Revisionists Take Note
Richard West talks to Sean Sexton
Richard West: So tell us then where you were born?
Sean Sexton: I was born in Co. Clare in 1946 on a small farm, 55 acres, rural, Co. Clare. No running water. My mother never had a pram for any of the seven of us. The farm was worked by hand by my father, it was a dairy farm basically, I think there were eight cows, one horse that was for the ploughing. Turf was cut in the bog by hand, brought home, that was the fuel.
Richard West: So how much an idea of the family history do you have from when you were growing up?
Sean Sexton: Very little. When they slated the house, I think in probably 1960, a musket was found underneath the thatch, apparently they were sympathetic to the republican movement. I didn't know that much about the history, our family, especially on the male side. If you think about a stiff upper lip here, you want to see into our house. There was no displays of affection shown to the the children at all from the men, that wasn't a done thing. Then entertainment, we used to go to the local village and it was bloody dreary.
Richard West: Why did you come to London?
Sean Sexton: Economics. No jobs, no work, nothing. My first job was stacking the shelves on Anthony Jackson's Food Fair in Iverness Street, Camden Town. That was the first supermarket in the country or one of them anyway. Then I worked in a scrapyard and I worked a stop-and-go sign on the roads. That was tiring, it was awful cold; eventually, I drove a truck for Murphy's. I was already going to the auctions and the markets a bit, and of course I was skiving too I suppose, I can't remember, did I get sacked, or did I pack it in. I think it more likely I got sacked, but I had to go anyway, can't be working for yourself and for Mr. Murphy at the same time. I think I'd got three thousand quid saved, a fair bit of money and I went to two sales, at Christie's in King Street, and Sotheby's in Belgravia, and I blew the lot.
Richard West: But that's a long time, that's ten years after you arrived.
Sean Sexton: Yeah, it's a pity I didn't get in earlier. In the 50s and 60s, stuff was thrown away, literally thrown away. Many, many stories of it, even photographs dumped and burned and frames sold for their value. So anyway in '73 I then started learning and learning was hard. I remember we'd get up at three o'clock or whatever time, and get the night bus down to Blackfriars and then get another night bus from there to go round the antique market. I started going to the auctions, looking in the catalogues, started going to museums, studying left, right and centre, getting to know my subject. And I remember once I was in Brick Lane, it must have been about five o'clock in the morning and there was an English guy there behind one of the stalls and he said 'What's wrong son?', 'Well', I says, 'I can't find the stuff and I haven't got the customers to sell it to.' He says 'right, now I give you a piece of advice, you stick to what you're doing. Its going to be hard in the beginning, and it will take you five to seven years, to start getting there as well.' So that was one piece of advice I got, then the auctions were about to start. I remember there was one in '71, which of course I wasn't there for, there was two in '72 I wasn't there for, both Sotheby's and Christie's and then three a year each from then on when it got into the full swing of things. And and of course the Irish stuff was for nothing, and I thought, well I'll collect that, I know enough about it, and I know a bit about the history. It's very easy to fall by the wayside you know. Another collector as well was Howard Rickets, he was quintessentially English, went to Winchester and all that, said 'Sean Sexton, you keep collecting your Irish photographs'.
Richard West: Was there anyone else that you met, who was doing the same thing?
Sean Sexton: There weren't many, there weren't many dealers, there never have been in London, because basically the attitude in England or anywhere in Britain to photography was that they just take photos, they never regard it as an art - they still don't. Whereas the French and the Americans are different, and other people as well.
Richard West: So why did you buy cameras? Did you ever think you would use them?
Sean Sexton: No, I wanted to collect them, and then of course I knew after a while that I just couldn't go on with it, because I'd spend all my money in a couple of sales, and then I had to start buying and selling, and then I really got some rare cameras. Later on, I mean this is 1979, I had a Hunter & Sands which later became Sands & Hunter gun camera, and there were only two in the world, one in the Science Museum, and one which I had, that I paid five thousand for, and that was a lot of money then. There was nothing to guide me, it was so rare, it had never appeared at auction, you couldn't look it up. Now here's the wheeling and dealing which I am fairly good at I think. I picked up the phone and phoned Spira, he's a big collector of cameras, head of the Spiratone Corporation in America. So I offer him the camera. I phoned Leeve Price in Norway, had one of the biggest museums in Horton in Norway, and I offered him the camera at twenty thousand, so he kind of hmmd and hawed, he had plenty of money and wanted to come to some kind of arrangement. I was never very good at the mathematics and I said thanks, bye. I was afraid certain collectors might get in cahoots and decide that they wouldn't take the price over a certain amount. Down with the phone, up with the phone, over to New York, phoned Spira in New York. I then offered him the camera at fifteen thousand, but I wasn't going to drop below that, I knew how rare it was. So he was so sure of himself, I think he offered me ten, and said take my time, come back to him in a couple of weeks, and he gave me basically a spiel about times, prices weren't high and all this stuff. Up with the phone again and back to Norway and I said 'Leeve, I'll make you an offer you just can't refuse, it's fifteen thousand, five thousand pounds down now, and ten thousand to be paid next May'. He says 'You've got a deal. Done.' He hadn't even seen the camera.
Richard West: You took this picture at the time?
Sean Sexton: Yes. And I put a ruler on them so you get an idea. An absolutely fabulous piece, and I had to explain very carefully at London airport, and say, 'look what I've got in here, I don't want to get shot, I have here, a camera in the shape of a machine gun.' They were bloody fascinated. They'd seen some things but they'd never seen anything like that. So anyway, I went to Norway, and I got picked up at the airport and that. He spent a whole day showing me around the museum. I do believe he gave it to the Norwegian nation afterwards.
Richard West: So when you first started, this is the early seventies, where would be your happiest hunting ground for looking for photographs?
Sean Sexton: Portabello Road has always been very good to me, I like the place very much. It wasn't as early in the morning. I remember at seven, eight o'clock, somehow at the time when the sun is about to rise, I think the cold rushes up the Thames and really gets into your bones. There's all this thing on television, The Antiques Roadshow and that, they never see the hard side of things, as dealers would have it, driving down from Scotland or from Cornwall the night before, and they go out and kill themselves, they die young, on the odd occasion falling asleep behind the wheels of their cars. Very unsociable occupation, all the marriages I know and liasons, have broken up. I know only one marriage that held. You come in then from Portabello, back at four o'clock in the afternoon, you're knackered, you go to bed, your wife wants you to go out shopping.
Richard West: Why do people do it?
Sean Sexton: They do it for the love. Some do it for the money but the people who do it for money usually fall by the wayside, because they won't stick to it. There's very little money to be made.
Richard West: Going back a bit, you started to meet other collectors.
Sean Sexton: I'd meet a new boy, swap, sale, exchange, then at one stage there was another Irish collector who collects postcards, actually a friend of mine, you should never mix friendship and collecting, business. He approached me once and said he wanted to take half the market, and I'd take the other half so we didn't bid against one another. I said to him 'I'll tell you what you can do, I'll stay in my place and you stay in your place if we don't we'll start bidding against one another and money'll start going out of our pockets into other people's pockets and we'll both be very sorry. But I will invade your territory if you invade mine. End of story.'
Richard West: But when there is only one other person doing it, then it really is your territory.
Sean Sexton: It doesn't work like that, about four years ago now, there was an album came up of the British military in Ireland and elsewhere, extensive album something like 200 photographs. There were photographs of Irish workers, I hesitate to use the word peasants. Three of them are beaters, they'd beat the gorse so they could shoot the pheasants. Of course those were the images I wanted. It's 1850s, 1857, the estimate on this album was £1,500 or thereabouts, I knew the British army collectors would be after all the British army stuff. Also in there were three photographs of Victoria Cross winners and also in there was a photograph of the liason guy between the British government and the American confederacy in the American civil war, so there was obviously important stuff in there. Anyway the bidding started and the British army collectors put up the white flag at £7,000. Then I had to take on the Victoria Cross guys, one of whom finances, I believe, the Conservative Party. He surrendered at £30,000, it was £25,000 pus the 10% or whatever it was. That's what you call auction fever, you can just get carried away, especially if you've got a mesmeric auctioneer. Auctioneers can really flatter your ego, you have to be careful, they're going 'you're not going to let him get away with that are you' and it'll go up up up. It only takes two people.
Richard West: Did you get to know all the people who are interested in collecting Irish photography?
Sean Sexton: There never were that many people, there's Eddie Chandler in Dublin, but we have two different approaches. The best thing is to bring it out into the open. I bring out all aspects of Irish life, I have done it in books and exhibitions. What is remarkable in his history is the lack of controversial material; 1916, evictions etc. and what have you. I have to go off in a different direction to the revisionists. During all this time I was noting the revisionists including the wonderful professor Foster and all the rest of them, whitewashing, watering down, rewriting Irish history. It's Irish historians mostly, not British historians, I have no complaint with them. They couldn't be seen to be writing about the Fenians, evictions, 1916, the Black and Tans, lest they could be seen as being sympathetic to the present Republican movement. That's what it's all down to one way or another. If you were going to use the yardstick of the Second World War when you were writing about the Napoleonic wars then you're not a bloody historian, that's OK as a stage play or something. There I am coming across eviction photographs - there are several books here, there's Foster's one and a couple of others - under these photographs it says 'possibly staged photographs' or 'these manipulated photographs', etc. Muddying the waters, whitewashing, etc. Let me say now on the record: who do they think they are? At the time of the evictions, especially the County Clare ones which are well recorded, the British army was present which kept records. The RIC kept records, and kept accurate records as well. Sometimes there were magistrates who were actually at the scene who kept records. There were correspondants from The Times there, local papers and some international correspondants who kept records, there were four or five different ones. That's first rate history. To turn around and rubbish that. Photography has found out the revisionists. Here's another important point, before the Boer war photography was hardly ever manipulated or doctored, there's only a couple of exceptions, one was with the Communards, or to do with that in the 1870s in Paris when I think they superimposed heads on bodies and stuff like this. The rot started when technically they started to reproduce photographs in newspapers. I think there was a German newspaper in 1904 but I think particularly The Mirror in 1905.
Richard West: How does this express itself when you're in the sale room or actually collecting the photographs?
Sean Sexton: I collect everything there is. Having said that, my Irish collection is weak in certain areas. It's got great strengths, there's no doubt about that, it's recognised as that, and there are some now who say that it's better than the national collection in Dublin. I don't know what the national collection would comprise of, if you're talking about cini footage then they win it hands down because they have stuff on 1916, some very great stuff indeed, very fine stuff. But as far as still stuff is concerned before 1900 I think I have it because a lot of my stuff is hand picked. There is a lot of stuff in the Lawrence collection that is very boring indeed. They've done a fine job in rounding up that collection for £300 in 1941 I think it was.
Richard West: In the sale room is there anyone else who's been collecting this stuff, that you've been trying to get hold of?
Sean Sexton: There are, I went to a sale in Dublin, there was one guy who put a whole collection together, it's about two years ago, the stuff was lotted by county, it was street scenes mostly, and all the historical societies came from the counties - not to say a raider, a thief from London - I had the money of course, my rival was there, he wanted to do a deal, I said forget it. I was just determined, I just made it so fucking hot that no one could come near me. I got nearly the whole sale, there were nearly 30 lots in it.
Richard West: It's interesting you're saying this, talking about Foster's book and collecting all this stuff, you're saying that the photographs you've collected are an historical account in themselves.
Sean Sexton: They are, and they can't ignore them, it gives the lie to some of the historianship. My collection has been put together with the help of an awful lot of English people. There are gaps which I would like to fill, one is traditional Irish musicians, Irish Gaelic games I haven't got much of. That's where Dublin scores, they have a lot of that stuff, good luck to them. You can see that I've got to that stage where I can bid and not care too much about the money. Because of the Charles Jones archive, and that was in Bermondsey antique market in 1981 at 9 o'clock in the morning. It had been going since 3 o'clock in the morning. I was there late and came across a trunk load of photographs that everyone had turned down. The guy had put them away under the stall, the guy didn't even want to show them to me. I looked, I took out a group of photographs of turnips, carrots, parsnips and I was astounded. Even though I judge everything historically my eye is artistically orientated, always has been, for photography in general. I bought the whole collection for X amount, I've been selling them ever since. I only put three or four through the auction houses every year. They used to sell for £2-300 then they took a jump one year and now they fetch £6-700. Eventually I brought out a book and the price has just gone up and up. They now sell through Davis Langdale gallery in New York for up to £8,000 each, and they are selling.
Richard West: You said you get the impression that Irish organisations or museums were seeing that you were collecting stuff and were bidding against you?
Sean Sexton: I know that the National Library of Ireland has bid against me several times but they will very seldom tell you what their agenda is, and vice versa. I can outbid them anyway. But Gráinne MacLochlainn came over two years ago and there were two albums of photographs taken at Rockingham, landed gentry basically. There were two lots, one very decorative album which they now have, the second lot was two albums, the sister to the first lot. So I arrived at Christie's in South Ken and somebody said 'there's a woman looking for you, she's up there.' 'Excuse me, I believe you've been looking for me', Gráinne MacLochlainn, never met her before, I said 'I think I know why you're here, would you ever do me a favour and get a taxi back out to London airport and go back to Ireland.' She said 'I'm here for the two lots', 'you can't have them'. She said 'look Sean, if you let us have the two lots we'll let you have copies for your collection.' 'I don't have copies, originals only.' I says 'you're going to have your work cut out here today, there's only one way out of it, you take one lot and I'll take the other.' She agreed which was the sensible thing to do, keep it, as it were, within the family. Because I said to her 'you'll have no problem here from the English collectors or the Irish collectors, your problem is going to be from the American collectors', which proved to be true. That was a case of keep it sensible, don't let it away to other people.
Richard West: Talking about the telling of history and the National Library trying to collect stuff, should these pictures go to a certain home?
Sean Sexton: I'll tell you now, if I can find it that is... Right Santiago Calatrava, an architect I greatly admire, maybe he's a bit too symplistic though, there are other architects. Imagine something like that in the West of Ireland not in Dublin - they've got enough already - to house the collection.
Richard West: How are you going to organise this?
Sean Sexton: It might have been better to try and organise something like this two or three years ago and go to the relevant minister because with the Irish economy the way it is, they might not be that amenable to listen to you. Or why not have it here in London? That's another part of my experience of London, and I'm 40 years in it now, there are no cultural outlets for the Irish, nothing. No big museums, no collections, bits and bobs here in the British Library and all the rest of it. Damn all.
Richard West: What plans do you have for the collection?
Sean Sexton: I've just told you, but that's just an idea at the end of the day, you've got to be practical. I certainly wouldn't want it to end up in the Irish archive in Dublin which is an unsuitable place buried away. The problem is that with Ireland's literary reputation with Yeats, Joyce, whom I'm a great admirer of by the way, they see the archive as an adjunct to the library but it's not. Photography has a voice in its own right, it's not there to illustrate literature, it's a challenge.
Richard West: What about other institutions?
Sean Sexton: It needs a gallery of photography. The archive just for the sake of a little bit of space could have been good. You need a proper museum for photography, but what are the chances for that now? There is a good way around that of course, trundle on over, Galway's a good spot, or Clare. Have you seen the folklore place at Castlebar? They must have spent 7 or 8 million on it. There is a case for a thing like that à la Calatrava. There's an Iranian architect Zaha Hadid who's very good. So there you are. They say what the hell's it doing in storage in Enfield, it should be seen. If someone had to put that collection together it couldn't be done. Even if you got a department in a university with six or seven people and gave them all the finance to fly around the world for the next twenty years.
Richard West: You are in a position with this collection, to tell a different story.
Sean Sexton: You can contextualise it as much as you like and use as many academic words as you like. This is where photography differs from the written word. You can be a very clever academic and juggle all the words and throw them up in the air and come out with what you want to prove. There are statistics there to prove it anyway. I teamed up with Christine Kineally. I approached her after I read her book on the famine, The Great Calamity. What we decided about this book was that we were going to keep it low key, no emotive language, no superlatives and keep as factual as we could. I chose all the photographs in the book and Thames and Hudson gave me total freedom. Totally English company, there's about 120 work in that office, never once did they say lean it the nationalist way, lean it the British way, never once.
Richard West: Of your total collection how many of the photographs have been published in the books?
Sean Sexton: 460, there's 20,000 photographs altogether. But don't forget, and here's where revisionism ought to take note, I've done a deal with Bill Gates' company Corbis. They're a picture agency, they get stuff published in magazines and newspapers all over the world. That was about 6 years ago.
Richard West: How did that all come about, what are they like to work with?
Sean Sexton: They're very good but one thing I insist on with picture agencies, very hard to enforce though, I said to them whatever is published I don't want it digitised, enhanced, cropped, falsified in any way. The photographs must be reproduced as the photographer took them. Or, it's like in The Guardian magazine here, they asked me if I would agree to cropping one of the most important photographs in the book and that's the eviction photograph. They've cropped it and in retrospect I would not now have agreed with it but they said they would put 'detail'. So that's OK, you're not misleading anybody. It has ruined the photograph but then it says 'detail' so go and look up the full picture. I think this is very important, as far as I'm concerned this is evidence at the court of human history.
Richard West: Have Corbis scanned everything in your collection?
Sean Sexton: They've scanned a lot of it but I've kept some stuff back in case I need to do another publication. The contract with them, which goes for 20 years, I regret now because they scanned some Charles Jones images which are now out of my control. Charles Jones material I'm very strict with, never thrown around the place, never much released. It's being shown in public institutions like the Modern Museum of Art in San Francisco, the Botanical Gardens in Chicago, the most prestigious of the lot is in Gottenburg, and that was the Hasselblad exhibition about 2 years ago, and that was very prestigious. They give an annual award and one particular year they didn't give an award because the standard wasn't good enough. Usually when they have an exhibition of the winner they have a vintage exhibition to counterpoint it and that was Charles Jones. It was wonderful walking up to the museum because there were two big banners down the front of the building and one said 'the work of Paul Gaugin' and the other said 'the photographs of Charles Jones'. Then there's the private galleries, Davis Langdale in New York which is a very important gallery in that it introduced Lucien Freud to America. This catalogue for instance they have various artists including a drawing by Matisse and the only photograph in it is a Charles Jones photograph. Even with private galleries it has to be a first rate gallery, it has to be top flight. This is where I get back to Corbis and I have to have a meeting with them, they were licensing out stuff and it was being used in places I wouldn't be seen dead. What I'm trying to pursuade them is that it's gilt edged, first rate, you charge a lot or nothing. That's how I protect that.
Richard West: How does that work, that's just on availability then. You don't own the copyright to the pictures?
Sean Sexton: No you don't that's a misnomer, I own permission to reproduce because I own the originals. The copyright has run out.
Richard West: This means that for a fee Corbis gives access to the pictures in your collection?
Sean Sexton: They get access and they even get a thumbnail sketch and if you want the thing then you have to give your credit card or whatever. But when they copied the photographs they copied them with a scanner, this is eight years ago, I've been saying to them the quality's not high enough. I operate with an art group in town and they said that the quality of the scans from Corbis was just not high enough.
Richard West: So there are a lot of photographs that haven't been published?
Sean Sexton: Yes but the important ones are there. I could certainly do another book. I could see myself doing one on evictions, from a very scientific, clinical level, statistics, etc. just to nail the revisionists' lie.