Rooms with a View: Property from a Hampstead Collection

By Philip Hook

Sotheby's Philip Hook introduces Property from a Hampstead Collection, which will feature in a series of upcoming sales at Sotheby's.

LONDON – All collections are imbued with the personality of their owners. And sometimes there is a further distinctive dimension: a sense of the place in which they were brought together. Besides being a collection of great character and discrimination, this is also in many ways a particularly Hampstead collection, assembled and enjoyed over many years in a beautiful house in this leafy corner of London.


In the 18th and 19th century Hampstead was a village entirely cut off from the city, a place you had to walk to across open countryside, with an urchin lighting the way with a lantern. Keats lived and wrote there. A number of artists, including Constable, painted there. Ford Madox Brown set his masterpiece Work in Heath Street, Hampstead. Gradually it acquired a Bohemian, artistic character, in the 20th century home to artists such as Moore, Hepworth and Nicholson, connoisseurs such as Herbert Read and Kenneth Clark, and a large number of writers including George Orwell, J B Priestley, and the Waugh family. With the Second World War it became the de facto stopping off point for the continental avant-garde fleeing Europe – Gropius, Moholy-Nagy, and Mondrian, for instance, all stopped off in Hampstead on their way to New York. Today it remains the home of writers, actors, film directors, architects, poets and painters.

I knew the owners of this collection well, and remember the warm and civilised atmosphere of their house. They were in the art world, and as such they bought works with an insider’s knowledge as well as with natural good taste. Their appreciation of British art of the 20th century is self-evident and based on a deep understanding of its place in European modern art of the same period. Scotland was in their blood too, as is reflected in the charming Farquharson and free-spirited Peploe. And then there was the nineteenth-century copy of Leighton’s masterful The Bath of Psyche that would greet visitors in the entrance hall, resplendent on the Pugin wallpaper for the full High-Victorian experience. 

Collections that evolve and live in specific houses have a unique magic. Great things sit alongside lesser things in easy harmony, reflecting the equal aesthetic and emotional value placed on them by their owners: the fine William Nicholsons hung on the stairs alongside insignificant vernacular landscapes; the 16th Century Tibetan Buddhas looking across a room to a signature high-key still-life by Sir Matthew Smith; the charming Joseph Southall watercolours dotted amongst the bookcases full of first editions and old morocco leather bindings.

These are works that have been lived with and appreciated in their relationship to each other over many years. ‘Only Connect’, wrote E M Forster in Howard’s End, ‘Only Connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted... Live in fragments no longer.’ The owners of this collection most emphatically did that.

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