Play with Fire

The typewriter ribbon had the grace to hold out until I entered the last full stop on my overdue column for Art Occasionally. It was 4 a.m.

I snapped off the desk light and realised the resulting brightness in the sky wasn’t the dawn. An eightpenny bus ride away to the east, a glare of orange and a mess of black smoke hung above the Hornet’s Nest Studios.

I had left there barely three hours before, feeling that Keith Dick’s welcome party for Mark Black was hardly the most conducive preliminary to an enforced session at the typewriter. The evening had been an eagerly-anticipated works-outing for most of the London art world – Tom, Keith and Harriet had been known as good party givers since their student days, and the combination of the first birthday of Hornet’s Nest and the advent of Keith’s and Mark’s show at the White Spirit Gallery had further lubricated the proceedings.

In fact the only sour note of the evening had been the deliberate work-a-day activity from the basement, where the now alienated fourth member of the quartet, Mick ‘Mirror Man’, had found himself unable to interrupt his lucrative production line for such frivolities; particularly if they involved the participants in a world which he now viewed with a jaundiced disdain. I remembered Mick as the shining light of his year at the RCA, now glittering a little more precariously with a gamut of HP hardware and a tottering commercial empire. Mick’s activities were now obliged to reach out to fading seaside resorts, not yet immune to the charms of Coca-Cola mirrors and teeny-bopper posters; all evening a procession of hired worker ants had loaded packing cases on to waiting trucks before the recipients could change their minds.

Dawn and the myriad of murky possibilities opened up by a fire at the Hornet’s Nest began to seep into my awakening consciousness. I decided that some breakfast was required, and made my way down stairs and around several corners to Xavier’s Cafe. On entering I was amused to see another washed-up party goer, the editor of Old Hat magazine, asleep in the corner, no doubt exhausted after a strenuous evening of collecting art gossip. I sat down, and dug him in the ribs: ‘Press never sleeps, eh, Mike?’ Eager as ever to conceal such lapses, he hastily paid his bill and left, not before telling me that the Hornet’s Nest was a complete write-off from basement to top floor.

As I drank my coffee, I outlined the now gutted building on Xavier’s Menu.

Computations of possible problems were now multiplying like amoeba in my mind. I commenced making some notes:

Metro Gnome Management
Arch-property speculators. Owners. Landlords to Tom, Keith, Harriet and Mick. (Three-year studio leases; two years left on each). Managing agent: Mr Mann.

  • does their insurance cover all the building and is it adequate?
  • must they re-build?
  • must they provide alternative studio accommodation, temporarily or permanently, for the four leaseholders?
  • do they have any obligations to the other occupants or invitees?
  • are they liable for the contents of all the studios?
  • should they have taken action about use of inflammable chemicals/calor gas fires/lack of fire extinguishers?
  • did this contribute to the wiping out of the building?
  • does it matter that Tom, Harriet and Mick were in breach of their leases?
  • does it matter that Mr Mann knew about those breaches and condoned them?
  • were MGM having difficulty getting planning permission for their proposed re-development?
  • were they well insured and did they stand to gain from a fire?

Mr Mann
Managing agent for Metro Gnome. A loser – unhappy and out of his depth. Spends a lot of time in the pub, therefore hears a lot of Hornet’s Nest gossip. Makes regular inspections of the building and is on chatty terms with all occupants.

  • what is his position re. his employment in that he knew about additional occupants/inflammable chemicals/absence of fire extinguishers?
  • were Metro having difficulty getting things?
  • was he aware that because he knew Metro Gnome knew, even if he hadn’t told them?
  • would this make him sufficiently frightened to consider arson as a solution?

Mick ‘Mirror Man’ – Basement
Leaseholder. Took on studio lease as artist. Has run shady commercial silkscreen printing firm there for past year. Bottom falling out of his business. Tax men on to him. Bad relations with other artists.

  • his trading activity breaches his lease, so how does it affect his comeback, if any, against Metro Gnome?
  • does Mann’s knowledge make any difference?
  • s artists’ studio contents insurance policy must be too low to cover his business stock and plant losses, so what if he makes a false claim compatible with the terms of his fine art studio policy?
  • what does he do about committed orders?
  • what’s his position re his casual labour on short-term contracts?
  • fire very likely to have started in basement with inflammable chemicals – liability to other leaseholders and/or Metro Gnome?

Tom Steel – Ground Floor
Leaseholder. Lease required him to be caretaker of building, but employs Dave to do this and to be his assistant. Has written contracts with Steve and Dave but, like all the leaseholders, has no power to sub-let or part with possession to anyone. Lied to Metro Gnome about his use of oxy-acetyline welding gear. Worried about Dave’s drug taking and general decline, especially his late night welding accidents.

  • is he in breach of his lease through unlawful contracts with Steve and Dave/dishonest use of welding gear/employment of Dave?
  • does Mann’s knowledge of all this make any difference?
  • is Tom liable if fire started by one of Dave’s forbidden nocturnal drugged-up welding sessions?
  • does Tom’s insurance cover this?  Even if fire started elsewhere does the presence of his welding gear contribute to his own, or anyone else’s damage?

Steve Sharp – Ground floor
Thinks he’s got lawful subletting contract from Tom. Hasn’t. Successful photographer. Recently installed lots of expensive gear. Probably under-insured.

  • is he under-insured and is his policy affected by his unlawful occupation?
  • does it make any difference that Mann knows he’s there and what he does?
  • can he claim against Metro Gnome, Tom or any other leaseholder for his under-insured losses?
  • or for replacement accommodation from Tom and/or Metro Gnome?

Dave Heap – Ground floor
Dead loss. Real problem for Tom. Irresponsible – caused fire in the past using Tom’s gear. Drugs. Thinks he’s Tom’s lawful contractual employee/service tenant. Probably isn’t. Lives there, but isn’t allowed to according to Tom’s lease.

  • does Mann’s knowledge of all this make any difference to Tom and/or Metro Gnome?
  • does he have any liabilities, as so-called caretaker for Tom, for the building?
  • what effect does his past negligence have on the situation?
  • is he entitled to replacement studio and/or residential accommodation and/or compensation for his losses from Metro Gnome/Tom/any other person responsible for the fire?
  • did he start the fire (again) through unauthorised entry and use of Tom’s gear?
  • if so, is he liable to prosecution and/or to be sued by every other loser?

Keith Dick – First Floor
Leaseholder. Well-known painter. His agent had sold six of the paintings in the studio to a US buyer last week, prior to their being shown at the White Spirit next week. Mark Black supposed to be staying with him during the show (one month).

  • U.S. buyer must want compensation for his burned paintings, or new ones re-done?
  • agent must still want his commission on the sales?
  • can Keith claim on his insurance (I know it’s adequate) but which may not cover the sold works?
  • should the buyer claim on his insurance, or ask for money back; and, if so, from whom, Keith or agent?
  • does Keith have contract with White Spirit, and if so what provision does it make for Keith being unable to provide the six paintings for the show?
  • can White Spirit recover, under their own insurance, losses re the show: catalogues, private view, publicity, invitations, etc?
  • was Keith likely to sell at White Spirit, or was it in his interests to start afire?
  • is Keith responsible for any or all of Mark’s losses?
  • can Keith claim against Metro Gnome and/or any other tenants for his and/or Mark’s losses?
  • can Keith claim for replacement accommodation?

Mark Black – First floor
U.S. artist. Staying for a month. Brought drawings, prints, slides for show, plus clothes.

  • how does he stand re false declaration to Customs that prints and drawings were ‘samples and not for sale’, in attempting to recover his loss?
  • hasn’t any insurance cover other than cheap holiday; how can he claim his losses other than from Keith?
  • any remedies for him from Metro Gnome and/or other tenants?
  • can the White Spirit now cancel the show (because of loss of Keith’s work) and/or add any other work to make up the missing paintings without Mark’s approval?
  • American Law or English Law to govern the problem?

Harriet Hertzgeld – Second Floor
Leaseholder. Everybody’s guardian angel. Too kind for her own good. Unlawfully sublet to Harry Flash who disappeared to States and doesn’t pay her rent (HF has further sublet, unlawfully, to John Bright, from whom Harriet won’t ask for rent – because she feels sorry for him); also to ex-lover/teacher Eddie (ditto sorrow). Secretary to Womens Printmaker’s Group. Does commercial poster prints as a sideline.

  • is she liable for John Bright’s losses, having condoned his presence there?
  • ditto Eddie’s losses?
  • can she, in turn, claim for all hers from Metro Gnome and/or any other tenant?
  • any difference that Mann knows and condones everything?
  • adequately insured for her own work, but does it cover her commercial work (e.g. recently finished posters for Ace Gallery)
  • what’s her and the gallery’s position?
  • have the Women’s Group’s print-drawers in her studio been destroyed and, if so, what’s their and her position: no formal constitution; no funds, premises, or assets; not insured?
  • is she liable to each and/or the Group?
  • can the Group claim against Metro Gnome and/or any other leaseholder?

Edward Pastmaster – Second floor
Unlawful subtenant of Harriet. Full-time art lecturer. Old-time loser. No new work for years. Stores old paintings in studio, where spends time smoking and drinking too much. Never sells. Over-insured, for unrealistic values. Embittered by ex-wife’s maintenance claims?

  • will insurance company accept his unsubstantiated claims as to value of his paintings?
  • can he claim against Metro Gnome and/or other tenants?
  • Mann’s knowledge?
  • could his depression and envy of younger artists and need for money provide motive for arson?
  • if so, what are the penalties?

John Bright – Second floor
The loser. Fresh out of college. Suckered by Harry Flash, ex-tutor, now in States, to look after studio for him; pays Harry rent but doesn’t know Harriet hasn’t been getting it. Says Harry’s taken care of rent, rates and insurance!

  • is Harry insured and would it cover John’s losses anyway?
  • can John claim against Harry, Harriet, Metro Gnome and/or any other occupier who might be responsible for, or have contributed to the fire?

By now the table was well covered with a light snow of inscribed napkins, and Xavier was making it clear that he considered this consumption of his table stationery quite out of line with my purchase of three black coffees. I gave him a generous tip and left.

The night’s events were beginning to look like a heavy day in the office. As I entered, I heard somebody coming up the stairs behind me – for sure too early for my assistant, and I doubted whether anyone had bought me an office cleaner for a birthday present. Then the phone rang.

© Henry Lydiate 1979



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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.