Style pays tribute to Denis Savill, Australasia’ premier art dealer

After 40 years working as Australasia’s premier art dealer, Canterbury-born Denis Savill will shut the door on his Sydney gallery. Style pays tribute to the achievements and diversity of his career. Words: Naomi Spinsby-Wild

It was a novel about Vincent van Gogh, plucked from a library shelf during a cold Canterbury winter that first piqued a 14-year-old Denis Savill’s interest in the world of art. Brought up on a high country sheep station outside of Hanmer Springs, Savill spent much of his childhood in Christchurch, boarding first at Medbury, then at Christ’s College during his formative years.

A desire to see the world saw twenty-something year-old Denis travel throughout Europe before settling in London, where he was re-introduced to art when a friend encouraged him to get involved with a nearby auction room, which happened to sell many works of Australian and New Zealand origin.

Not quite finished with travelling, however, the young Kiwi moved to Zimbabwe (then called Rhodesia) in his mid-twenties, where he talked his way into a job with an auction house there. The work was diverse and varied, and he had the opportunity to deal with lots that ranged from livestock and real estate to, yes, art. Savill was one of the few who recognised the investment potential of the works he saw, commenting, “I was fascinated by these paintings, bearing in mind what I’d been told in London”.

This time, Savill couldn’t resist the lure, and by the 1970s he had relocated to Sydney and was making waves on the art scene, quickly establishing himself as both a knowledgeable art dealer and a shrewd investor. Well ahead of his time, he recognised the value of Australasian art, and began building up a collection of works by a diverse range of artists.

Purchasing Gordon Marsh Gallery in 1981, after a couple of years spent working as a private art dealer, Savill swiftly began carving out a name for himself within the industry. He caught national and global attention when, the following year, he set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold in Australia, a work by J.A. Turner which fetched $350,000.

Only a couple of years later, Savill confirmed his presence in the Australasian art scene by re-naming and re-branding the gallery to the name it has now operated under for the last 30 years, the eponymous Savill Galleries, based in Sydney’s sought-after inner-city suburb of Paddington. Throughout the 80s and 90s he worked tirelessly to build up his collection, acquiring works by such respected Australian painters as Charles Blackman, Lloyd Rees and Arthur Boyd, among many others. As well as advancing his career, Savill also made deep connections with the artists he encountered, building friendships that would go on to last lifetimes.

Savill’s work has continued to command respect throughout his career, with his collection only strengthening as time has gone on. A benefactor as well, Savill has recently donated over 200 artworks to galleries throughout Australia, re-affirming his commitment to public art.

In recent years, 76-year-old Savill has been contemplating the future of his business, and has reached the difficult decision to slowly wind down both his gallery and his presence in the salesroom scene.

Reflecting on his long career, Savill calls to mind his dear friend, the artist Arthur Boyd, a man he regarded a “true gent”. Recalling a conversation between them, Savill muses, “Arthur told me, “you’re a great acquirer, but there will come a time when you’ll feel free to give it away, you’ll feel like you’re unloading””. Savill admits that he couldn’t understand the sentiment at the time, but as the years have passed since that conversation, Boyd’s words have come to resonate with him more and more, and have guided him in his decision to take more of a back seat in the art world. When asked how we feels about letting go of the art that has defined his life’s work, he replies with a laugh, “How come that’s the best question, and the hardest one to answer?”, adding of the works he’s handled over the years, “They’re dear to my heart, but you can’t take them upstairs with you”.

As part of his mission to gradually wind down the gallery and refine his personal collection, Savill partnered with respected auction house Sotheby’s last year to sell a selection of his accumulated works, the lot including works by Charles Blackman and Sidney Nolan. The auction garnered a huge amount of interest not only from those looking to acquire the available pieces, but also from those wishing to acknowledge the reputation and legacy Savill has built over the decades. The chairman of Sotheby’s Australia, Geoffrey Smith, used the opportunity to pay tribute to Savill’s enduring contribution to the Australian art community, commenting that the auction house was “honoured to be entrusted with the sale”, and adding “He’ll be missed more than we realise”.

Savill has also recently revealed that Sotheby’s will handle the sale of two Brett Whiteley works for him in August, as part of his ongoing effort to “decant” his collection, as he puts it. Also in August, two works from Savill’s collection will be sold at auction in Auckland, one an Isaac Whitehead painting depicting Milford, and the other a Vera Cummings portrait. The same auction house also handled the sale of two Colin McCann paintings for him last year, demonstrating that he is still firmly in touch with the New Zealand art scene.

His recent downsizing is not an indicator that he’s losing passion for the industry or his well-respected eye of quality, however – just two years ago, Denis invested over $850,000 NZD for another Brett Whiteley piece, a 1988 painting entitled The Arrival, which he then loaned to Sydney’s Mosman Art Gallery. What’s more, he’s keeping one eye firmly on the art scene, having recently launched a fine art business, called, fittingly, Golden Days. Operating by appointment only, the new venture demonstrates that while he’s keen to enjoy a slightly slower pace, Savill isn’t a man who can ever truly retire.

In Denis Savill, we see a true success story – someone who spent years working hard and smart in the pursuit of his goals, and is now calling it a day on his own terms, leaving the art world wanting more.