LEISURE

The fine arts
An eye for Arabia

A profile of the world’s richest artist and a look at how he made his vast fortune in Saudi Arabia.

By NICHOLAS NESSON PARIS

Andrew Vicari really ought to be in bed. His eyes are bloodshot; he’s got corns on his feet. “I’m soooo tired,” he moans theatrically. “Oh, I’m soooo very, very tired.” Vicari, middle-aged, a bit thick around the waist, runs his hand through his hair and heaves a sigh. “You can’t imagine,” he tells me. “I’m soooo very, very tired.”

The world’s richest artist, the richest artist ever, hasn’t slept in 36 hours. He arrived in Paris this morning after an all-night flight from Riyadh, via Cairo. Now, as the lights of evening come up, Vicari is ambling across the city towards the Hotel de Crillon. The old-world palace is just one of Vicari’s many “second homes,” and his sour mood lifts as he approaches. “Make someone happy,” he croons softly, almost inaudibly.

Make someone happy,
Make just one, someone happy,
Make just one heart the heart you sing to!
One smile that cheers you,
One face that lights when it nears you,
One girl you’re everything to!

Here’s what you need to know about Andrew Vicari: He earned nearly $30 million last year, making him the 18th-richest living Briton. There are three museums devoted to his work in Saudi Arabia, and the governments of France, China and Russia have celebrated him. But he has never shown his work in a major museum or gallery, and is almost entirely unknown. Vicari has struck it rich, by just about any standard. But he’s achieved fortune without fame.

Vicari’s grandfather was a clown. His father ran “a pile of café-restaurants and small hotels” in Port Talbot, a downscale steel town in Wales. “My father was really a frustrated intellectual,” says Vicari, “but he was also a great father, who encouraged me from the time I was very young. When I was 14, I put one of my paintings in a local competition and won a prize. I was in Italy at the time, and my father sent me a telegram. ‘You’ve won £10 and a gold medal,’ it said. ‘I’m keeping the money, because I’ve supported you long enough. But you can have the medal.’”

Which is worth more to an aspiring artist? The medal or the money? Great fame or outrageous fortune? The answer is not obvious, especially in Vicari’s case. “When I found out that I’d won the prize, I was completely ecstatic,” he says. “What a life, I thought. I draw something and I get paid for it! It’s easy, or so it seemed. It was truly a fabulous time. When you’re young, you know, all you want to do is conquer the world with your work. You love doing it. Now, well, I have to force myself to do it.”

Vicari became the youngest student ever to attended the Slade School of Fine Art, located in London and among the best in the world. His mentors there included the great British artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. But Vicari turned his back on them, and all the currents of the age.

Never abstract and hardly fashionable, Vicari devoted himself to figurative oil painting. “I wanted to be like Raphael,” he says. “When he finished a painting, the whole of Rome followed him in the street and clapped. He was more than an artist; he was a conquering hero.”

Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute
Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?
Love, is the answer,
Someone to love, is the answer.

Andrew Vicari, now in his early 60s, is a lifelong bachelor. He almost got married once, then stepped out for a pack of cigarettes and came back three days later. That was the end of that love affair. Spend any amount of time with him, though, and it’s clear that he’s a Romeo. He simply can’t get enough love. Love – in every shape and form – is oxygen. It’s what Vicari needs, and why he paints.

“Boom, boom, boom!” Vicari’s eyes go wide and he waves his arms. “Scuds are falling on Riyadh. And they are loud. A voice would come over the public address system and announce in Arabic: ‘We are now under attack. You have two minutes to get to the air-raid shelter.’ Then boom, boom, boom!”

How did this Welshman, armed only with a paintbrush, wind up in the thick of the Gulf War? It’s a strange tale, and you get the sense that Vicari’s version of events isn’t exactly the whole story. He says that he traveled to Beirut in the early 1970s, even though he “thought the world ended in Vienna.” A friend in the British Foreign Office had invited him to Lebanon to do a bit of work. Then the same friend suggested that he do the decoration for the new King Faisal Islamic Center. “So I boarded the plane in Beirut. The stewardess comes around a bit later and offers me a glass of orange juice. I turned to my friend and said, ‘I’m not traveling all the way to Rio with just bloody orange juice to drink.’ ‘Andrew,’ my friend says, ‘we’re not going to Rio. We’re going to Riyadh. In Saudi Arabia.’”

Vicari spent the next four years in the kingdom. His work at the King Faisal Islamic Center proved a success, and that somehow led to commissions to make portraits of King Khaled and, later, King Fahd. “There was quite a polemic about it at first,” says Vicari. “They gave me photographs to paint from, but I said no. I put my foot down and said that there’s no way I’m going to work from photographs. So what they arranged was for me to wait in a corridor outside a meeting room. When King Khaled stepped out of the room, I was meant to get to work. I had to finish before the king reached the end of the hallway. A pencil in one hand and a notebook in the other, I walked backwards, sketching furiously. It was, well, unusual.”

That was the start of Vicari’s love affair with Saudi Arabia, its people and its desert light. Unlike most of his other romances, this one has lasted. “Most expatriates who are in Saudi Arabia are only there for one thing,” says Vicari. “They don’t care at all about Saudis or Arabs or anything. They’re there to make money and for a chance to have a life they could never have at home.

“Saudi Arabia is like a snow leopard,” he says. “When you first see it, you can see that it’s a leopard. But at other times – depending on the territory, the time of day, the light – you can’t see it at all. Saudi Arabia is an amazing place because just when you think it’s gone, that there’s no future, just then that thing you couldn’t see becomes apparent to you. You see it in all its glory.”

Saudi Arabia made Vicari rich. His main patron, Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdelaziz, the Saudi commander of the joint forces during the Gulf War, asked Vicari to create a record of the conflict. “I left Paris for Riyadh on January 15, 1991, the day before the ultimatum was given to Iraq. When I got there, the French ambassador saw me and said, ‘Andrew, what are you doing here?’ I looked at him and said, ‘What do you think I’m doing? I’m here to support my friends.’”

Vicari at first bunkered down in Riyadh, in his own massive workshop that had been turned into a temporary air-raid shelter. But he also met all the Allied generals, traveled with the troops, saw first-hand the devastation in Kuwait. To the chagrin of journalists, who had limited access to the conflict, Vicari clambered on top of tanks and witnessed the war unfold before him.

Prince Khaled ultimately purchased 125 of Vicari’s massive oil paintings for $24 million. “The paint alone cost more than $200,000 and the brushes cost a fortune,” says Vicari. “I was painting 150 canvases at the same time. All the great painters have worked like this. And all my paintings, which are huge, I do myself.”

Vicari seems tired of it all, though. Or maybe he’s just tired. The bags under his eyes have bags, and he’s moaning again about the corns on his feet. But I keep prodding. What’s the worst thing about being rich, I ask him. “Knowing that you’re not.” Then what’s the worst thing about having a lot of money? “Wondering whether your friends are really your friends,” he says. “Wondering what people want. Whether they are really your friends or are just after your money.”

He sighs, again, and lifts his cup of tea. “I really believe in the innocence of people. That’s what I paint. That and also what happens when innocence is devoured.” Vicari turns and looks out at the diffuse light of Paris. He still hasn’t slept and can’t quite stay focused on our interview. He’s singing to himself, gently and offkey. It’s a private lullaby. “Make someone happy,” Vicari sings softly, over and over again. “Make someone happy.”