1 February 2003
Ex-barrister Lincoln Seligman talks to Jennifer Currie about how he used law as a route to his real passion - making art
LINCOLN Seligman never really wanted to be a lawyer and admits that he drifted into the profession because it seemed like a “grown-up” thing to do.
Seligman, who is now an artist specialising in large-scale works worth millions, took an innovative approach to his legal studies at Oxford University’s Balliol College.
“Because you knew you had to do a certain number of subjects, I could compartmentalise them and study for them in four days each, or during the holidays at home. The rest of the time I’d paint;’ he explains.
Seligman left Oxford with “quite a mediocre degree” and went straight to the College of Law in Chancery Lane to take his Bar finals.
“They didn’t take long, but I still hadn’t made up my mind about what I wanted to do. Then I embarked on a sixmonth pupillage at 7 King’s Bench Walk, a highly commercial set, where it was very academic. I think they were all much cleverer than me;’ he says with a laugh. “My pupil master had amazing powers of concentration and I’m not sure that he ever knew I was there. I could have taken my clothes off and danced around his desk and he wouldn’t have noticed. I think he would just have wondered what was blocking out the light a bit in the corner of the room. He was very nice though;’ he adds.
Next Seligman moved to 6 Pump Court for another six-month pupillage, which turned out to be an entirely different experience. “It was much more relaxed and I did a lot of crime or common law work;’ he says. “I spent a lot of time in Uxbridge Magistrates Court dealing with drug dealers on remand from Heathrow Airport. It was completely the other end of the legal spectrum, but my heart was still not in it:’
Seligman soon decided that a barrister’s life was not for him and so he joined a protection and indemnity (P&I) club, the term used for a group of mutually insured shipowners, as a very “junior lawyer’; where he earned the princely sum of 5,000 a year. “It was actually more fun because it wasn’t just law - it involved business and a lot of travel;’ says Seligman, who specialised in charter parties, oil spills and basically “anything to do with ships. It was a commercial City job based on the law:’
After three years, Seligman was charged with running the Hong Kong office from London, but he still painted in his spare time as a “diversion”.
During the same period, he staged an exhibition in London and planned to raise enough money from his paintings to support him if he decided to “jump ship” from the legal profession.
“I also had a bizarre commission from the Playboy Club;’ he adds. “I spent a year, on and off at weekends, painting a mural of nudes around the jacuzzi of Playboy UK boss Victor Lownes. It was a way to put money in the bank and it was also very good fun. But I’m not going to tell you any more about that;’ he says firmly.
Soon Seligman had built his own ’life raft’ and was waiting for the perfect opportunity to leave the legal profession. His chance came in Hong Kong when he was commissioned to paint a loo-foot-Iong mural on a huge building owned by property company Hongkong Land.
“I’d never painted a mural before, but I took the commission and left my job. It was a bit of a leap of faith. People were surprised, as I was actually having a very good time there; but I had a feeling that I’d be doing the same thing 20 years later. In fact, another chap left at the same time as me to become a monk:’
Glad to be out of the law and far away from London for a while, Seligman and his young family lived in a hotel for four months while he “beavered away” on the mural.
“1 probably made more [money] out of that commission in a year than 1 would during a year of the law, which indicated that my career move did not necessarily mean a downward spiral into penury;’ he says.
Now Seligman’s pieces can cost the same as a small house and he employs a small team of specialist engineers and craftsmen to create sculptures and installations in the atriums of enormous buildings across the world.
“People often refer to this kind of thing as corporate art, which 1 think is client to stitch you up, then you’d never do anything or get anywhere and I’d never have any work,” he says.
Seligman now splits his time between work for clients in the UK, including many major law firms, and commissions in Asia, particularly Hong Kong. “Unfortunately, I’m very exposed to the fickle nature of the economy and the commercial property market;’ he says. “But there are a lot of opportunities out there, and I never really find myself competing for work.
“If you change jobs and aren’t quite sure that you’re doing the right thing, then you want your new job to be as much fun as possible and don’t want to be able to compare it directly to what you were doing before. In my case it’s been excellent so far:’