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Anne Hailes: The art of Oliver Gormley

Despite 'hand off' notices, young men - and some lady guests - attending a wedding reception in the hotel saw Anthony Scott's bronze 'Donn' as an invitation to try rodeo riding

THE party's over, it's time to call it a day, and what a party it was. Attended by around 70,000 guests, years in the planning, two weeks to set up and only one week to clear up and move on.

And there couldn't have been a nicer venue, the slopes of the immaculate gardens around the Culloden Hotel at Cultra, as well as its sumptuous interior, where for 23 days Oliver Gormley hosted the international Art & Soul exhibition showing 125 painting and sculptures worth £6 million.

Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali rubbed shoulders with leading Irish artists, and all but one piece, a borrowed F.E. McWilliam, was for sale.

"It was very successful from that point of view, it sold well," Oliver told me last week when he took a break from overseeing the dismantling of the exhibition.

Surrounded by rolls of bubble wrap and half-packed precious items, I discovered that one was heading for Japan - a Banksie valued at £75,000 - and another to California; thanks to online buying, these art works are now spread out over the world.

Once the smaller items were packed and labelled, the forklifts moved in to hoist up the heavy bronze, marble and steel sculptures to be crated and sent on their way.

Thankfully it was a success but it could have gone the other way, I suggested.

However, Oliver likes a calculated gamble, although he insists he "wouldn't put even £20 on a horse".

He's an optimist, though: "I like to give. I've found that what you give today comes back to you tomorrow."

Oliver Gormley, who conducted tours of his Art & Soul exhibition held at the Culloden Hotel, introducing the artists' work to the public and telling the stories behind the exhibits

A Born Salesman

He's kind and generous but he's also a shrew businessman. He has a commercial eye - after all he ran eight businesses, all at the same time in the 1980s.

"I've sold all my life - news agencies, toy shops and sports outlets, cold drinks and biscuits to the pilgrims at Lough Derg when I was six," he says.

But it was in another line of business that the penny dropped about art. A Charles McAuley painting came up for auction and sold for £12,000. The young auctioneer, Oliver Gormley, talked to the lady who was selling, she told him she was delighted with the result as she had paid £50 some 30 years before.

He then talked to the buyer who told him he was delighted with what he considered a bargain.

It was the gap between that made Oliver think; he returned home to talk with his wife Noirin who had studied art then turned to her books to learn more.

Soon he established a gallery in Omagh, his home town. Then he ventured to Belfast at the request of artist Anne Marie McCaughey who was moving to America and asked him to hold a final exhibition in her Yellow House on the Ravenhill Road.

Oliver has never been one to turn down a challenge or to do things by half. He's a showman who has the patter and a solid knowledge of selling and he's excited about introducing people to art, as I discovered when me invited me to open the Yellow House exhibition probably 35 years ago.

It was a gala event and the great and the good were in attendance. I was nervous - I wanted to say the right thing - and perhaps Oliver sensed that tension, which he dispelled with an introduction which brought the house down and had me dissolving in a fit of the giggles.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I am delight that our guest has agreed to open this exhibition. Please give a big welcome to Ann Summers."

It's all in the eye of the beholder. One visitor thought Seo Young-Deok had run out of material in his stainless steel chain sculpture 'Anguish 295' but another was greatly disturbed as it was a reminder of a beheading witnessed any years before

A Wide Extended Family

It hasn't been easy for Oliver Gormley. The downside of the financial depression was devastating and before that, his reliance on alcohol made for dark years. Both are behind him now: "My wife tells me I changed from an alcoholic to an artoholic."

This is a man driven by adrenaline and a desire to succeed. His artists are his family, he nurtures them, understands they are vulnerable: "They are putting down their feelings for the public to scrutinise so I like to encourage them to find their own styles and watch them develop.

"On occasions I've sat in galleries and looked at paintings and been critical, then after 10 minutes or so I begin to see images and messages. I'll never forget the day a particular Jack B. Yeats suddenly made sense, it spoke to me."

He continues: "We are taught how to read but we are not taught how to see, and that's an important lesson.

"During the Culloden exhibition people asked me what is my favourite painting. Honestly, I don't have one, these artists are my family. I have everything I want, I'm happy.

"My two sons, James and Gerard, and my daughter-in-law Lana are in the business now and I want them to enjoy the challenges."

And what now for Oliver?

"I continue to ask myself how could I have done this exhibition better and then I will start to plan the next one which will be in Dublin in two years' time."

And that will be worth the visit.

More about Gormleys Fine Art galleries in Belfast and Dublin at gormleys.ie

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