Bassa Wulfhere Aspinall’s life was mapped out when he was six months old. His father, John, took him from his mother and gave him to Juju, a gorilla.
Cradling him in her huge, furry arms, 180-pound Juju promptly slid to the top of her enclosure so she and her gorilla friends at Howletts Zoo could all have a good yawn.
“They came together and inspected me, looked in my diaper, then took me to my mother and gave me back,” says Bassa, now 49 and an artist living in South Africa. “If she’d dropped me, I’d have been killed. But of course she didn’t.’
Instead, he shared his nursery, his bed and sometimes even his bottle with three baby gorillas from West Africa and Congo.
His playmate was an elephant named Assam. He was cheered on on school sports days by his mother and two tiger cubs on a leash.
‘My father was walking a tiger on a leash in Eaton Square in London at 3 a.m. [until it killed a neighbour’s Alsatian with one swipe of its paw],’ he says.
“Just like other people might have a dog or a cat, we had lynxes, wolves, tigers, gorillas. They became my family.’
Every holiday was animal related.
49-year-old Bassa Aspinall ran away from his birthright – the family’s Aspinall Foundation – and ended up in South Africa as an artist, telemarketer, wannabe gangster, hotelier, businessman and husband
Bassa shared his nursery, his crib, and sometimes even his bottle with three baby gorillas from West Africa and Congo. Above: An 18-month-old Bassa plays with Juju the gorilla at Howletts Zoo
“All my friends went to the south of France or skiing or to Cornwall and I would be dragged to Sumatra to look for the Sumatran rhinoceros,” he says.
‘I was afraid to hear where we would be going next summer vacation. Not those damn Galapagos Islands again!’
Every job he had as a teenager was carefully curated: ‘He forced me to become a tiger and gorilla caretaker!’
That was because Bassa — the youngest son of infamous casino owner and conservationist John Aspinall and his third wife, Lady Sarah — was destined to run the family wildlife family business, the Aspinall Foundation.
Instead, it was Damian, the eldest son from their father’s first marriage, who eventually took over the business.
And in recent months, he’s run into some controversy over his management of certain aspects of it.
“My father was obsessed with me as heir to the animal and he could be very, very powerful,” Bassa says. “He pushed and pushed and pushed.”
So hard that Bassa rebelled, ran away to South Africa at age 19 and spent the past 30 years doing anything and everything – telemarketer, wannabe gangster, hotelier, businessman, husband, father of four and, the lately, self-taught pop artist — except working with animals.
The closest he comes to them now is in his huge paintings, up to four square meters in size: he paints subjects ranging from movie icons to rhinoceroses and cheetahs, and six of his works will be on display at the StART art fair at London’s Saatchi Gallery next. month.
Bassa claims to be introverted, antisocial, gives no interviews (so far), has no involvement with the Aspinall Foundation, only occasionally sees his half-brothers from his mother’s first marriage and has no contact with Damian.
Which seems very unfortunate, since they all shared so much. Not least the pressure of growing up in the very turbulent wake of their father.
It was John Aspinall who founded the toffs’ favorite casino, The Clermont Club. And also John who may – or may not – have helped his old friend Lord Lucan evade justice after killing his children’s nanny in 1974.
“Dad lived his life the way he wanted,” Bassa says. ‘He was like a CEO of a company. An alpha male who didn’t want our noise and energy all the time, so in London they would live in the big house and we would live 50 yards away in a stable house with a nanny.’
It is known that “Aspers”, as he was known to his comrades, was an extraordinary power.
Charismatic, deeply sexist, smart, ruthless and prone to bullying, he was obsessed with conservation, telling people he would sacrifice not only his life but that of his entire family if he could save just one species.
But Bassa insists he had a relatively easy childhood.
John Aspinall (right) and Bassa, 14, pose together at a wildlife conference in London’s Guidhall
“I was showered with love and I had my mother to protect me,” he says.
“Daddy was a pretty dominant nightmare and had a ruthless side, but I loved being his son. He was so magnificent that I thought I was a special being.
“I had an arrogant, completely undeserved, insane self-confidence that I was the best just because I was his son.”
Still, he found his father discouraging and knew there was no hope of leading him anywhere, especially his miserable education at Rugby, where he was deeply unpopular.
“I was being bullied senselessly. It was terrifying. They would hang you by your shirt collar outside your dorm, wake you up at night, undress you, and throw you in the quad,” he says.
He begged and pleaded, just like his mother, but John—who himself had had a terrible time there—didn’t flinch.
“Daddy was a pretty dominant nightmare and had a ruthless side, but I loved being his son. He was so magnificent that I thought I was a special being.’
Finally, at age 17, Bassa was kicked out for being disruptive, and went to the local squatter – where he skipped his A-level geography exam to get drunk and, as soon as he could, moved 6,000 miles to Cape Town.
‘I had to go. I just wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to be a father.’
It must have been hard for Lady Sarah. A 25-year-old widow (her first husband, race car driver Piers Courage, was killed in a race) with two sons (Bassa’s half-brothers, Jason and Amos) picked up by a 40-something grizzly as Aspers with lots of animals to hand-feed and a God -complex.
“She’s a very, very tough, amazing woman who has survived many tragedies and kept her strength,” Bassa says. “It was a lot of work to stand up to him and manage him. He would always come out on top, but she was incredibly good at taking care of and protecting us.”
Bassa meanwhile had a ball in South Africa. In his early twenties, he and a friend made a fortune through a telemarketing company: “It was just gold. We made way too much money, way too young, driving Ferraris, hanging out with the wrong people. It was like being in a movie.’
Until they heard that someone was being sent from Johannesburg to ‘take them out’.
That brought him to his senses – he met Donné, who became his wife, and bought a huge house on the coast, which he converted into an extraordinary hotel that he describes as ‘like a pimp’s palace’.
Bassa’s playmate was an elephant named Assam. He was cheered on on school sports days by his mother and two tiger cubs on a leash.
It sounds bananas. Accessible by boat and across a nudist beach. Butlers wade fully clothed into the water to meet the guests.
For years it was a popular destination for supermodels like Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell, and wealthy businessmen looking to let their hair down.
While his father put off working with animals for life, Bassa is quick to praise and defend Damian in the wake of the Charity Commission’s investigation into serious concerns about the governance and financial management of the Aspinall Foundation, detailed in this document. comes to light.
‘He did a fantastic job! It’s so petty. You think of all the good they do.’
But running the casinos “would really suit me,” he says. “My natural instinct would have been to be in that world. But my father kept me from it, so that was it.’
However, he was given a chance to mend his relationship with his father when John fell ill with facial cancer in the late 1990s and Sarah eventually succumbed to the pressure and called Bassa for help.
For the next 18 months, until his father’s death, he cared for John day and night, which he said was “the most special time of my life… a tremendous bond formed.”
Bassa started painting in 2012. He couldn’t find the art he wanted for his office, so he bought canvas and expensive Italian acrylic paint and painted one himself.
His style is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has enough commissions and now paints, enjoys life and shares his home with his rowdy children.
The only animal in sight is a small dachshund named Hiccup.
“Everything my parents did wrong, I try to correct in my upbringing,” he says. “But it also made me who I am, so it can’t all be bad.”
So would he give his six-month-old baby to an adult female gorilla?
He thinks for a moment.
‘Yes, I think I probably would! I think, like him, I would take the chance. But it may be difficult to convince my wife.’
The StART art fair (startartfair.com) will take place from October 13-17 at the Saatchi Gallery, London.