Rebecca Willer: A Life in Collecting

Rebecca Willer: A Life in Collecting

We sat down with gallerist Rebecca Willer to talk about the origins of her collection, bringing remarkable objects together and the artist pieces available in the online London Showroom.
We sat down with gallerist Rebecca Willer to talk about the origins of her collection, bringing remarkable objects together and the artist pieces available in the online London Showroom.

Can you remember the first piece that ignited your passion for collecting?

As a child I was already an inveterate collector. Rocks and minerals, shells, leaves, seed pods and flowers from nature trips. All beautifully arranged and labelled, of course. But the first inklings of collecting ‘man made’ objects and artefacts evolved when my mother showed me all of the beautiful hand woven and embroidered textiles she had inherited from her mother and grandmother. Each with a story.

Rebecca Willer. Photographed by Sarah Weal, 2020.

Fitting then that the first collection I embarked on as a young adult, in a quite haphazard but satisfying way, was of antique textiles, from tiny fragments of antique paisley shawls to elaborately embroidered Chinese robes. I still have many of the pieces.

When did you first decide to open your gallery?

I decided to open the gallery in 2003 when at a crossroads. I had given up the City many years before, my sons were about to leave home, the photography locations business I had run for years in our previous home was not viable once we sold that house, and I had come to the end of a series of building, designing, and collecting projects which left me with a considerable knowledge of contemporary artists and makers, and a very particular point of view, but no outlet for the material.

Paul Philp ceramic vessels, Claudy Jongstra felted wool and silk throws for Willer. Bill Batten.

I walked past a commercial building for sale very near our new home and decided on the spot that I would buy it and that a gallery, in some incarnation yet to be decided, would be the perfect answer to my conundrum.

Through your gallery you must have forged relationships with lots of artists and creators. Do you often meet the artists you collect?

In fact, if practical, I make a point of meeting the artists I collect and represent. The understanding of each artist’s methods and approach to their work adds even further to the appreciation of their pieces. There is often so much more time and effort and skill involved than one can even imagine when admiring the work ‘cold’. Many of the artists have become great personal friends, always an unexpected and special gift.

In terms of living with the pieces you acquire, do you often rehang and re-evaluate your collection as you discover new works?

I am forced to in order to find room for them! I mostly add. And am always rewarded by finding new ‘pairings’ and relationships that are surprising and which often improve on the previous arrangements. What does always amaze me is how well, at least to my eye, the very disparate pieces I have selected over decades work together. There is a consistency, but I have never been able to fathom what it is. One day a disinterested third party may be able to explain it to me.

The exterior and interior of Willer at 12-14 Holland Street, Kensington, London W8. Sarah Weal.

Can you tell us about a typical day in the life of Rebecca Willer?

I kept a very boring diary many years ago where each entry began ‘up early’. And so it has continued. Fortunately, there is no typical day. The calendar is always sprinkled with meetings with artists, clients, interior designers and architects, at the moment most often on Zoom. Some are tedious, others inspiring, but no two are the same. And in between, the often mind numbing detail and administration required for running any business. But I do enjoy the challenge of anything that involves numbers and, must admit, a good spread sheet gives me some pleasure.

And then there was the travel. The icing on the cake that has been taken away during the pandemic. I will value all aspects of it afresh when it returns. Definitely no longer to be taken for granted. The visual stimulation of being in different places, meeting new people, visiting old friends, seeing wonderful things, making new discoveries.

Raphael Tapestry. Bill Batten.

What one piece of advice would you give to somebody who wanted to begin collecting art?

Whatever you are considering it must ‘speak to you’ and, at some indefinable level reach you and move you. You won’t be able to explain how or why, but you will know.

How does one successfully mix different styles and genres in a home environment?

Practice, practice, practice. Move things around, see what pleases you. Be bold. Don’t worry about what other people think. And then look and see whether the ‘mixes’ you find most satisfying contain common elements you can turn into your own ‘rules’. For landscapes of objects my basic ‘rules’ (often broken) include the standard ‘odd numbers are easier to work with’, ‘pay attention to varying height and depth’, and ‘keep it simple’.

Is there anything that you’ve ever seen that was love at first sight and you had to have it, or something that you would save from a fire?

I have a huge threadbare 18th Century toile peinte (poor man’s painted tapestry) and a very wrecked late 17th Century tapestry, probably Brussels or Gobelins, after a design by Raphael. The original was commissioned by Pope Leo X, Giovanni de’Medici and hangs in the Vatican. Finding walls for them is always my first priority when considering a new house. I have wasted many hours staring at them. Which takes me full circle back to my first ‘proper’ collecting of textiles.

Massimo Micheluzzi ‘Mosaico’ glass, Paul Philp ceramic sculpture, Lynn Chadwick limited edition bronze candle holder C146. Sarah Weal.

Do you have a particular artist, school or period that captures your attention at the moment?

I am very committed to the work of the artists I have represented over many years. Amongst others, the Lynn Chadwick bronze candle holders and sculptures, the glass of Massimo Micheluzzi, the ceramics of Paul Philp, the textiles of Claudy Jongstra, and the unsung but no less impressive makers of our exclusive hand made tableware ranges.

If I could afford to collect anything? I think sculpture maquettes by artists I admire and by unknowns, from ancient to contemporary. There is something about the immediacy of the work and the textures that draws me in.

Claudy Jongstra vegetable dyed felted silk and wool throw for Willer.

Let’s talk a little bit about the artists you are highlighting in the showroom, in particular, Claudy Jongstra. How did this relationship come about?

I was first introduced to Claudy by a Dutch colleague who knew her work. I trawled the internet, today’s first port of call, to see examples. I was intrigued by what I saw, was particularly drawn to her wonderful colours (all natural plant dyes) and what looked to be superb and often surprising textures, so difficult to communicate in 2D. I contacted Claudy, we met, I was able to see a wonderful selection of her textile art in the flesh, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Her work never disappoints and always surprises and delights the senses. Her innovative solutions to a myriad of challenges in a wide variety of spaces in her site specific work, her always tone perfect response to very different situations, her ability to work at both small and gigantic scale all enhance her wonderful ability to transform humble felted wool into beautiful works of art.

20th Century Design

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