David Ross at home in Nevill Holt Hall, a 13th century manor house, which serves as the backdrop for Ross’s extensive art collection. Photograph by Kate Peters/Institute.
LONDON - When David Ross takes on a project, watch out. In 1991, shortly after graduating from Nottingham University in the east of England, he and a school friend opened a shop to sell mobile phones – then about the size of bricks – that they called Carphone Warehouse. Soon there were hundreds, then, thousands, of Carphone Warehouses; the business became Europe’s largest mobile communications retailer and made Ross one of Britain’s wealthiest individuals.
“It worked out OK,” he says with humorous understatement on a late November afternoon in his office on a prime block of Piccadilly. Boyishly blond and powerfully built, he has just come back from a visit to his alma mater, where something else has worked out pretty well.
Pop Art to Britart: Modern Masters from the David Ross Collection, opened on 23 November and runs until 9 February at the University of Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre – an event officially inaugurated by Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, no less.
Ross’s collection is regarded as one of the most important assemblages of late-20th century and contemporary British art in private hands, and was put together in little more than a decade. “I started collecting in the beginning of the 2000s,” he says. “Before then I had some interest in art, but not the means.”
Around the same time, Ross found another reason to collect. He bought a 30,000-square foot house that was completely empty, Nevill Holt Hall. A Grade I-listed manor in Leicestershire, it dates from 1250. In the 20th century, it had been the home of a boy’s preparatory school.
The exterior of Nevill Holt Hall. Photography by Kate Peters/Institute.
“After the school was closed, the house had sat completely empty and looked slightly unloved,” recalls Ross. “I thought it would be a great project to turn it into something that was loved. And it was in a part of England that is about halfway between where I was born, in the North, and London, where I am based now.”
Fortuitously, as he mulled over what to do with the house, he met some people who had pretty good experience filling up a large domicile. “I was lucky to be invited to have lunch with the 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. They told me about how the collections at Chatsworth had been built over generations, but also about how they had added to it in their lifetime. Unlike some other country houses, Chatsworth is very much a living collection. The Duke and Duchess saw it as their responsibility to keep the collections current, as a way to reflect what was happening during their time and generation. I was very interested to hear how they continued to build the collections, and how much pleasure they had got from that.”
After that lunch, Ross debated areas in which he might focus his acquisitions. “Should I buy European pictures? Should I make it a global collection? In the end, I decided the most credible thing for me to do was to build a collection of British art.” But Ross adopted rather specific parameters for his collection. “For various reasons, I became intrigued with the idea of collecting pictures that had been painted during my lifetime, which meant works created from 1965 onwards.”
Ross quickly began amassing choice works, with a particular focus on Pop Art. Artists he collected in depth include David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake.
Nevill Holt Hall reflects Ross's passion for contemporary British art. The walls are graced with works by Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Peter Blake among others, with many works currently on public exhibition at the University of Nottingham's Lakeside Art Centre until 9 February.
Early on, he also became enamoured with the work of Bridget Riley, whose work he became fully aware of when he saw a retrospective at Dia Art Foundation in New York in 2000. “I was quite blown away by the breadth and the scale of it. I was inspired by the depth of her work, too, and how her career had progressed through her lifetime. She is a genuine innovator.”
But his attachments to some of these artists forced Ross to slightly reassess his parameters. “I realised Hockney and Riley had done some of their best work in the early sixties. They weren’t looking at their watches thinking, ‘Well, it’s not 1965 yet. So we’re not going to create our best stuff.’ Thoughtless of them!” He says with a laugh. “So I did a revision and decided not to be religious about this 1965 thing.”
In addition to significant works he has also acquired by the so-called YBAs (Young British Artists), including Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and Gavin Turk, Ross’s collection is certainly up to the minute. Some of it is being painted right now in artists’ studios he maintains in his house in London and at Nevill Holt Hall. “I always have artists-in-residence working in the studios,” he says.
Ross values the personal interaction this allows him with the artists – many of whom have become friends – as much as their work. “We’re all born with different talents. The thoughts and points of views artists have are very different from those of a commercial person like myself. I really enjoy talking to these people who have a 180-degree different perspective on the world from me.”
The walls of Nevill Holt Hall are graced with works by Patrick Caulfield, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Bridget Riley and Peter Blake among others, with many works currently on public exhibition at the University of Nottingham's Lakeside Art Centre until 9 February.
In recent years, Ross has made Nevill Holt Hall a lively home for the performing arts, too. Last summer, Nevill Holt Opera presented Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the old Stable Block, which has been converted into a 350-seat theatre. This summer, La Bohème and The Turn of the Screw will be among the offerings.
The festival is now a summer favourite for local residents, as well as the Old Boys – the Nevill Holt alumni – who relish the chance to return to their old academy. Ross likes the company. “These big places are at their best when they are shared with many people,” he says.
Clearly, Ross leads a big life. In addition to maintaining directorships at several large British companies and trusteeships
at cultural institutions including the National Portrait Gallery, he has become one of the country’s leading educational philanthropists. The David Ross Foundation is now directly responsible for running 27 charter schools, with some 10,000 students.
Passionate about sport, he is also one of his country’s most effective athletic supporters. In addition to serving on the board of the British Olympic Association, he was the Mayor’s Representative for the planning of the 2012 London Olympics.
His good works notwithstanding, “playboy” is a word the British press has used to describe Ross, citing the beautiful models he has dated and his frequent sightings in Mustique, Verbier and other spots. Ross does not seem to mind the sobriquet. “Well, I am unmarried,” he deadpans – just before mentioning he is about to jet off to Miami for Art Basel.
Glamour quotient aside, it is touching to hear him speak about returning to Nottingham, and why he decided to allow the first public exhibition of his collection there. “It is a place with which I have a long emotional relationship,” he says. “But I went up to the opening with some apprehension. When you start collecting pictures, you never think that one day a public gallery will want to display them. So when one did, it was like, wonderful . . . but what if nobody likes it? It was a bit of a double-edged sword.
“But when I saw all the works up, I was really delighted. The pictures looked different against blank walls and I could see them with some objectivity. It looked like a sensible collection.”
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair.