Gilbert & George at their home in Spitalfields, London (1987)

In praise of... an orderly life

Francois Jonquet joins Gilbert & George for tea

When we spotted artists Gilbert & George at our favourite Dalston Turkish restaurant the other week - the third time we've bumped into them there - it reminded us of art critic Francois Jonquet's description of the first time he met them and his poetic descriptions of them as creatures of extreme habit. The pair have centred their life and their art on the east end of London for the past 43 years, living together in the same house in Spitalfields since 1968. They met the year before as art students at St Martin’s School of Art in London and it was “love at first sight” according to George. Since then they've barely spent a moment apart, becoming the most famous double-act in the art world and London’s best-loved living sculptures. We picked up Jonquet's Gilbert & George intimate conversations with François Jonquet and became totally absorbed with his account of that first visit.

"Having been told by a friend that Gilbert & George were listed in the phone book, I looked up their number and rang them. Artists at their level of fame place protective barriers between themselves and the public. Gilbert & George’s way of protecting themselves is not what you would expect. A neutral voice greeted me with the following message: ‘Good morning, you have telephoned Gilbert & George. Sadly, we are not able to talk with you just at this moment. Therefore, kindly leave a brief message, after the tone. Thank you, good bye and good riddance!’

A few days later I was in London, banging the knocker on their front door. Night was falling; there was light in a room on the second floor of their house. The door opened to reveal a familiar silhouette: standing before me, as if he’d just materialized from one of their pictures, was one of the two G’s. It was George, the slightly balding one who wears glasses. He was wearing a tie with yellow rabbits racing across it. Waiting a few steps behind him was Gilbert, the shorter G, sporting a tie with blue rabbits. Since that evening more than ten years ago I have gone to their house many times; George always opens the door and steps aside. Standing some ten feet behind him, Gilbert then leads the way up the stairs, with George closing the march in the rear. You could hardly imagine a more ritualized world than their retreat. 

Gilbert invites me politely but somewhat woodenly to follow him upstairs. Feeling slightly self-conscious, I start up too quickly, brush into him and stop so suddenly that George almost collides with me. Getting into your stride isn’t easy when you’re flanked by a pair who have been dancing a two-step for over three decades. Despite the friendship that has brought us closer together, I never feel more like an intruder than when I’m walking down the street with Gilbert & George on either side of me.

The stairs creak at every step. In fact, it’s the whole house with its eighteenth-century wood panelling that creaks like an old ship. A couple of long overcoats hang somewhat theatrically on the first-floor landing. Which is George’s, which is Gilbert’s? I notice a slight variation in tone, a subtle difference in the checks of their tweeds. Are their owners distinguished by such infinitesimal variations in real life? I hang my coat beside theirs and wordlessly we continue climbing towards the second floor. I feel a bit dazed by the cluttered atmosphere inside the house: the colourful vases crowding bookshelves and tables, the rugs with their Celtic patterns, the tormented features of a bronze Jesus crowned with thorns, the portrait of a Renaissance youth, a fiery Romantic landscape. Each object stands out sharply under the harsh glare of a central light hanging from the ceiling. The only contemporary touch is a television set relegated to a corner of the room. Gilbert & George sit across from me, rigid as living sculptures propped in armchairs."

Follow the link to buy Gilbert & George intimate conversations with François Jonquet