Falling in Love with Art: The Pleasure of Collecting Paintings | Painting
SSome people are art collectors. I am not one of those. I’m not rich enough and even if I was, I’m not interested in this kind of acquisition. I’m just someone who likes photos a lot and buys as many as I can. Naturally, it depends – mainly – on my funds at any given time. But not exclusively. When my passion first overwhelmed me, after all, I was about as broke as a salaried person could possibly be.
It was 1992, and I was a trainee journalist in Glasgow, where I rented a small room, from the single bed of which I could see everything I had, that is to say mainly a pile of letters from my bank informing me that I was overdrawn. I don’t remember if the idea of traveling to the Jura to write about Julie Brook, an artist who lived and worked in a cave on the uninhabited side of the island, was my idea or that of my editor, but anyway , I was crazy wanting to make history, especially because I knew that was where George Orwell wrote 1984. Of the work of my interviewee, I had rather less knowledge. Apparently she enjoyed building stone structures on the beach which she would then set a fire in, the idea being that as the tide rose it would briefly look like flames were rising from the sea itself.
I arrived by ferry. Julie had walked to Craighouse to meet me, and in her hotel bar we talked, and she showed me some pictures of her land art, which was indeed dramatic. Then she took me outside, where huge oils were leaning against a wall.
That’s when it happened. Standing in front of a painting of two salmon, my heart started racing. “I would like to own this,” I heard a voice not unlike mine. “But I have no money.” Julie must have, I think, felt my desire, which was extreme. She didn’t hesitate either. “Pay me in instalments,” she said. That’s what I did, for the next 18 months.
It was pretty crazy. Why was I buying this huge canvas when I had nowhere to hang it? Specifically, why was I spending money I didn’t have? But even though I could hardly justify what I had done, I didn’t regret it either. I was… relieved to have the painting in my possession, a feeling of satisfaction that only grew when I transported it to Glasgow, then, a few weeks later, I drove it to London in a hired car (I moved again). When friends noticed it, their disbelief (“you…bought this?”) only kindled a kind of mad pride in me. Better my salmon than any number of Top Shop dresses.
For a while it was the only art I had. But in my thirties, finally sated, I started buying more. An abstract print by Victor Pasmore (it was less fashionable then, and its prices less crazy). A tiny oil of an old-fashioned newsstand, its window adorned with tinsel, by no one you’ve ever heard of. A portrait of John Aldridge, one of the (very) lesser known artists associated with Great Bardfield in Essex. In each case, the feeling was the same. If a vaguely affordable image speaks to me, my fingertips seem to tingle and burn. I’m like Raffles, the gentleman thief, in the presence of a diamond tiara.
It’s always possible, if you’re smart, to get amazing things for the price of a few easyJet flights (I’m including taxi to the airport). I have a drawing by Edward Burra that cost me less than £200; I bought it from Abbot & Holder in Museum Street in Bloomsbury, where I have had great luck over the years (Tom, who now runs it, is very knowledgeable, but also very kind and not intimidating). I haunt auctions and online sales – for the latter I recommend Liss Llewellyn, who specializes in 20th-century British art – and favor galleries outside of London, such as Zillah Bell in Thirsk, Yorkshire. , which houses an archive of works by Norman Ackroyd. , master of aquatint.
But my collection is not about big names. For me, value has nothing to do with fame. There’s something exciting about hanging a photo you’ve saved up and saved to buy next to one you paid £50 for at a street market, and finding both equally beautiful; it’s like having a secret. I have a few photos of fairly well-known artists (although I won’t name names here). But one of my most beloved finds – a delicately beautiful 1939 engraving by an unreadable artist of Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron, Israel/Palestine, where I lived as a child – I picked up for 40 £ at a Suffolk antiques fair. Friends who were there will testify that I nearly fainted from excitement when handing over the money.
The judgmental cliche says that a person can spend money on things or they can spend it on experiences. But a painting is both. Ben Nicholson thought people should hang a picture on the wall and “eat their meal with their backs to it every day for a month.” Only then would they know what they think of it; whether dead or alive. I think he was right. A painting will seem to change as you live with it. Like someone you’ve known for a long time, he’ll always be able to surprise you.
Perhaps you will move it to a new place; perhaps the light will move, falling on it in a new way; maybe you’ll find yourself staring at it unexpectedly as you try to remember why you were going upstairs. In any case, you will see him again, and suddenly interest and affection will rise in you. Before you know it, you’ll be back in the first wave of love, thrilled by the absolute rightness of your own taste; because your eyes and your heart once whispered to you, and now insistently repeat to you.
How to do
Many art history or art appreciation courses are offered, including those in courtauldthe Royal Academy of Fine Arts, London University of the Arts or the national gallery. Most are online.
For more hands-on activities, To create is a charity that helps disadvantaged and vulnerable people access the arts. SpaceAction is for artists with learning disabilities and Association for Cultural Advancement through the Visual Arts runruns educational arts programs for diverse communities. Most local art schools also run evening classes.
If you want other deep dives into the art world to inspire you, Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talk about art podcast is enthusiastic and accessible, while Great female artists podcast tells shamefully neglected art stories.