Francesca Grillo kept ‘supercollector’ Charles Saatchi’s home running smoothly – until her £685,000 fraud trial. Now, proved innocent, she’s getting into the art business herself. She talks to Etan Smallman
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Francesca Grillo and Sharrine Scholtz do a sweet line in awkward evasiveness. Coy references to their “previous employers” abound. And when I first ask about one of those ex-bosses – a certain Charles Saatchi – Grillo demurs: “I’d rather not talk about him, if you don’t mind.”
We meet at an “art ball” in a private members’ club above a Fulham pub, but all three of us are keen to avoid a cha-cha-cha tutorial, so we retire downstairs to waltz around two elephants in the room instead.
Grillo, along with her older sister Elisabetta, was unceremoniously sacked as Nigella Lawson’s personal assistant after being accused of £685,000 of credit-card fraud. Both Italians were found not guilty last year following a sensational trial. Scholtz, meanwhile, who appeared as a defence witness for the Grillos, testified that she was “forced out” of Saatchi’s office, where she had worked for up to 19 hours a day as an accounts assistant, after accusations (strongly denied) of stealing from petty cash and taking unauthorised taxis. She described her decision to give evidence as “career suicide”.
You might think the pair would be seeking new lives in a world far away from Saatchi’s – as teachers, perhaps, or maybe civil servants. Instead they’ve chosen to launch their own art company.
“I’ve always been interested in art,” Grillo, 35, insists. “It’s nothing to do with my previous employer. It’s just a coincidence.” They came up with the idea in 2011, having made friends in Saatchi and Lawson’s Belgravia mansion – Grillo based in the kitchen, Scholtz in the art collector’s basement office, where she worked for five years until 2009.
The pair’s new venture (“like an abstract Factory – a bit like what Warhol did”) will see them put on pop-up exhibitions, art sales and “collaborations with other creative forces, including music dance and theatre” across London when they launch later this year.
They have struggled to woo artists, who are terrified of crossing Saatchi. But Scholtz says there are “more people who are supportive than those who are running scared”. And they have achieved a coup in recruiting Tessa Farmer, whose insect-carcass creations – as their website subtly points out – are in the Saatchi Gallery’s collection.
They won’t be representing artists, merely collaborating, but other names already signed up include Canadian Natasha Bailey, who uses performance to explore her symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder “in a humorous and light-hearted way”; sculptor, painter, print-maker and photographer Wayne Chisnall; Pierluigi Catilli, who has created an immersive theatre piece for their first exhibition; and taxidermist Adele Morse.
The outfit’s name, Laissez Faire Art, is “all about the idea of not being confined or dictated to”, says Scholtz. “Artists having the freedom to be themselves.”They describe themselves on Twitter as “trouble-makers with a splash of colour”.
Grillo’s barrister said in court that she and her sister had been “lambs in the centre of two more devouring animals”. After the mauling they got in the tabloids, does she want to set the record straight?
Well, actually, no. “To be honest,” Grillo says, “once the rumours are out there, they don’t change their minds. People will have to meet me. And I can’t go out and meet every single human that reads the Daily Mail or any of the gossip columns. Some people will see I’m sincere and that I was innocent, – I am innocent – and some people will maybe think I’m an opportunist social climber. But at least I provoke feelings! People either love me or hate me – I’m like Marmite.”
Elisabetta Grillo collapsed several times during the trial and suffered from constant panic attacks. Her sister reveals she is still having treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, but is now taking after Lawson in pursuing cookery (she is “a natural”, apparently, and never needs to rely on a recipe).
“Whereas you need Nigella’s cookbooks?” I ask, cheekily.
There is a dramatic pause, before she responds with a straight face. “Er, I kind of like Jamie Oliver. I like his 15-minute recipes – they’re so easy to follow and not too expensive.” Grillo says she has to watch the pennies because she has no job besides establishing the yet-to-launch art company. So how is she surviving financially? “It’s very challenging, but I manage,” she says. “You can live on very little, to be honest.”
Really? In London? “From Monday to Friday, I don’t do lunches,” she claims. What about rent? “Oh, I share with my sister, so it’s fine.” She has recently “upgraded to a bed” after two years on the sofa. “When I had to leave – you know, when all this started – my sister only had that to give to me.”
It’s a far cry from her ex-bosses’ luxurious lifestyle. But Grillo (described by Lawson as “the cleaner who never had to clean”) is “excited about normality. I remember the first time I started taking the tube – I got lost. I like that, I never used to meet normal people. Lots of people want an exciting and an exclusive life – but the truth is you are so much better off being normal.
“The only challenge is if you go for a job interview: obviously Google doesn’t forgive. There’s no way to escape that.”
Grillo has a keen sense of humour. When she mentions that, like her sister, she has been suffering from PTSD, I wonder if she’s joking. But she isn’t. She says the trauma has manifested itself in an aversion to ice cream, which triggers memories of the painful period when she was evicted from Team Cupcake. “Nigella was working on her book and had just made a salted caramel dressing for her ice cream. I think about that. Ice cream? No, thank you.”
Is it true that Saatchi still has a pending civil case against Grillo and her sister?
“I can’t talk about it, unfortunately,” she says, before adding: “In a few months’ time, I’ll be able to talk more …”
Their launch party “hopefully won’t be the last you hear from us,” promises the art world’s newest fixture. “In a positive way. Not involving lawyers.”
• Details: laissezfaireart.com