The best exhibition in London at the moment is at Sotheby's and you should go.
It's Freddie Mercury: A World Of His Own, a display of treasures and ephemera once owned by the former Queen frontman. He left them to his companion Mary Austin when he died in 1991, and since then she and they have been in situ at Garden Lodge, Freddie's Kensington home. Now Mary says the time has come "to put my affairs in order" so all 30,000 items are up for grabs at Sotheby's. The auctions start in September but before that the public are invited to view the lot, or rather all the lots, in a massive free exhibition in the heart of Mayfair. And you should go.
The basics Dates: 4 August - 5 September 2023 Open: weekdays 11am-4.30pm, weekends noon-5pm Location: Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond St, W1S 2RP Cost: free, no need to book Time to allocate: at least an hour
It's a very popular exhibition, as you might expect, and the fewer people you see it with the better. Last weekend saw queues round the block, and even midweek expect to join several others waiting in the street outside. My wait was thankfully quite jolly, bar the door staff in a certain boutique who stepped outside and asked people to move so their 'clients' could get in and look at the handbags. When we neared the front of the queue a suited gentleman walked down the line handing out exhibition guides - again free - on proper thick card showing the route to be taken through the galleries. These also explained how and when to bid, because any visitor could be a potential buyer, but essentially this was the auction house in full-on welcome mode even if you'd only come to gawp.
Tip: On weekdays the queue's normally died down by 1pm, according to the footman. Tip: Look out for the giant moustache above the door before you go in. Tip: Take your photo of the big 'tache before you join the queue, not while you're in it. Tip: Bags larger than A4 will needed to be left in the cloakroom
Access to the exhibition is through a mock-up of the door at Garden Lodge and then wham, you're inside the world of Freddie Mercury. Initially that's his love of all things Japanese, triggered by his first visit to the country in 1975, including lacquerware, kimonos, teasets and several wallfuls of Bijin-ga woodblock prints. Teasets are a recurring theme throughout the exhibition, from floral Meissen to glitzy modern French porcelain, which makes you wonder if they were for regular use or just for display. And this the just the start, there are two full rooms of Japonaiserie and the next is bigger, focused around a sleek black grand piano (guide price £40,000-£60,000).
Where it perhaps gets more interesting is when we get to see not just artworks but everyday accoutrements and furniture. A worn L-shaped sofa, his kitchen dresser, glass figurines, multiple mirrors and two monogrammed shower cabinet doors, that kind of thing. You can easily spot the artistic philistines in the crowd because they make a beeline to take a photo of Freddie's red plastic rotary dial telephone rather than the angelic Tissot portrait. I was enticed by what looked like an ashtray full of sweets, but which turned out to be "a Lalique dish with gadrooned rim containing a quantity of coloured glass faux-bonbons". For an estimated £250 that'd look great on my hall table, and perhaps I could store Fred Dibnah's calculator in it.
The room with Freddie's dining table was the busiest, and the display case with his dinner party planner the hardest to get near to. Everybody wanted a close look at the handwritten seating plan depicting which celebs had been invited and what they'd eaten, including a selfish technologically-inept couple who hogged the space for at least two minutes while they tried to focus their phone and take the perfect picture. This is why you really want to visit the exhibition when it's as quiet as possible, indeed if it's decent photos you want then ignore mine and go and look at Ian's because it looks like he visited during a press preview.
I also gave up on looking at the autographs and associated signed stuff in the next gallery because a slow unshuffling queue was intent on attempting to scrutinise that. Thankfully there was no problem looking at Freddie's Travel Scrabble set or his 1000 piece jigsaw of Munich, nor the set of tour t-shirts spread across the wall, nor his obsessive collection of all things feline. One of the weirdest boxed lots includes multiple cat illustrations, a magazine called Catmopolitan, Freddie's Observer Book of Cats and even a slim volume called The Cats Whiskers written by Beryl Reid. This is an exhibition which spans an extraordinary spectrum of taste.
It's framed discs next, loads of them. A minor artist might be chuffed to get one silver disc for one hit single, whereas Queen (and solo Freddie) released multiple incredibly popular records in multiple national markets so often ended up with silver, gold and platinum discs from multiple jurisdictions. It ought to be clear by now that Freddie was a hoarder, but because he owned a huge house nobody thought it strange and because he was rich much of his clutter was art. There's one last chance here to take a selfie in front of his cloak and gold crown and what a fascinating exhibition that was... except it turns out there's still an entire floor to go which means seven more galleries upstairs!
Two of the most-photographed objects are the door to Garden House, scrawled with tributes from fans, plus the illuminated Wurlitzer jukebox Freddie kept in his kitchen. Expect to have to wait patiently to take a clear photo of each... or if you're feeling daring simply stare at them and imprint their character on your memory. I was closely drawn to Freddie's bookcase because you can tell a lot about a man from his book choices, and they included a full set of Beatrix Potters, several John le Carrés, both James and Frank Herbert, a guide to Chinese Eroticism and two copies of My East End by Anita Dobson. Also because this was over 30 years ago his music centre consists of a record player, amplifier and two cassette decks, though alas it no longer works and is for sale only as a decorative item.
Clothes maketh the man and Freddie had wardbrobesful. Expect to see vests, capes, jackets and ballet pumps, plus a rack of checked shirts which might have been appropriate for a night out in Earls Court. The most iconic outerwear gets to be displayed on specially commissioned mannequins each with a representation of Freddie's bristly face. One of the curators told us they had to use children's mannequins and even then they had to shave the sides down, plus they'd already had an offer from someone who wanted to buy the mannequin and not the red and black leather jacket draped on top. The staff are unfailingly polite, knowledgeable and helpful, which isn't what you might expect from a stuffy institution, because it turns out Sotheby's isn't.
Before you leave there's time to see the Yamaha piano a lot of Queen songs got composed on, a number of first drafts of iconic lyrics and several of the band's awards. If you've always wanted a Brit Award on your mantelpiece, Freddie's posthumous statuette for Outstanding Contribution To Music could be yours. Alternatively how about a stash of Polaroids from Queen's early days, or just a throwaway photo of Freddie with yet another cat? Sotheby's hope to make a fair bit of cash from visitors buying bags or catalogues on the way out, but the real money is the cut they'll get from the auctions in September. It turns out that Freddie was an obsessive visitor to Sotheby's and a significant proportion of the artworks were bought here, so all they're really doing is recycling them.
Think of this as an unique exhibition curated by an icon who's no longer with us, initially for his own personal enjoyment but now to be enjoyed by all of us. And because it's a one-off you have less than a month to see the items together before they're dispersed across the planet, easy come, easy go, little high, little low.