A unique loan exhibition from one of the world’s greatest private collections of celebrity memorabilia assembled by David Gainsborough Roberts is to go on show at The BADA Antiques & Fine Art Fair, which will take place from 17-23 March 2010 at the Duke of York Square, off Sloane Square, London SW3. Entitled Heroes or Villains?, the exhibition will include historic items that belonged to some of the most celebrated and infamous figures of the past two centuries. In some cases our view of them has changed with time and in others the debate over their reputation is still raging. The exhibition will examine the nature of heroism and villainy through these extraordinary and often very personal pieces.
Heroes or Villains? has been made possible by the generosity of Mr Roberts, who lives in Jersey. He began collecting celebrity memorabilia in 1991 and now owns almost 3,000 items that once belonged to royalty, film stars, murderers, gangsters, rock and pop singers, dictators, war heroes and others who have either shaped or enlivened world history.
Two magnificent robes will form the centrepiece of Heroes or Villains? One is a cloak worn in the desert by T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, during his guerrilla war against the Turks in the First World War. Lawrence’s work in co-ordinating and leading the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule, his subsequent attempt to escape his fame by enlisting in the RAF under an assumed name and his tragic early death in a motorcycle accident have enshrined his reputation as a troubled hero. The popular view of Lord Lucan, who disappeared in 1974 after allegedly murdering Sandra Rivett, his children’s nanny, and attempting to kill his wife, could scarcely be more different. In 1975 an inquest jury labelled him as a murderer and the aristocrat, who has never been seen since, is now generally viewed as a killer. Yet this outlaw figure had once been part of the establishment and attended the Coronation of Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in 1953. The robes that he wore on that great state occasion will be on show in Heroes or Villains?.
Some exhibits, such as the cigarette case used by the American gangster Al Capone, undoubtedly belonged to villains while others, such as the pink sapphire ring once owned by the singer Elvis Presley, are clearly associated with popular heroes. The watch worn by Clyde Barrow who was shot dead with his partner and accomplice Bonnie Parker by American police in 1934 will also be on show. The hands stopped at the moment of his death. As a multiple killer, Barrow ought to be classified as a villain yet the couple attracted popular romanticism at the time, later reinforced by the 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
An astonishing story lies behind the watch that once belonged to the convicted murderer Dr Crippen which will be displayed in Heroes or Villains?. Crippen gave the watch to his mistress Ethel Le Neve the day before he was hanged in 1910 for murdering his wife. After the execution Le Neve moved to Canada and then returned to England where she married a clerk named Stanley Smith and settled down to suburban life in Croydon. She gave the watch to Smith who wore it for the rest of his life completely unaware of either its history or her past life with Crippen. It was not until well after her death in 1967 that her earlier life was revealed by documentary makers. As for Crippen, there is now a debate as to whether he was guilty of the murder. Certainly not a hero – but perhaps not a villain either.
Heroes or Villains? will cover an astonishing range of famous and infamous names. A fez worn by the Italian dictator Mussolini will be displayed, as will Humphrey Bogart’s and Oscar Wilde’s cigarette cases (the latter a present to him from his homosexual lover Lord Alfred Douglas), John Lennon’s cuff links and a sketch of Princess Margaret by Stephen Ward, a central figure in the 1963 Profumo scandal. Memorabilia relating to Wyatt Earp will show that while he may be mainly remembered as an iconic American lawman he also cheated at cards. Was he a hero or was he a villain?
Mr Roberts, 65, who is retired, has been a collector since he was a child, latterly specialising in celebrity pieces. He says: “When I was about eight my grandmother gave me a little piece of wood from Nelson’s flagship the Victory. I treasured it. From that day on I fell in love with history.” He has led a colourful life. Born in Buxton, Derbyshire and brought up in the Kent seaside town of Margate, he worked as an actor, a probation officer and a wrestling promoter before moving to Jersey and joining his family’s financial business. He is chairman of the 20/21 British Art Fair in London.
The BADA Antiques & Fine Art Fair is one of the UK’s most prestigious art and antiques fairs and a major showcase for 103 members of the British Antique Dealers’ Association. The 18th Fair will take place from 17-23 March 2010 housed in a purpose-built pavilion in the exclusive location of the Duke of York Square, off Sloane Square, London SW3 surrounded by luxury shops and restaurants.