During the 40 years following the Boyles’ partnership, increasing numbers of visual artists in the UK have chosen that way of working.

‘Boyle Family’ is a retrospective exhibition marking the 40th anniversary of Mark Boyle and Joan Hills’ first exhibition held in London and Edinburgh in 1963 (see AM270). One of the show’s compelling features is that the author of each work is not one person, but at first two and later four people. Boyle and Hills started making works together in the late 50s and were joined by their children Sebastian and Georgia from the 70s to today As Patrick Elliott says in his introductory essay in the current exhibition catalogue, ‘They just worked together: neither party was dominant. From the initial concept… it was in every way an indivisible, joint enterprise.’

During the 40 years following the Boyles’ partnership, increasing numbers of visual artists in the UK have chosen that way of working. For example, Gilbert & George, Langlands & Bell, Boyd & Evans, Louise & Jane Wilson, lan Forsyth & Jane Pollard, Jake & Dinos Chapman have all forged successful creative partnerships that have achieved significant measures of recognition and critical appraisal. In the musical and performing arts successful creative partnerships have been the norm for many more years such as with Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein, Goffin & King, Lennon & McCartney, Flanagan & Alien, the Marx Brothers, Torville & Dean, among many other similar collaborative partnerships.

There are many reasons for choosing this way of working. Recently, for instance, Dinos Chapman explained to Sarah Kent (in her interview for the Time Out Guide to the Saatchi Gallery): ‘We have an abrasive relationship: like oysters, we need sand to make a pearl.’ This echoes the oft-quoted insight given by Paul McCartney about writing with John Lennon, where he points to a lyric from their Sergeant Pepper album track ‘Getting Better’: “Got to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time (optimistic Paul) – can’t get much worse (cynical John).’

For centuries artists have worked with studio assistants. During the Italian Renaissance, paintings and sculptures were often made by a team of assistants, with the commissioned artist sometimes only adding the most important finishing touches – a practice that was so widely recognised that many written commission contracts specified the areas of the work that were required to be personally executed by the maestro. Later, Rembrandt, for example, established workshops where students were taught painting skills and techniques, and such practices have continued into the modern and contemporary eras. Marcel Duchamp’s step-daughter, Jacqueline Monnier, assisted in making the edition of his portable museum, the Boite-en-Valise, 1941, and explained (at a recent Duchamp study day at Tate Britain) how he made about 60 himself, became ‘very bored’ by the task and got Joseph Cornell to help to make 90 more, with Monnier making a further 50 for him – in France – under his instructions from the USA. Warhol’s Factory in the 60s was aptly named, with some of his works being made entirely by assistants such as Gerard Malanga or Paul Morrissey under his direction. Henry Moore was assisted by Anthony Caro; Michael Craig-Martin by Julian Opie and Liam Gillick; Damien Hirst by Rachel Howard – just as Raphael was assisted by Marcantonio Raimondi and a host of other painters in the 16th Century.

It is not hard to see why such assistance/collaboration has always been attractive: it saves time and often arduous labour, imports a wider range of skills than any one person might possess, and speeds up production and potential income sources. The inevitable downsides of such collaborative working can be very problematic, and are less frequently discussed in public. A moving scene is bravely revealed in broadcast television documentary footage of the Boyle Family, also screened at their retrospective exhibition, showing them unable to work – at one location – because of the inter-personal tensions and emotions that their respective frustrations had provoked. But, personal and creative frustrations aside, there are often legal and financial problems that also arise.

Who is the real author? In the absence of clear documentation between all the collaborators, it can be extremely draining – financially and emotionally – to unravel, after the event, who contributed to the making of a work and to what extent. A written agreement, specifying whether a collaborator is simply an employed assistant, or actually a joint author or partner, is essential before such work is made – so that the finished work can also be authoritatively signed and accurately attributed. Written clarification of joint authorship will go a long way to solve related difficulties that can and do arise.

Joint authors should always have a written partnership agreement specifying how any profits, and losses, will be shared by the authors, together with other good housekeeping issues such as how partners can leave. Disputes can and do arise, especially the more commercially successful the joint enterprise becomes, and that is where good documentation is a real boon. In the visual arts, joint authorship is such a relatively recent practice that this situation does not yet appear to have arisen, but in the musical and performing arts there are many exampies. Most famously, Paul McCartney felt obliged to take court action in the early 70s to try to resolve the legal disputes between the members of the ‘partnership/group’ – and this, in effect, wound up the joint creative elements of The Beatles enterprise. In some cases, it could be advantageous for a joint enterprise to be legally constituted as a private limited liability company – in the same way that The Beatles formed their Apple company in the late 60s in part to manage the merchandising rights and other commercial aspects of their joint work.

Death or other incapacity of a joint author can cause serious practical difficulties, not only for the surviving joint author but also for the estate/heirs of the deceased. For example, there is the thorny question of who has the legal right to authorise the public release and/or completion of any work that had been unreleased/unfinished before a joint author’s death. Here, intellectual property law can assist in the absence of clear documentation executed before death.

In relation to copyright (or any other intellectual property rights such as the statutory moral rights of an author, and related publishing or merchandising rights), clarity about who is the real author or joint authors is – yet again – a key issue. Copyright and statutory moral rights, for example, last for the lifetime of the last surviving joint author, plus 70 years after the year they died. Wholly computer-generated joint work lasts for 50 years from the end of the year in which the work was formatted. Transfer of ownership of copyright must be executed in writing and signed by all the joint authors, as must exclusive copyright licences to reproduce and merchandise such work. However, any one joint copyright owner can take legal action against an actual or potential copyright infringer. (For more detailed information on this issue, contact: www.publicartonline.org.uk).

Given the creative benefits and other advantages that joint working can and does bring, it is important that the participants in such ventures take time out to co-create clear documentation of the nature and extent of their ongoing collaboration, so as to reflect their agreed vision of a successfully managed joint enterprise, preferably before any joint work is made. And there is good reason for such documentation to be created, even now, by longstanding joint authors who have already been working together for some time without such clear evidence of the terms and conditions of their joint enterprise.

© Henry Lydiate 2003

This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.