Wherever you stand on the merits of Damien Hirst – and there is no shortage of detractors – there is absolute consensus on this one fact: he is very, very good at making huge sums of money.
At 56, Hirst boasts a fortune estimated at $394 million thanks to a series of startling creations such as boxes filled with flies, giant canvases covered with colored dots and pickled animals with their innards on display. Today, a single piece can fetch $1.3 million or more from collectors in Britain and around the world.
Hirst rarely goes to the trouble of making the stuff himself, of course. Instead, he outsources the labor to more than 150 assistants at a network of specialist production sites in London and Gloucestershire. While Hirst gets on with life as a towering figure on the British art scene, young factory hands daub dots, disembowel sharks or sheep and stick gems to skulls of the sort that reputedly once sold for more than $65 million.
Contractually barred from discussing their role in his art or how it was produced, they tend to do their work in considerable secrecy. Yet The Mail on Sunday established that the art and ‘installations’ that have brought so much success to Hirst are produced in macabre conditions that might surprise his rich collectors and their dinner-party guests.
According to a whistleblower from Hirst’s factory in Gloucestershire, a grim facility on the edge of a housing estate near Stroud, he and his colleagues worked for low wages, disemboweling dead animals, slicing them in two with giant saws, or standing in full protective equipment waist-deep in formaldehyde, a chemical preservative. Then, amid the stress of the pandemic, their jobs simply vanished.
Figures released recently show Hirst took a total of $1.7 million in Government furlough money. Yet documents seen by the MoS show he also made dozens of technicians, including our whistleblower, redundant in October 2020 after they had spent seven months on furlough – never mind that the taxpayer-funded scheme was created to save jobs.
‘The conditions we worked under were difficult,’ says Billy – not his real name – in a unique account of life on Hirst’s bizarre production line.
During the pandemic, Hirst was on Instagram making himself look like a hero by doing charity work and making prints for the NHS. His Butterfly pictures – gaudy rainbows or hearts decorated with butterflies were created in the summer of 2020 to raise money for NHS workers.
‘But we barely saw him in the studio,’ Billy continues. ‘It got to the point where we thought, “Is this really art?” But I would say he’s a genius businessman.’
Billy, a Fine Art graduate, first joined the company in his 20s after applying for the job through a recruitment website. He helped to create Hirst’s three-dimensional pieces, which frequently involved preserving dead animals, including tigers, before they were mounted in display cases.
These were shipped in as whole frozen carcasses from overseas – although Billy wasn’t told precisely where from – then suspended using fishing wire in preservative-filled tanks. Some of the corpses would be painstakingly sliced in half by Billy and his colleagues, using a giant industrial cutter, so the animal would eventually be seen with its internal organs on full view. Other creatures had their guts removed before being stitched up again using surgical thread or staples and displayed whole.
Billy also worked on two more of Hirst’s trademarks: glass cases filled with dead insects and his medicine cabinets featuring rows of colored pills.
An Enfant Terrible Drops the Enfant
When he first came to prominence in the 1990s, Hirst was known as the enfant terrible of the Young British Artists scene, as famous for his hellraising as for his provocative art.
In 1992, his 14ft tiger shark pickled and suspended in formaldehyde called The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living became the focus of the Saatchi Gallery’s Young British Artists exhibition. Next came a pickled sheep and a sliced cross section of a cow and a calf.
In 1995, he won the Turner Prize and with it the $39,000 prize money. A regular at London’s fashionable Groucho Club, he famously put his Turner Prize winnings behind the bar and drank the lot in a single sitting with a gang of showbiz friends.
His celebrity established, Hirst began selling replicas of his art for eye-watering prices, promoted by his patron Charles Saatchi and powerful art dealers Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling, the Old Etonian founder of the White Cube galleries in London and Hong Kong.
By 2008, his star power was so great that Sotheby’s marked an auction of 223 of his works with a party for 1,500 guests, who were served foie gras wrapped in gold leaf. The $200 million sale set a new record for a single-artist auction, with Hirst reportedly taking $175 million of the proceeds.
At the height of his commercial success before the financial crash, one of Hirst’s stainless steel and glass pill cabinets, called Lullaby Spring, sold at Sotheby’s for $19.1 million to Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family.
By then, Hirst had opened three art factories – two in South London and one in Gloucestershire – to mass-produce his most commercially successful work, including his pickled animals, medicine cabinets, spot circles and butterfly paintings.
Today he has at least three homes including Toddington Manor, a vast neo-Gothic pile in the Cotswolds, but keeps a lower profile than in the past. Now divorced from his wife and mother of his three children Maia Norman, he spends his time with ex-ballerina girlfriend Sophie Cannell, 27.
Hirst, it should be said, has always been clear that his art is ‘a brand produced in a factory’. Referring to his spot paintings, he once said: ‘I only painted the first five and I was like f*** this, I hated it. As soon as I sold one, I used the money to pay people to make them.’
Billy first joined his team at the Dudbridge art factory near Stroud four years ago on an annual salary of about $28,000. He was keen to save money to study sculpture and the job seemed to be a foot in the door of the art world – even if he was contractually bound not to discuss his work with outsiders, take pictures or refer to his time with Hirst on his CV.
‘We barely saw [Hirst] in the studio. It got to the point where we thought, “Is this really art?”’
His official working hours were regular: a typical day saw him clock in at 9am and he was supposed to finish at 5pm. But he says there were times when he was expected to work overtime in the evenings and at weekends. Often this meant visiting wealthy patrons to install pieces of art, or repair them when things went wrong.
The Dudbridge factory is surrounded by a 7ft steel fence with Keep Out signs and CCTV cameras, so accounts of life behind the walls are rare. Billy describes the main building, known as the Science Studio, as a windowless concrete space where the only natural light filters through rooftop glazing. It features a grisly formaldehyde room where dead animals float in huge tubs of chemical preservative covered by plastic sheeting. One wing is a giant freezer room, where dead animals are stored at minus 25C.
Before starting work, Billy and his colleagues would put on full-body protective equipment, including gloves and a ventilated mask. Then they hoisted dead animals on to worktops and cut open the animals using scalpels to remove their stomachs, guts and bowels.
Blood drained through a hole in the worktops and was collected in a bucket. To complete the gory process, Hirst’s assistants injected the carcasses with formaldehyde, which is used by undertakers and has the effect of stiffening the flesh, until they were solid. For larger animals, such as tigers and zebras, this took several weeks.
Once ready, the corpses were lifted off the worktops using a gantry and a forklift truck. They were then installed in tanks filled with solutions of the colorless preservative and shipped off to galleries and private clients.
To prepare dead sheep, Hirst’s team had to break their pelvises and shoulders so that the fleeces could be rolled off in one piece – and rolled back on once the process was complete.
Pieces on display in the homes of wealthy collectors frequently required maintenance, he says. There were times, for example, when oxygen and fluids started leaking from the dead animals on display and created visible bubbles in the tanks surrounding them. ‘You would go off to do installations and you’d have a bucket of formaldehyde in the back of the car, and the whole car would stink – you’d have to drive with the windows open,’ he recalls.
‘A lot of times we’d be going to people’s houses to get bubbles out of their tanks before they had people over to show them their Hirst.
‘It would be last-minute and very demanding. We would have to drop everything.’
At the grandest London homes, he would enter by the underground staff entrance before being taken up to rooms of jaw-dropping opulence. ‘We were told beforehand by the managers they [the clients] were Russian oligarchs,’ he says, recalling one visit in particular. ‘Everything was made of marble, with chandeliers in every room. Some of the London mansions I went to had solid gold plug sockets.’
Despite the power of his brand, he claims Hirst’s personal involvement in the artistic process was minimal, saying a number of his colleagues had become so skillful at writing Hirst’s signature that they engraved his name on the back of artworks. ‘It was easier than getting him to come in,’ he says. ‘It happened regularly.’
‘You would go off to do installations and you’d have a bucket of formaldehyde in the back of the car, and the whole car would stink – you’d have to drive with the windows open.’
Hirst visited the factory once a month ‘at most’, he suggests, and talked only to managers. ‘We would be warned he was coming in and told not to make eye contact, don’t look his way too much, don’t talk to him unless he spoke to us first. Sometimes we would text him a picture of something we had just made and he’d text back, “Great”, full stop. That was his involvement.’
The work was demanding and staff turnover had been high throughout his time at the company. ‘It definitely felt like Damien cared more about making a profit from people than he did on making quality artwork,’ he comments.
The pandemic made life even harder. The art market promptly collapsed and, at the start of April 2020, Billy and a number of his colleagues were furloughed. The Government made up 80 percent of their wages and Hirst paid the rest. If the intention was to save their jobs, however, it didn’t work.
Not long afterward, Hirst’s firm, Science UK, announced there would be more than 60 redundancies at the Dudbridge studio, blaming the ‘significant impact Covid-19 is having on the market and wider economy’, and started a consultation process with its workers. Staff including Billy were eventually made redundant in October 2020 – and paid an extra $131 if they signed Non-Disclosure Agreements to keep the details of their settlements secret.
Hirst’s company channels earnings from selling artworks to a parent company based in Jersey. Financial documents published recently show Science UK sold $23.8 million of art in 2020, generating almost $4.6 million of pretax profits. Science UK claimed $1.71 million furlough support on top of the group’s $19.6 million Coronavirus Business Interruption loan taken out in October that year.
Meanwhile, redundancy documents seen by The Mail on Sunday suggest that at least 63 staff lost their jobs at Dudbridge – a process which Billy says left a number of them depressed and in some cases on medication. ‘I think he doesn’t allow himself to get close to people so he can be this separate godlike genius figure,’ he says.
Hirst himself has a more prosaic turn of phrase, once saying: ‘I can’t wait to get into a position to make really bad art and get away with it.’ So far at least, concludes Billy, he has succeeded on both counts.
Damien Hirst did not respond to requests for comment.
Harriet Dennys is a correspondent for The Mail on Sunday