Gilbert & George: ‘What do you think we are, middle class?’
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Our personal style signifier is [George] shoes, collar and tie.
Gilbert: The responsibility suits of our art.
George: That’s what we called it in 1969. It’s deliberate; we dress like this so as not to alienate any section of society. And you can get a table at any restaurant in the world.
Gilbert: It’s quite extraordinary that we’ve managed to keep our image the same all this time; we’ve never had to change. Our suits are always the same.
George: These ones we’re wearing are Irish – Donegal tweed.
Gilbert: The tailors change because they die.
George: Or they retire. We’re on number seven.
Gilbert: We started out with our neighbour, Mr Lustig – “Mr Happy” in German. Then we have these ones from our Cypriot tailor, Nicholas. Now we also have a Tibetan one there, Kelsang Tsering, who has done one suit for us.
George: Nobody has a Tibetan tailor. He’s quite good. 276 Goswell Rd, London EC1 (nicholasoflondon.co.uk)
The last thing we bought and loved was [Gilbert] an extraordinary table by George Bullock, an English designer.
George: It’s neo-gothic, or just before, an occasional table that’s in our living room. And it has a huge, beautiful piece of marble from Anglesey as the top. It looks like the Houses of Parliament.
Gilbert: But it’s pre-Pugin. We were big collectors of 19th-century furniture – gothic, neo-gothic, and the Arts and Crafts movement. We probably have the world’s biggest collection of Arts and Crafts pieces: William Morris, Philip Webb, Christopher Dresser.
George: Mostly things that no one was buying at the time. It was partly our campaign against the enemy – and the enemy was people who would say, “Oh, it’s Victorian, you know” – this superior class of people who think that anything Victorian is rubbish, which is totally untrue.
Gilbert: Now there are maybe only two people in London that sell it: Michael Whiteway [of Haslam & Whiteway] and Martin Levy [H Blairman & Sons]. Haslam and Whiteway, 105 Kensington Church Street, London W8 (020-7229 1145). H Blairman & Sons, 15 Queen Anne’s Gate, London SW1 (blairman.co.uk)
The place that means a lot to us is [Gilbert] Mangal 1 – the Turkish restaurant in Dalston where we have dinner every night.
George: It’s a combination of friendship and, you know, regular, easy dinner. It means we never have to read a menu.
Gilbert: George always has one chop. Sometimes I do too; sometimes I change.
George: It’s very good. We have the Ezme salad – very finely chopped vegetables – and then some yoghurt, and grilled aubergines.
Gilbert: We used to go to Mangal 2 for maybe 10 years, but then they put in a sound system and that was it for us. mangal1.com
Our style icon is [Gilbert] Well, there are a lot of queens out there who are very well dressed.
George: This morning, we saw two young men walking hand in hand, both with bright green hair, going off to work in the Square Mile. They looked dazzling. Recently, we were very saddened by the death of Taylor Hawkins [from the Foo Fighters]. From what we’ve read, he was an incredibly kind man. Only 50 years old… One of our friends, Tom Oldham, took photographs of him last year, which are beautiful.
We don’t give conventional gifts [George] – birthday presents, Christmas presents or things like that. I mean, what do you think we are, middle class or something?
Gilbert: Working boys, we are.
George: We don’t see it as work though.
Gilbert: But every day we give the other George £2.50 and a cup of coffee.
George: The other George is a man from the north of England who was a homeless glue sniffer – and then the government took the vital ingredient for excitement out of glue. So now he just drinks a little cider and has a home in north London, in a converted 19th-century church. But he has come to see us every day for the past 20 years.
The grooming staple I’m never without is [George] perfume, from Penhaligon’s. One for the day – Sartorial; and one for the night called Sohan. Sartorial, £152 for 100ml; Sohan, £210 for 75ml, penhaligons.com
The last music we listened to… [Gilbert] No, never.
George: Music is the enemy.
We have collections of [Gilbert] hundreds of things, from dirty books to vases…
George: ...fabrics, glass, silver. What don’t we have a collection of?
Gilbert: We have two houses full of it. Well, one is totally full, the other is half full – but with important stuff, like Christopher Dresser vases, maybe more than 200 of them. William Morris furniture by Philip Webb. Pugin tables. Even a fantastic William Blake book. Collecting is relaxing. We keep everything. We never sell. But we’ve stopped buying things at the moment because we emptied all our money into the foundation we’ve been building for the past two years.
In our fridge you’ll always find [Gilbert] fruit.
George: Champagne, and fruit for the morning. We go to the supermarket and buy three days of fruit at a time in some feeble attempt to stay healthy.
Gilbert: Mixed fruit and some mango.
George: And especially pomegranate.
Gilbert: For breakfast we go to a café – Sizzles – and have one marmalade toast each.
George: And then we come back and have the fruit.
Gilbert: We don’t eat a lot. And we never cook.
George: We never even boil an egg.
Sizzles, 14 Wentworth Street, London E1
The thing we couldn’t do without is [Gilbert] Yu Yigang.
George: Our chief assistant.
Gilbert: He’s been here for 23 years, I think. We met him in Shanghai in ’93. He adopted us and took us around the city. It was quite exciting. After six years he moved to London, then he started to work with us.
George: The friendship and the relationship was his invention, not ours.
An object we would never part with is [George] the first Christopher Dresser vase we ever brought. I had read in a women’s magazine about an antiques shop specialising in the 19th century, near the British Museum, called…
Gilbert: Jeremy Cooper. He was a big dealer in 19th-century furniture. But not any more. Now he writes novels.
George: But we went to his shop and were quite amazed. There was a huge vase, turquoise, like a scarab, and we said we would like to buy it. And he said, “Oh, it’s reserved”, in a very superior way. And we said, “Well, never mind that, we would like to buy it now.” We had a big row. It was reserved for The Metropolitan Museum in New York. So we said, “How dare you send it out of the country when you’ve got perfectly good people here ready to buy it.” So we got it. And that started our Christopher Dresser collection.
The last items of clothing that we added to our wardrobes were [George] these two Donegal tweed suits.
Gilbert: These are our summer suits by our Cypriot tailor.
George: We were walking in Regent Street, which is something we never, ever do, and there was a roll of cloth in the window of one of these posh shops, probably that only serves Americans. We went in and said we were very interested in the cloth and he was so snooty and didn’t explain anything, but we promised ourselves that we would have a suit like that one day. Rude shopkeepers are appalling, aren’t they?
Gilbert: He thought we were not good enough.
George: We were the wrong class of customers, I suppose. But we bought the cloth straight from the mill.
An indulgence we would never forgo is [Gilbert] English breakfast, bacon and eggs. I think it’s my favourite food.
George: Which we don’t have very often.
Gilbert: Not any more.
George: It’s the second-greatest British invention…
The artists whose work we would collect if we could [Gilbert] we already have. We made a collection of work by people important to us a long time ago, in the ’70s – Patrick Proctor, Duncan Grant, Ger van Elk, Andy Warhol and André Cadere.
George: Our new favourite artist is Oliver Hemsley. He’s a very good, very unknown artist, who used to live in the Boundary Estate near here – a 1900 utopian estate with a beautiful bandstand in the middle, where he was set upon and stabbed. When he woke up in hospital, they explained that he wouldn’t be able to walk again. He’s had to adjust his life to living in a wheelchair.
Gilbert: We’ve bought one or two of his pieces. He does very big paintings. They’re fantastic. We would like a gallery to support him. oliverhemsley.co.uk; the charity Art Against Knives was set up after his attack, artagainstknives.com
Our favourite room in our house is [Gilbert] probably the television room. It’s the only room that we use to relax. We have two big chairs where we can sit, watch a little television – the news in the evening; and maybe on Saturday or Sunday a film in the afternoon. That’s about it. We have the most incredible furniture in there.
George: And it’s all panelled, as these French houses are.
Our grooming gurus [George] are three very good-looking young Turkish men – all brothers – who are the best hairdressers in London. They’re on the Kingsland Road. One has broken away and has opened his own shop called Ape, and so we alternate between there and the two brothers at Baba. They’re very gentle, softly spoken; a lot of hairdressers traditionally want to talk about football or politics or something. Nightmare.
Gilbert: And they do up the nose and in the ears, with flames. And massage you. We go about once a month.
In another life, we would have been [Gilbert] artists. I like what we do. I knew when I was six years old that I wanted to be an artist. And that’s it. It’s what we’ve done for 54 years, every single day. It’s magic. [Our new foundation] is massive. It has more than 2,000 works.
George: It’s very simple: it means that anyone who comes to London, from Wolverhampton or from Venezuela, can see some pictures of ours, any time of the year.
Gilbert: Even when we are dead.
George: And we can live forever, which is what we all want to do. As a teenager, I read the first edition of The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh that came out in the ’50s, and I realised one thing: he did it all wrong, but he won. As we speak now, somewhere in the world, someone is looking at one of his canvases and thinking about everything you can think about. It’s amazing: the power of culture.
Our favourite building is [Gilbert] the Houses of Parliament. Pugin is our favourite architect.
George: Pugin and Lutyens. We were amazed in Auckland – there is a perfect copy of the Cenotaph.
We don’t listen to podcasts. [Gilbert] Or the radio. We don’t have one.
George: We had a radio for years because we were very excited by the phone-in programmes, and then we realised that it is all one thing, which is people saying, “What gets right up my nose is... What annoys me is... What I hate most is...” Horrific.
Gilbert: We have a television that we watch a little before dinner. Only BBC One and BBC Three.
The best gift we’ve received recently [George] has been – well, people send us flowers or champagne normally.
Gilbert: At times, but not any more, there’s been a cupboard full of champagne that we cannot drink, because we had too much. And our ties are always presents. We have a lot. There is this company in Zurich called Fabric Frontline, which did silks, and the owner liked our art and he used to send big boxes of these most extraordinary ties.
George: Dozens at a time.
Gilbert: We’ve never had to buy one. fabricfrontline.ch
The best souvenir we’ve brought home is [George] magic material from New Zealand – aniseed stars, buds, things like that.
Gilbert: Maybe we can use it in our work; we will see. We found them on the street in Auckland. They have amazing trees there. Unbelievable. They look so different; the trees are most inspiring. And the grass looks totally different, too. It feels like it’s underwater.
We’ve recently discovered [George] a new friend in Auckland, called Ron Brownson. He’s the senior curator at the Auckland Art Gallery, where we had our show recently, and he made our whole visit fantastic in every single way.
Gilbert: He’s an extraordinarily learned person.
George: And a sweetheart. He’s also, strangely, the most ill-dressed person we’ve ever met. It’s almost endearing.
We never look at websites. [Gilbert] [Our assistant] Yu Yigang does what we need on the internet; not us.
The best bit of advice we’ve ever received [Gilbert] is our own advice: fuck the teachers.
George: It’s very good. The new book [about us] by Wolf Jahn, which is being published in October ahead of the opening of the foundation, has a whole chapter called “Contemplation on the Three Words”, and the three words are “Fuck the Teachers”. He’s an extraordinary man, Jahn; he knocked on our door when he was just a young unknown person saying, “I’m writing a book about you.”
Gilbert: So he did one, and now he’s done the second one. It’s called The Meaning of the Earth.
George: It’s a great title, isn’t it?
When we need to feel inspired [Gilbert] we open the front door to our house and the whole world is outside. Art is a means of expressing ourselves, of being alive.
George: Thinking, hoping, feeling, dreading, wanting…
Gilbert: It’s not a formalistic art; it’s more a human art.
George: It’s an exploration.
Gilbert: We’ve never had doubts about our art, not for one second. And they’re all our babies.
The Gilbert & George Centre, 5a Heneage Street, London E1, opens later this year