I moved to West Square – a beautiful and quiet Georgian square beside the Imperial War Museum – sixteen years ago. Its location was perfect, walking distance both from the City and from the museums, galleries and theatres of the West End. Now, having retired, I don’t need to live so close to town and so have decided to move, albeit still in London. The real surprise for me, though, has been that in making this decision about bricks and mortar, it should have felt so natural to reconsider my art collection. I had never previously thought about selling even a single work, let alone almost all of them. I didn’t buy for investment, or with a strategy: I’ve only acquired works that I have fallen in love with, that I couldn’t resist, that I felt I just had to live with. I haven’t even thought of myself as a collector: only looking at the house now - with an estate agent’s eye perhaps? - did I realise how art had become so embedded in the fabric of my life. The collection felt like it had become settled and complete in West Square and somehow it felt strange to take it to a new place. And yet it would equally have been a shame to sell it piece-by-piece. As such, I am delighted to be able to offer it, in almost its entirety, in a single sale at Sotheby’s.
Nearly two years ago ago I fell in love with a recent painting by Kate Giles at the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize show at the Mall Galleries. Having bought it, despite having little vacant wall space at home, I discovered that I had broken one of my own cardinal rules; never to buy a work of art that didn’t fit into the back of a London taxi. Kate offered to help me carry it home, through the park and across the river and, having fallen for the painting, I found I had also fallen for the painter. By the time of the sale at Sotheby’s, we will have been married in St James’s Church Piccadilly and settled in a new house. Living with a painter has certainly had an effect on me as a collector: I now have a greater insight into and appreciation of a more visceral language of paint. I also feel a greater commitment to support living artists, people whose integrity and dedication I admire. Before I have only been able to do this at a remove, often posthumously, and one of the great joys of offering this collection for sale will be to see good artists from the 50s and 60s, criminally neglected until now, finally get their moment in the sun. I sincerely hope a new generation of collectors are inspired to seek out artists like John Milne Smith, an architect by training who knew and collected works by many of the great artists of his day, who is unknown purely because he would never have thought to push his own work, even though it was certainly good enough; or George Kennethson, a thoughtful and sophisticated carver in stone, who worked in splendid isolation in the Midlands with barely a thought for the London art scene.
I was not really concerned with an artist’s ‘reputation’ or their ‘market’. Some works, like Keith Vaughan’s marvellous Bar, a painting that draws you deep into the Soho demi-monde of the 50s, were major purchases and a real stretch for me (and there are a number of dealers I have to thank for allowing me to pay by instalments). Other works were bought without a second glance, but the impulse to buy was always the same, regardless of the price. My job was all about having a head for figures, so buying art had to be all about responding to an appeal, through the senses, directly to the emotions. There are artists I admire – Peter Lanyon, for example – whose work I have never owned, simply because I had never found one that I really loved and that was available. I was lucky with Vaughan – and Ivon Hitchens and Roger Hilton - as I was introduced to their work very early on, so could wait for the perfect one and still just about catch them before they were out of reach.
I’ve also not been overly concerned by the perceived ‘hierarchies’ of painting versus drawings, unique works versus prints, the ‘fine art’ of sculpture versus the ‘craft’ of ceramics. Each medium offers its own challenges and therefore its own unique rewards. In a drawing, one really sees the essence of an artist: if an artist can’t draw, then there’s something not right. The ceramics I own, I bought for their sculptural qualities – that perfect elision of mass, shape and surface. The Abdo Nagi vessel on the bookshelf and the ten-foot high stainless steel Denis Mitchell in the garden have a connection not altered by their relative values.
Some works from the collection – a small group of paintings constructions and collages by Margaret Mellis and Francis Davidson, a Hilton, a Vaughan, an Alfred Wallis, drawings by Harry Becker – will move with us to our new home, where they might find a little more room to breathe. And I will carry on collecting – although what I’m not so sure. But then this was always my modus operandi, not to have a plan and to buy what I loved. I hope that this sale will provide similar opportunities for other collectors, for chance discoveries and new paths.
Tim Ellis, London, August 2014