Gallerist profile: Christopher Day

Written by: Fiona Gruber, arts journalist, broadcaster and radio producer.
While celebrating forty years with an exhibition of fine traditional art works, Christopher Day can reflect that the endurance of his gallery in Paddington makes him the longest single owner in Sydney.
Things have definitely changed in the past four decades; ‘There used to be a gallery on every corner, at least twenty. Now there are only half that,’ he says.
But dealing in art is what Day and his wife Fiona do best and Christopher’s story of how he came to be in Australia has a quixotic romance to it.
As a young antique dealer in Brighton, England, he had started supplying Melbourne print dealer Spencer Scott Sandilands. They struck up a friendship and Day, who knew nothing about Australian art but did crave adventure, decided to quit England when Sandilands revealed he had a container with plenty of room in it about to head off to Australia. Day filled it with the contents of his shop and added his car for good measure.
That was in 1976 and he studied Australian painting for three years before opening his first Paddington gallery in 1979.
How did the locals take to an Englishman muscling in on their art world?
‘I was in my early twenties’ explains Day ‘ and in the main the other dealers thought it was good for the young to have a go.’
The work that appealed to him most back then was from the Heidelberg School and if people wanted more modern works, they’d go for Drysdale or Nolan.
Over the past couple of decades those blue-chip moderns have included Howard Arkley and Brett Whiteley and he likes to give advice and guide collectors, many of whom have become friends.
‘Sometimes I’ll take the picture hanger along,’ he says of home visits to view how the paintings are doing; ’when it’s a large collection, I encourage them to rehang the works every couple of years’, he says.
The Day’s home walls include works by Tim Storrier, Justin O’Brien and John Olsen; they’ve added a painting from their own collection, Jeffrey Smart’s ‘Figures on the Beach’, 1955, to the current exhibition.
‘No point having them wrapped up’ he says of the work, which was part of his superannuation fund and hence forbidden, by changes to tax laws in 2016, to be on display.
Despite these rules, Day is positive about buying art as investment; ‘You’re only getting 1.5 percent interest from the bank, so buy a painting instead,’ he enthuses.
Not that he really wants people to buy work for investment purposes; he wants them to buy works because they love them. And collecting becomes a bit of an obsession, he adds.
These days, he says, the delight of the hunt has been somewhat blunted by the internet. ‘Everyone knows where things are,’ he laments, but he says they still make good discoveries several times a year.
Shopping habits have changed, too, with less foot traffic and with auction houses moving in on the traditional gallery business and, he says, driving up prices.
What would he advise a young person wanting to set up a similar gallery today?
‘Do something else!’ He says. ‘You need lots of knowledge and a huge amount of money’.
But as for himself and his wife and partner Fiona? He says the gallery is a vital part of daily life.
‘I can’t ever retire,’ he says; ‘We’re still having a good life and I thoroughly enjoy it.’