Four months ago, fire swept through an east London warehouse rented by the storage company Momart. Hundreds of works by leading British artists were destroyed in the blaze. It was dubbed a disaster by some - and celebrated by much of the rest of the country. In the most extensive investigation so far, James Meek examines why so many significant pieces of art were put at risk and assesses the real cost of the inferno
Read part two of Art into ashes
Thursday September 23, 2004
Chris Redgrave with salvaged sections of his father William's work The Event. Photo: Sarah Lee
In the early hours of Monday May 24, a CCTV camera overlooking an industrial unit on a business park in Leyton, east London, was deliberately tampered with. A burglar or burglars then broke into the unit, bypassing its metal door by boring in through a brick wall, and began to steal the contents: watches, cordless phones, DVD players and fax machines.
What happened next has been investigated by the police, 13 fire brigade specialists and a dog trained to sniff out the kind of fluids arsonists use. They are still not sure what happened, but according to the fire investigation report, which has been seen by the Guardian, the flames that caught between 1.45am and 3.15am that morning were started deliberately.
The unit was one of 34 housed in a building on the Cromwell Industrial Estate, converted from an old factory once used by Chubb, the lockmakers. Most of the units, like the one burgled, were small square spaces with steel shuttered doorways opening off the building's long sides. They were home to all sorts of prides, joys and nice little earners; there was a carpenter's shop, a car workshop, a cleaning business, a steel fabrication outfit, firms run by families, friends, lone entrepreneurs, some ephemeral, some long-established, all steering the small business person's perilous course between profit, loss and the taxman.
Running down through the centre of the building, however, like the nave through a cathedral, were two much larger rooms, each some 60m long and 15m wide. One of these belonged to a small London household removals company, Goldstar Removals, which did not have the volume of business needed to fill it. Accordingly, since 1996, Goldstar had been renting it, as a warehouse, to a different sort of concern: Momart, Britain's most successful handlers, packers and shippers of artworks. Locked away in this space that night, packed in foam and handmade wooden crates, was a store of 20th-century British art, the size, breadth and richness of which no private collector has rivalled.
There was Patrick Heron's Vertical Light, painted at his home in the Eagle's Nest in Cornwall in 1957, strokes of brilliant colour which Heron declared belonged to "the realm of pure visual sensation" and which his biographer Mel Gooding numbered among the most spectacularly beautiful paintings made anywhere since 1945. There was Gillian Ayres' enormous canvas Altair, more than three metres square, painted in 1989 with her characteristic thick ruts and peaks of oil paint, energetic with shades of blue. Almost as large was Craigie Horsfield's black and white photograph of Barcelona, Carrer Muntaner, unimaginably hard to print, taken one night in 1996 as part of a project that lasted three-and-a-half years. There was Hell, by Jake and Dinos Chapman, fabricated from 1998 to 2000, portraying mass slaughter and torture in thousands of plastic soldiers and paint. There was an old blue wooden beach hut from Whitstable which Tracey Emin bought with Sarah Lucas and sold to Charles Saatchi in 2000 for ¡ê75,000 under the title The Last Thing I Said To You Is Don't Leave Me Here, as well as a tent whose embroidered names gave the work its title, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995. Only a curator of extraordinary crassness or soaring imagination would have considered putting these works, and the scores of others in the warehouse, in a single exhibition, but that night, fire was the curator. Nobody would ever see these works again.
Michael Craig-Martin, whose painting Mood Change One was one of the Saatchi-owned works destroyed, is a bridge between the two sets of British artists affected by the fire, the abstract painters of the 1960s and 1970s like Heron and Ayres, whom he knew, and the conceptual artists who were young in the 1990s, such as Damien Hirst, whom he taught. He argued that the loss that night was far greater than has yet been understood in Britain, even though he does not consider there were any masterpieces there.
"There's an idea that the only thing in the arts is masterpieces," he said. "Very little of it is . . . the fabric of a culture is to do with lots of people making lots of things and that's the culture, the richness of that fabric. It seems to me that in this fire enough was lost, certainly by certain people, that the fabric of that record, of that continuity, is lost. If you lose most of Patrick Heron's work, if big chunks of things are lost, if big chunks of early work are lost ... I think there are very few cultural equivalents of fire damaging quite so many artworks. There are famous library fires but this isn't quite the same. I never remember anything in my lifetime that is the equivalent.
"I lost one work in this fire. It happens. For a hundred artists to lose work simultaneously - whoa! For certain artists to lose 40 or 50 works simultaneously - that's unbelievable."
Momart had its own entrances to the Cromwell estate warehouse, and was isolated from the other units internally by breezeblock walls. But by choosing a space which ran between dozens of local small businesses in a single building, the art movers, with their golden reputation, their blue-chip client list - the Queen, the Tates, the Smithsonian, Charles Saatchi, Damien Hirst - their millions of pounds in turnover and their staff of more than 100 had chosen to share the fates of an arbitrary group of East End entrepreneurs whose vulnerabilities and security systems they had no power to control.
The burgled unit, number 47, was at the extreme south-western corner of the building, as far away from the Momart space - number 49 - as it could have been. Yet the fire, its initial intensity created by the ignition of several tonnes of highly flammable, plastic-rich consumer electronics which took the temperature inside the space to greater than 1,100C - was able to spread throughout the building before the alarm was raised. The lessee of the unit, who specialised in reconditioning cordless phones returned to retailers as faulty, told fire investigators that his burglar alarm wasn't working before the fire. His was not a high-end operation. His unit was so stuffed with consumer electronics that they were even blocking the toilet. "It is understood," remarked the fire investigators laconically, "that the occupier only worked there when there was natural light."
Momart refused to answer questions about its fire security, but there is no evidence that it or any of the other unit owners and lessees had effective 24-hour monitoring systems in place to warn of fire. It does not appear that there were security guards on duty, either in the Momart warehouse or in any other part of the building. A set of CCTV cameras, operated for Waltham Forest council by the authorities in a neighbouring borough, Enfield, can see the building from nearby Argall Avenue, and their output is monitored 24 hours a day. But with 160 cameras to watch, the handful of staff on duty didn't spot the fire on their screens, and only turned the cameras towards the warehouse when the police alerted them, 12 minutes after the fire brigade was called. Even if the cameras had been pointed in the right direction the fire would have been hard to see on screen until it had either pierced the roof or broken through internal walls to one of the two large spaces, which had skylights.
In fact, that is what happened. It was householders and night workers coming to and from shifts, rather than any paid security operative, who first raised the alarm when they saw the flames smacking at the darkness.
Ash and vapour
London fire brigade logged the first emergency call at 3.43am on Monday. Initially, despatchers told crews simply that they were heading for a "fire in a factory". Three fire ap pliances and a hose-laying unit were assigned, with a fourth appliance as the calls continued to come in. The doors of fire stations in Leyton, Homerton, Walthamstow, Edmonton and Stoke Newington opened and disgorged engines into the deserted streets. It was so quiet that the first crew arrived at the scene within five minutes. They realised at once that they had a rare inferno on their hands and requested two more fire appliances from brigade control. At 3.58am, they sought further resources: two aerial platforms for directing water down into the building through the vents in the roof opened up by the fire. At 4.06am, the firefighting team sent back their first terse summary of the situation: a "range of factories", in a building 125m by 40m, was 70% alight in "a very severe fire". Five minutes later, they called for two more fire engines. It was an eight-pump fire; within hours, there would be 15. It was turning into one of London's biggest fires for years.
The sun was coming up, and still none of the firefighters had any idea what was in the building, let alone that there were valuable artworks in unit 49. London Fire Brigade has a computerised database called the Central Risk Register, or CRR. Its main purpose is to warn fire crews of special hazards in particular buildings, but it also carries records of art and historical objects in London's museums and galleries. On the database are last-ditch rescue plans in the event of the worst happening to a building like the National Gallery.
"There would be a priority list available which would, in the event of a fire, say: 'Go into the room on the left, take the first four paintings,'" said Senior Divisional Officer Gary Fredericks. "We'd sit down with people in an art gallery and work out a salvage strategy, what pictures to rescue first, which could entail cutting them from their frames. Which is obviously the quickest way. You would rather lose a couple of inches around the edge than the whole painting."
The fire brigade does not solicit entries to the CRR; they say there is no reason why Momart could not have approached them to register the presence of artworks in Unit 49, although it would have been unusual. Anyway, Momart did not do so. On the morning of May 24, it was a moot point whether it would have made any difference.
The upgrading of the fire to an eight-pump incident triggered the despatch of Fredericks to the scene at 4.13am from his home in Bow, east London. When he opened his front door he smelled burning, although his house was four miles away down the valley of the river Lea. From the T-junction at the end of his road, in the dawn light, he could see the smoke. "I arrived at the industrial estate, parked my car out of the way and put my fire gear on," he said. "I could actually hear the fire from a hundred yards away. It was roaring."
The scene was one of organised bedlam as the fire crews rushed to fight the fire; unreeling hoses, setting up relays to use more powerful hydrants on the nearby Lea Bridge Road, diving into the burning building to take the water right to the flames. Studying the site, however, Fredericks and his colleague, Brendan McAlone, were worried. Among the first thing the firefighters had done was to haul dozens of gas cylinders from the units on either side of the Momart warehouse and line them up against a wall. The various small businesses with premises there had been using an extraordinary range of gases: acetylene, oxygen, propane, argon.
Fredericks knew there were likely to be more such cylinders inside, and that in the intense heat of the fire they were likely to begin exploding, putting the lives of his men at risk. At the forefront of his mind was the knowledge that the previous day, a 29-year-old firefighter had been killed in an explosion in a burning building in Cardiff, most likely the result of a gas cylinder exploding. At one point, Fredericks followed a length of hose which went right inside the burning building and found two firefighters there, directing water on to the flames.
"What are you trying to do?" he asked them.
"Aggressively trying to control the fire," they said.
Fredericks ordered them out, back against the wall of a neighbouring building. By 4.48am, little more than an hour after the first emergency call, the firefighters were telling control that the building was "100% alight". Sure that there were no lives at risk inside, sure that the building was doomed, concerned for the safety of firefighters and to defend the businesses on the rest of the estate, Fredericks and McAlone switched tactics. To mimimise the risk from exploding cylinders, they pulled everyone back at least 200m from the fire, and for the next two days poured water on to the remnants of the building from aerial platforms and monitors - hose-carrying devices set on the ground.
For the sake of the firemen's lives, it was a wise move. A video shot by the fire brigade shows an enormous orange fireball leaping out of one side of the building as a cylinder explodes.
"From an experienced fire officer perspective, the whole building was a loss in the very early stages," said Fredericks. "It was very obvious to me that we weren't going to save the building or its contents,