Art Historian, Curator, Writer and Museum Director, Simon Martin, is Director of Pallant House Gallery, in Chichester, which has one of the best public collections of Modern British art. He has curated many exhibitions and written widely on art. Here he talks about Modern and Contemporary Art Collections, looking closely at the collection at Pallant House Gallery, other famous private collections, as well as taking a look at our upcoming Modern and Contemporary Art sale and how auctions can help people build collections.
Simon has written widely on art, including books and catalogues on the artists Edward Burra, Gluck, John Minton, Eduardo Paolozzi, John Piper, Colin Self, and Clare Woods, and historical studies such as Conflict and Conscience: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War, and The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950. He serves on the Fabric Advisory Committee of Chichester Cathedral and the Courtauld Association Committee and was a Trustee of the Charleston Trust until July 2021. He studied at the University of Warwick and the Courtauld Institute of Art.
His latest book Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists is published this October in association with Yale University Press and explores natural history illustration from Thomas Bewick to Eric Ravilious, Clare Leighton and Gertrude Hermes, with an introduction by Sir David Attenborough.
Looking through the Modern and Contemporary Sale on 12 October 2021, it is pleasing to see numerous artists whose work is represented in Pallant House Gallery’s collection of Modern British and contemporary art – Alan Davie, Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink, Leonard Rosoman, Victor Pasmore, John Piper, LS Lowry, Peter Blake, Damien Hirst, and Tracey Emin, to name just a few.
It is a reminder that museum collections are often formed through donations from private individuals who have acquired work in auctions such as this. We say that Pallant House Gallery is a ‘collection of collections’ – one that not only tells the story of British art from 1900 to now, but also has something to tell us about taste and about collecting.
For an institution that is not quite forty years old, we have managed to acquire nearly 5,000 artworks with virtually no acquisitions funds, but instead through the generosity of a small number of dedicated collectors. When people visit for the first time, they often say that it is like visiting a collector’s home, for as public museums go, Pallant House Gallery is an unusual mix of domestically scaled interiors and white cube contemporary galleries.
In the elegant, panelled rooms of the Queen Anne townhouse, they might encounter portraits by Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach; landscapes by Ivon Hitchens and Michael Andrews; sculptures by Barbara Hepworth and Rachel Whiteread; and abstracts by Keith Vaughan and Prunella Clough.
Our history is not necessarily made up of billionaire collectors, but largely of people of relatively modest means who had a good eye and bought at the right time. These range from the Revd. Walter Hussey (who had commissioned artists such as Marc Chagall, John Piper and Henry Moore whilst he was Dean of Chichester Cathedral), to Michael Woodford, a former school caretaker who spent all his savings on buying prints by Pablo Picasso and Graham Sutherland. However, most of these collectors had particular interests and passions on which they focused.
The architect Colin St John Wilson and his wife MJ Long formed one of the greatest private collections of Pop Art paintings and prints, forging friendships with artists such as Richard Hamilton, Patrick Caulfield, RB Kitaj and Eduardo Paolozzi. Charles Kearley cannily collected works international by international modern masters such as Cézanne, Gino Severini, Paul Klee and André Derain, ticking each off on a handwritten artist wish list. When planning displays and exhibitions the collection is like a pack of cards that can be cut in any number of ways, with a myriad of pairings and themes that can be explored to ensure the experience is always fresh and unexpected, even when it features familiar favourites.
Being interested in the history of collecting, I was interested to see the fascinating provenance of some of the items in this sale: the Duane Michals (Lot 374) and Harry Callahan photographs that were formerly in the collection of Sir Elton John (Lot 375), the group of paintings by Arthur Delaney (Lots 229-249) from the collection of the bookmaking magnate, boxing promoter and nightclub owner Selwyn Demmy, and the Boyle Family relief formerly in the collection of the philanthropist Sir Peter Moores (Lot 282). Ownership becomes part of the history of a work, and so I always enjoy seeing the labels on the back of a frame as that can reveal so much.
Having organised numerous exhibitions of overlooked artists over the past twenty years, it is also interesting to see a group of works by members of the East London Group (Lots 64-80), such as Elwin Hawthorne, Lilian Hawthorn, Walter Steggles and Henry Silk, whose work is becoming better-known and which will be the subject of an exhibition at the Beecroft Gallery in Southend this winter.
Collecting can inspire creativity and Pallant House Gallery’s current major exhibition Ben Nicholson: From the Studio (running until 24 October), sponsored by Dreweatts 1759, explores the relationship between Nicholson’s paintings, drawings and reliefs and his collection of still life objects: patterned mocha-ware jugs, mugs and cut-glass decanters. These domestic objects have now become highly collectable in their own right, but for Nicholson they were a stimulus for his art, inspiring his journey towards abstraction from highly realistic early paintings (recalling the work of his father William Nicholson who is featured in this sale) to his later reliefs and etchings.
Over the winter the exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking will feature over 100 prints by 80 different artists that have been donated to the Gallery over the past forty years, from an early etching by David Hockney created in 1961 whilst he was a student at the Royal College of Art, to Lubaina Himid’s response to last year’s lockdown Birdsong Held Us Together. It includes one of the prints included in this sale (Peter Howson’s powerful woodcut The Noble Dosser) and demonstrates how collecting through a democratic and affordable medium can amount to something art historically significant: a history of Modern and Contemporary British art through prints.
Tuesday 12 October | 10.30am BST
Donnington Priory, Newbury, Berkshire RG14 2JE
Browse the auction
View page turning catalogue
Sign up to email alerts
Sign up for auction alerts and our monthly newsletter to receive expert analysis and insights from our specialists and keep up-to-date on forthcoming auctions, valuation days and previews.