closure of his permanent gallery in the city’s west end in 1974. He has often been dogged by financial difficulties and run-ins with the authorities. But now in his 90th year, he faces the double whammy of being chased by the council’s bailiffs for non-payment of rates at the archive’s current Summerhall home and the lockdown because of the coronavirus which kiboshed his plans for an auction of some of his own watercolours to help pay off the council debt and contribute to the archive’s upkeep.

At least 250,000 photographs are in the Demarco archive, along with work by artists from more than 50 different countries and hundreds of his own paintings and drawings. He believes the entire collection may be worth anything between £15m and £20m. The two massive David Mach portraits of Demarco which dominate one wall in Summerhall must be worth tens of thousands of pounds each on their own. But they are not for sale.

It seems a desperate situation that Demarco’s invaluable contribution to the nation’s cultural wellbeing is now at the heart of a grubby wrangle over a debt owed to the same council that awarded him its highest civic honour – the Edinburgh Award – just seven years ago, which also meant a mould of Demarco’s hands was taken, cast in gold and embedded into a permanent flagstone in the City Chambers quadrangle.

“What good now is it to me that my hands can be found in gold, captured forever beside those of JK Rowling, Sir Chris Hoy and Professor Peter Higgs, at the entrance to the City Chambers? That honour doesn’t help me raise money; I can’t sell my gold hands to the highest bidder to help fund the Demarco archive.

“I know I’m short of time. I’ve lost something like 31 of my best friends in the last six months. I was at a funeral only yesterday and it’s happening all the time. I’ve got to get used to it; my generation is dying off.

“I belong to that generation who landed on the beaches of Dunkirk and I realise those that have gone before me are all the same age as I am now and I’m thinking all the time, I am consumed by it, about what I still have to do to preserve the archive, the legacy.

“At my age, I can’t count on a long-term future and meanwhile, I’ve got the huge problem of my archive. It causes me to have nightmares because if I’m not around, who will understand it? This building recently suffered from flooding and 11,000 items in my archive were severely damaged. They were saved by a team of conservationists from the National Gallery coming up and saving them, but 40,000 items were lost. I can see the roof needs massive work doing, but where will the money come from?

“I don’t think I’m getting the support at this very moment that I desperately need. Every second of my life now is precious because I don’t know if I’m going to wake up tomorrow. And I have got to tidy everything up so that everything will go to the right place.

“I have to be deadly serious here, I’d love to speak to the parliament and tell them what they need to do to preserve all that I have gathered, but my 90th birthday will not be celebrated by them or by the National Gallery here in Edinburgh, there are no plans for that. To them, it seems like I don’t exist.”

But Demarco very much exists. For some in the art world, he has been the enfant terrible, the agitator that never took the easy route and was always happy to ruffle a few feathers, particularly in his quest during the Cold War years to bring the artists from behind the Iron Curtain to European prominence.

His name is synonymous with the Edinburgh Festival and as a rebel to the traditional arts establishment. The Scottish Arts Council famously withdrew its grant to the Demarco Gallery for many years because of his relationship with the German artist Joseph Beuys and his support for Jimmy Boyle, the convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist. And he has attended, in one form or another, every Edinburgh Festival since its launch in 1947 as a post-war effort to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”.

Appointed Commander of the British Empire (CBE) in 2007, the 89-year-old, who has organised hundreds of exhibitions, plays, conferences and performances involving artists and academics from nations around the world, has been praised for his internationalism and counts the Romanian and German Orders of Merit and the Gold ‘Gloria Artis’ Medal of Poland amongst his previous accolades. He was nominated as the European Citizen of the Year in 2013.

He believes instinctively in art as a balm for the soul, a healer, and is highly critical of it being simply viewed as a commercial commodity to buy and to sell.

“Making art is not to be done because it is a way of earning a living, art is an expression of love, of beauty and of truth. It is not a money-making venture.

“Van Gogh never sold anything. The only person who looked at his work was his brother. It was for the love.

“Art isn’t about entertainment, it’s about life and it’s about death.

“The language of art is the language of love. It’s the language of healing. We are born to love to express our love of life, our love of our fellow humans, and of even our enemies.”

Born in 1930 to an Italian-Irish family, Demarco was raised in Portobello, Edinburgh, where his family ran a café, and he describes the atmosphere there as something of a cultural melting-pot.

“I must explain to you my name ‘Demarco’ was actually Frenchified because the family had stopped in Paris for 20 years on their way to Scotland from Italy. They created something called Maison de Marco in Portobello, right on the promenade, and that’s where you would find the only place properly in Edinburgh where you could get decent, French-Italian coffee. And it was a meeting place. Everybody went there. There was an orchestra playing beautifully, my father dressed so smartly and the family spoke Italian and French, and one of my uncles smoked French cigars… there was wood panelling from Paris… the whole thing was just so… it was a Les Deux Magots… it was that world of Sartre. Wonderful. Magnifique.”

But Demarco also describes a wartime childhood in which he was bullied for being both Catholic and Italian.

“And in these days, I was still suffering from what was called ‘the religious situation’ and I remember as a primary school child being escorted by the police to school as they were protecting the Roman Catholic area from the crowds shouting abuse at them.”

A dismal time, when Demarco recalls being attacked in the shower at Portobello Public Baths by a group of teenage boys. He says he was assaulted so badly that he could taste the blood running down his face and into his mouth. But even in the memory, he almost immediately diverts to a story from the same time that restores faith in the power of good.

“I’m conscious of just how vulnerable my life has been, because I could easily have been killed as a child. I was a nine-year-old child playing on the beach at Portobello when a burning plane, it looked like a dragon, came hurtling down towards us and then the bullets from a Spitfire plane behind it came raining down on the sand around my bare legs. It was shooting down the German plane and I could see the faces of the two German pilots so clearly and I waved at them before they crashed into the hills of East Lothian.

“I remember thinking then, ‘why on earth did that just happen?’. I knew I had to go to the funerals and there are pictures from that day with a small child standing among all the adults and that’s me. The fact is, no matter our differences, 10,000 people lined the street of Portobello to honour the cortege carrying the bodies of these two young German men and as a small child, that had great significance for me.

“I want to know, why was I not taken in by the kind of propaganda against the Germans that we were all subject to? Why did the lives of those two German pilots matter to me? They were not my enemy. And that’s why the Edinburgh Festival in 1947 was so important to me because it really was an attempt to say, ‘let’s rethink Germany’, ‘let’s try to remember a different Germany through the German culture’.

“And that’s why the first Edinburgh Festival was dominated by, for me, the sound of the great orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, which Hitler had destroyed in 1933, but was reborn in Edinburgh that year. That was an historic moment. And most of the musicians, as I suppose, in that orchestra had Jewish connections, so they had to get out, including Bruno Walter, the great conductor, and he conducted here the music of Germany, of Mozart, of Beethoven. Europe brought to Edinburgh.”

Demarco fundamentally believes in the power of art to heal, it is what has motivated him in all his endeavours, not money, not fame. But above all else, he is a European, and is heartbroken by Brexit.

“Well, it’s not a good idea reaching the age of 90 and knowing that all your life your whole reason for existence has been to Europeanise and you realise that that is being destroyed.

“The fact is, I am deeply hurt by this nonsense of instead of leading Europe we are leaving Europe, because you know the language of the European Parliament isn’t French, it’s not German, it’s English. So I am heartbroken and I was brought to tears by the sight of the European parliamentarians singing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and I know they are tearful to see us go.

“Art is the one language which we desperately need right now, and which the politicians of the world don’t use, but should.

“What connects it all is the fact that the language of art was once taken very seriously at a time in 1947 when the human race was in a desperate situation, perhaps as desperate as the situation it is in now, when we have hardly a glimmer of hope, and it helped the world heal. It could do that now if we let it.” 

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