Two things catch your eye in the dining room of Morton’s, the Mayfair private members’ club. One is the trees in Berkeley Square outside, which glow an almost electric green even on a glum day. The other is Howard Hodgkin’s monumental painting As Time Goes By, whose spectacular splodges take up one entire wall.
It’s clearly close to the heart of the club’s owner, 36-year-old Marlon Abela. “I fell in love with this piece and I imagined it in this room straight away,” he says. “I had a huge struggle with the designers, who were totally unconvinced about putting it in this room. But it has become part of the fabric of what Morton’s is. Everybody talks about it.”
He smiles and adds: “My only problem is that I can’t move it any more.”
Abela’s father Albert made his fortune in airline food, and when he died the business was sold, allowing Marlon to indulge his love of fine dining, and art. The MARC group that he heads now has four Michelin stars. Abela Jr started collecting wine aged 16, and art came soon after. Upstairs at Morton’s is a Matisse, a Miro, a work by Frank Auerbach and Eve Arnold portraits. In the bar are two ghostly portraits of American Civil War generals, by Barnaby Furnas. At Cassis in Chelsea there’s more Matisse, and works by Gary Hume and Julian Opie. But he is not afraid to buy works by less-known artists, such as Daniel McDonald and Eliot Huntley.
“I have always been very attracted to beautiful things,” he says. “It started with my palate, I loved wine from an early age, I learned from my father who was a great claret lover.” His collection became the backbone of the restaurants’ lists. Art soon followed. “I guess I am a very passionate person and I love all the wonderful things the world has to offer, but with time and with a bit of experience, I have put structure and discipline behind my passions.” He refuses to use a consultant to help him choose his art – “I want the art to reflect me and my tastes. You are getting a piece of my taste when you eat in my restaurants. The passion and the collecting are intertwined in the business.”
Food and art are in some ways, similar, he thinks. “In a restaurant what the customer gets is the end beauty, but the farmer worked hard, the animal was slaughtered, the butcher cut it up, it is delivered to the restaurant as chunks of flesh, and we present it in the most beautiful manner. I very much perceive art in the same way.”
Abela’s collecting has matured – “I have the confidence to like what I like” – and his advice for would-be collectors is simple: “You have to work hard on it, you’ve got to want it. Do it properly, do your own research and take it slowly.”
As for his favourite work of art, he insists he can’t say. “It’s like asking which is the best bottle of wine,” he shrugs, “there is no answer, you know what you like, your mood alters, it evolves.” But then he changes his mind. “I do have a favourite, it’s a piece in my office,” he chuckles. “It’s by my daughter. It’s beautiful.”