Uncool and Uncollected

Charles Saatchi: From Saatchi & Saatchi to Allegedly Choking Nigella Lawson

Charles Saatchi built up the world’s largest advertising firm and became the face of the swinging ’80s in London—only to be ousted from his own company. Peter Jukes on the reclusive man who now has been accused of choking his wife in public.

06.18.13 2:46 PM ET

It makes Mad Men’s depiction of admen look tame. The backstory of Charles Saatchi, who was cautioned by police Monday night for allegedly repeatedly grabbing the throat of his wife, celebrity TV chef Nigella Lawson, during dinner at an exclusive London restaurant, is far more extraordinary than Don Draper’s—and he remains even more enigmatic and elusive.

Born in Baghdad to Iraqi Jews who fled to London in 1947, Charles and his brother Maurice built up the world’s largest advertising company, with over 600 offices, before they were 40 years old. Having turned modern advertising into an art form, the self-confessed “artoholic” Charles went on to establish himself as the most influential art collector of the last 25 years, creating the Young British Artist phenomenon—and launching the careers of Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. For someone who has radically altered the visual perceptions of the public, Charles studiously avoids the limelight and has given only a couple of newspaper interviews. Compared with him, Svengali is an attention seeker.

But those who worked with Charles in advertising say that his avoidance of contact was not shyness, but a deliberate campaign. There are dozens of stories—some of them no doubt apocryphal—about his legendary dislike of his corporate clients in advertising, including that he had a special room to hide when in whenever they turned up and reportedly deliberately placed his office near some back stairs to make emergency escapes. After the brothers were ousted from their own company Saatchi & Saatchi and created a new agency, M&C Saatchi, in 1995, taking many of the previous clients, Charles didn’t even come into the office for five years, but would have campaigns and artwork biked over to his house. Some attribute this reclusiveness as his collector’s eye: Charles likes to see but not to be seen. Others put it down to a deep-seated dislike of social contact, somewhere between Molière’s Miser and his Misanthrope.

“He was the best adman of his generation,” is the general view, offered again and again by those who worked with him. From early iconic campaigns such as the pregnant-man ad for the Health Education Council, to the “Labour Isn’t Working” photomontage that helped Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 election (and was chosen as the best billboard ad of the 20th century), Charles created a new visual grammar in commercial art. Many of the campaigns drew on 20th-century surrealism, minimalism, and conceptual art: a famous campaign for Silk Cut cigarettes featured oblique images of slashed silk in the brand’s color scheme. But it was his younger brother Maurice who did the important work of wooing and schmoozing the clients. “Maurice could never have created the ads without Charles,” is how one industry insider explained it, “but Charles could have never created the agency without Maurice.”

During the ’80s, well connected through their work for the Conservative Party election campaigns and turbocharged by junk bonds and heavy leverage, the brothers began gobbling up other advertising companies and consultancies at a phenomenal pace. For Brits, and anyone working in the cultural industries, the name Saatchi became synonymous with high-octane acquisitive ’80s culture, our equivalent of the fictional character Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street. The company employed the best creative talents of the era and, during Conservative Party conferences of the time, threw the wildest and most enviable parties, where cabinet ministers rubbed shoulders with celebrities—rock and roll meets politics. However, the agency began to overstretch its finances and suffered heavy losses in the 1987 crash. Its prestige (if not its income) waxed and waned as Thatcherism died and the Blair era arrived.

It was then that Charles began to focus on his art collection and reinventing the image of British art. He’d begun collecting in the late ’60s under the influence of his first American-born wife, Doris Lockhart, and much of the profits of his burgeoning business went into purchasing American minimalism. According to employees at the time, much of the art on the office walls was actually marked on the back with “Bought by Doris Saatchi.” When he divorced Doris in 1990, Charles abjured the New York art market, sold most of his existing collection, and began to speculate on up-and-coming British artists. He launched the career of Damien Hirst in 1991 by funding his first big artwork: a shark in a glass tank of formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, a combination of caption and image worthy of any creative and copy writer.

But the cross-fertilization of advertising and art also worked the other way. While Hirst still reveres Saatchi for giving him the opportunity, other critics complain that Saatchi’s sharp eye created speculative bubbles rather than real artistic achievement. Careers rose and fell like ramped-up stock prices, and 20 years on, many of the works of the Brit art era look overpriced and overrated. Key works from the Saatchi collection, including Emin's “tent,” Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, were destroyed in a warehouse fire in 2004. In 2010 Charles donated his collection to the British nation.

To the non-art-buying public, Saatchi was best known for his wife, the celebrity cook and writer Nigella Lawson. Lawson, daughter of Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, was known for her flirtatious manner, which won her the title “Queen of Food Porn.” But that fun, sensuous persona concealed a history of tragedy. Both Lawson’s mother and sister had died of cancer in her youth, and the father of her two children, the popular columnist and journalist John Diamond, died in 2001 after she had nursed him through four years of a very public—but also very poignant—attempt to recover from throat cancer.

Lawson’s relationship with Saatchi drew some public comment, partly because she moved in with him only nine months after Diamond’s death (and they married shortly thereafter, in 2003), but also because she was a liberal leftish icon and he represented the Thatcherite ’80s. No doubt there was also some jealousy, because Lawson was (and remains) one of the most attractive and friendly figures in media and literary circles. During the decade they’ve been together, she remains the socialite, whereas his “reclusiveness” has only increased.

Sometimes opposites attract; sometimes they repel. Sometimes they do both. Rumors of angry rifts in the marriage have surfaced only in recent years. Last year at the London restaurant Scott’s, Saatchi was pictured pressing his hand over his wife's mouth. But the graphic images revealed by the Sunday People over the weekend (actually taken at the same restaurant) show Saatchi forcibly gripping his wife’s throat several times and have been accompanied by reports of her distress and the shock of fellow diners. In the Evening Standard, Saatchi claimed the incident was a “playful tiff” and that his wife’s “tears were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt." The police clearly didn’t agree and interviewed Saatchi for several hours Monday afternoon, issuing him an official caution.

Though Saatchi is reported to be worth over $150 million, Lawson is independently wealthy in her own right, with around $20 million in assets accrued mainly through her bestselling books and successful TV cooking series. She was recently seen leaving the family home with her teenage children, though Saatchi claims he “told Nigella to take the kids off till the dust settled.” She has made no comment since. Unlike a work of art or an ad campaign, the image of a happy couple—the outgoing wife and the quiet husband—will not be so easy to reassemble.