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A Day in the Life of Ian Dejardin, Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery


My day starts with the Guardian, on my iPad, at 7am over breakfast. Getting dressed is always a creative endeavour for me. I’m not what you’d call a fashion victim; can’t afford it. But I like clothes. As I’ve got older, I’ve felt less and less inclined to succumb to pressure to wear what a friend once described as ‘Director drag’, i.e. sober grey suits, crisp white business shirts, ‘smart’ ties etc etc. I do wear suits, but they are usually vintage (the materials are better – wonderful tweeds, for instance, although pockets are inevitably full of holes).

I also wear ties – but not just any old ties. My collection of ties is my pride and joy. I’ve been collecting them for forty years or more, and I have very few dating from later than the 1970s; they’re mostly narrow and parallel (I don’t like broad, flashy, ‘kipper’ ties). It’s one of the few areas of men’s clothing that have inspired any creativity over the last hundred years, I reckon. The old hippy in me also finds extreme satisfaction in wearing things that I’ve made myself – all my pairs of socks, these days, are handknitted (toe-up, two at a time, on circular needles) by me; ditto my gloves, scarves and – in winter – hats. It’s handknitting these days; I find it relaxing. But back in the 70s and early 80s I ran a small business designing and making machine knitwear. I usually do a couple of rows before setting out in the morning. I’m working on a Norwegian-style patterned tie at the moment.

On this particular day, as on nearly every other day, I walk to work. In London, that’s a rare privilege, made all the more valuable by its being probably one of the most beautiful walks in London. The walk to work never palls: Dulwich woods (a surviving remnant of the great ‘north wood’ where Stuart kings hunted) on the right; then past Dulwich College playing fields, still marked by the great boundary oaks from when this land was still farmed; past Barry’s great College building itself on the left; past Pond Cottages on the right, the remnant, with the adjacent pond, of  an old tile-making industry;  across the busy South Circular; then the last stretch, past a field containing bee hives, down College Road with its beautiful houses and tree-lined paths, unpaved on one side, to the Gallery itself. It has beautiful grounds and is – of course – a masterpiece of architecture in its own right, designed by the Regency genius Sir John Soane in 1811. My office, overlooking the North Front, is in the Old College adjacent to the Gallery. This is, at its core, a Jacobean building, much altered in Victorian times and again after a bomb fell just yards away in 1944, causing extensive damage.  But I like to think that there are Jacobean bricks still, just beneath the surface.

A normal day for me as a gallery director will inevitably involve pre-arranged meetings. Today there is a general staff meeting first thing. These are held in the Gallery itself, and everyone is invited. These meetings have an informal feel to them. We all sit in a circle, and I encourage each department to share what they are focussing on at that moment – partly because it is a really good way for me to keep track of what is going on across the institution, but also because I think it is incredibly important for us all to meet up and learn what everyone else is up to. We’ve grown so much as a workforce since I arrived in 1998, that there is a danger that departments become isolated from each other, and inward-looking; I want us all to keep the bigger picture in focus.

Today, as on many days, I have a lunch scheduled with a potential supporter. This is one of the most important ways we have of engaging support – this lunch will give me the opportunity to talk about the breadth of activity going on at the Gallery these days, with some interesting anecdotal detail provided by this morning’s staff meeting. Like seemingly every other art gallery in the world, we run educational programmes, public programmes, we have a busy shop, a busy café, we mount special displays within the old master collection, and we mount major international exhibitions – and at the same time we have to maintain the site and the buildings, pay the staff, care for the collection, ensure that visitors know what we’re doing and enjoy their experience when they do come. My task this lunchtime is to convey what makes Dulwich Picture Gallery special; and why it, rather than other galleries, deserves support. All that activity costs an absolute fortune, and although the Gallery is fortunate in having an endowment, the income from that covers only a fraction of our annual need. Endowments are something of a rarity in the sector, and one of the commonest misconceptions I encounter is that, if Dulwich has an endowment, it must ipso facto be rich, and therefore not in need of support. Sadly that is emphatically not the case: fund-raising is always on my agenda.

My final meeting is with the Gallery’s Deputy Director and the Chairman of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Friends Committee – always a pleasure. The Friends, of whom there are some 7,000, are a separate charity, and they raise at least £250k for the Gallery every year; and the committee is formed of selfless souls who give their own time to programme special events throughout the year. This meeting is just to run through a few items that will appear on the agenda of the next committee meeting, and to confirm the details of the Friends’ own private views of the exhibition.

And that’s it. I pop back to the Gallery and set off home. The walk is achieved at a noticeably slower pace than the morning’s downhill stroll. We cook dinner; watch Jessica Jones on Netflix; I play the piano for a bit (I’m currently repeatedly thundering through a particular Chopin prelude in the vain hope that one day I’ll play it without mistakes); then a whisky; and to bed.

By Ian A C Dejardin, Sackler Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery