Delilah Sampson: Conceptual artist

Spectacular fraud, beguiling hippy or both?

Arty Types

This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The Brammerton Castle Centre for the Creative Arts advertises extensively. The London Review of Books, the Literary Review and Saga magazine all play host to its half-page solicitations addressed to “creatively-minded people” who would like to “explore their potential,” with a view to “releasing their inner spirit in an atmosphere calculated to bring out the buried you”. Not much survives of the castle, but enough remains to supply a picturesque backdrop for photographs of the Brammerton team. 

There are half-a-dozen of these creative behemoths

There are half-a-dozen of these creative behemoths. But somehow the attractions of “leading poet” Archie Sillitoe (who did indeed once publish a poem in the Listener back in 1989), “highly regarded ceramicist” Jerry Cascob (a bearded potter) and a dancing instructor whose last engagement was in panto sometime in the early 1990s pale when set against “conceptual artist” Delilah Sampson, whose portrait dominates the spread and whose classes in “freeform sculpture” and “found materials” are wildly over-subscribed.

What is it about Delilah that causes Brammerton’s guests — mostly avid retirees, but with a smattering of wide-eyed younger folk — to flock to her sessions and jostle each other in the canteen queue for the privilege of sitting next to her at lunch? 

Part of it, naturally, is her appearance. She is a tall, statuesque woman of indeterminate age, quite often dressed in a kaftan, sandal-shod and bangle-festooned. Far more, though, has to do with the legend that hangs over her henna-haired head.

There is, for example, the picture, snipped from a Sunday colour supplement and Sellotaped to the Brammerton common room noticeboard of her alongside Bryan Ferry (of this Delilah will say only that “we were rather chums”.) Then there is the liner note that somebody found on an old David Bowie album “with huge thanks to crazy Delilah S”. 

There are also the letters that periodically arrive at Brammerton addressed to “The Hon. Delilah Sampson”, not to mention the mystery of whether she is married to the centre’s saturnine and mostly silent proprietor.

But above all, there is her manner. If her classes tend to consist of instruction in making objects out of chicken wire or collages from poster paints and hedgerow debris, then no one could doubt the intoxicating scent that lingers over the many pronouncements about her professional calling. “Artists,” she is fond of telling her audience, “are born, not made. You either have it or you haven’t. Believe me, I’ve paid my dues and I know.” 

Deeply impressed by this advice, several of her students have given up more conventional jobs to pursue their artistic dreams, nearly always with disastrous results. Not everything in the Brammerton garden, alas, is flourishing. At £1,500 a week, it is undeniably expensive, the food is of variable quality and there are occasional complaints from female guests about hot-handed Jerry. 

Neutral observers can never decide whether Delilah is a spectacular old fraud or a beguiling piece of hippy flotsam from a vanished age. On the other hand, bookings for 2024 are going through the roof. 

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