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Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas's passion for art took him to sculptor John Farnham's village studio in Braughing




Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas is famous for playing tortured painter Vincent Van Gogh – and away from the silver screen, his passion was collecting art.

That particular lust for life took him to Henry Moore protégé John Farnham's studio, with a stop at the Axe and Compasses pub to ask for directions to the sculptor's home in Braughing.

Following the 103-year-old actor's death on Wednesday February 5, the sculptor has been reflecting on the day in early 1987 that the Spartacus star came to call with his second wife, art aficionado Anne Buydens.

Kirk and Anne Douglas with John Farnham at his studio in Braughing in 1987 (28861552)
Kirk and Anne Douglas with John Farnham at his studio in Braughing in 1987 (28861552)

She was a German, born Hannelore Marx, and the couple met in Paris, where she had worked in an art gallery while Kirk was filming Lust for Life, the 1956 biopic of Dutch post-impressionist Van Gogh that earned him an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe.

Together, the couple amassed an impressive collection. John's work captured their attention just before they auctioned their multi-million-dollar archive – including works by Braque, Maurice de Vlaminck, Chagal, Edouard Vuillard and Piet Mondrian – to concentrate on patronising living artists.

Kirk told the Los Angeles Times: "My wife has a wonderful feeling for a work of art. She can walk into a gallery and pick out the best thing when I might choose the worst."

John Farnham with a photo of Kirk Douglas lounging by his swimming pool with the sculpture in the background (28861554)
John Farnham with a photo of Kirk Douglas lounging by his swimming pool with the sculpture in the background (28861554)

Together they were determined to add a Farnham to their new, contemporary collection. After a planned first meeting ended in disaster when John had a crash, writing off his car and injuring his hand on the way to meet them in London, he feared he had missed his big chance, but the Douglases came to rural East Herts.

Their visit to the home John shared with Austrian artist wife Lotte was brokered by Lady Sieff, of the Marks and Spencer dynasty, who accompanied the star and his wife in 1987.

The heiress and philanthropist had already briefed them on John's pedigree as an apprentice to modern master Henry Moore at his Perry Green studio.

During their visit, the star and his wife posed with John in front of one of the sculptures in his English country garden as toddler son Philip studiously ignored the casually dressed Oscar winner and his chic wife.

A version of Crescent Figure at Pembroke College, Cambridge (28861558)
A version of Crescent Figure at Pembroke College, Cambridge (28861558)

Not only did Kirk buy a sculpture called Crescent Figure to sit on a pedestal in his Beverly Hills garden, next to his swimming pool, he also snapped up a second called Bear Form. In all, he spent around £20,000 – around £60,000 to buy today.

The couple fell in love with a fibreglass model of the half-moon work and chose to have it cast in bronze. John said: "I think they both loved visiting artists' spaces. I think it was important for them to see."

After the pieces were shipped to the US in September that year, Anne wrote to John from her home in Rexford Drive: "The Crescent Figure looks so beautiful there. Kirk and I are really thrilled. Lots of our friends have come to see it already and they are most eager to see your work.

Bear Form (28861556)
Bear Form (28861556)

"The Bear Form will be placed in our home in Palm Springs."

She added: "We are just delighted to have two beautiful Farnhams in our collection. Please give our very best to your family."

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (28916423)
Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life (28916423)

John met the Douglases twice in this country and then travelled to California to see the Crescent Figure in situ, discovering the multi-millionaires' home was not the Hollywood palace he imagined.

"They did not live in a huge mansion, they lived in a nice house, more like a bungalow. It was not ostentatious."

He said of his sculpture: "I was happy... to a point. I think that was because they had got somebody to clean it up because I was coming and they put on some funny, brown wax. I didn't like it but I had to be tactful."

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas

The relationship between actor and artist endured. At the end of 1998, the couple were happy for John to visit them in California again over Christmas. In a letter dated December 1, Anne described how the family would be flitting between their homes and family over the holiday period after Kirk finished filming in Reno.

Kirk's son Michael followed in his acting footsteps. He and brother Joel were born during his marriage to Diana Dill, which ended in 1951. Anne, the mother of Kirk's two younger sons, Peter and Eric, is still alive at 100 and, as far as John knows, his works are still part of the Douglas collection.


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