SSome people are art collectors. I am not one of them. I am not rich enough and, even if I was, I am not interested in this kind of acquisition. I’m just someone who loves photos a lot and buys as much as possible. Of course, it depends – mainly – on my funds at any given time. But not exclusively. When my passion first overcame me, after all, I was about as broke as it was possible for an employee to 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 owned, which was mostly a bunch of letters from my bank informing me that I was in the open. 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 this was where George Orwell wrote 1984. Of the work of my interviewee, I had rather less knowledge. Apparently she liked to build stone structures on the beach which she then set a fire in, the idea being that as the tide rose it would briefly give the impression that flames were rising from the sea her- same.
I arrived by ferry. Julie had walked over to Craighouse to meet me and in her hotel bar we talked, and she showed me some photographs 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 raced. “I wish I had 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 installments,” she said. This is what I did for the next 18 months.
It was all pretty crazy. Why was I buying this huge canvas when I had nowhere to hang it? Specifically, why was I spending money that 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 which only grew as I transported it to Glasgow, and then, a few weeks later, I drove it to London in a rental car (I was moving again). When friends noticed it, their disbelief (“you… bought this?”) Only made me feel like mad pride. Better My Salmon than any number of Top Shop dresses.
For a while, it was the only art I owned. But in my thirties, finally more flush, I started to buy more. An abstract print by Victor Pasmore (it was less fashionable then, and its prices less crazy). A small oil from an old fashioned newsagent, her window adorned with garlands, by no one you have never heard of. A portrait of John Aldridge, one of the (many) lesser known artists associated with Great Bardfield in Essex. Either way, the feeling was the same. If a vaguely approachable image speaks to me, my fingertips seem to tingle and burn. I’m like Raffles, the thief gentleman, in the presence of a diamond tiara.
It is always possible, if you are smart, to get amazing things for the price of a few easyJet flights (I include the taxi to the airport). I have a drawing by Edward Burra which cost me less than £ 200; I bought it from Abbot & Holder in Museum Street in Bloomsbury, where I have been very lucky over the years (Tom, who runs it now, 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 I favor galleries outside of London, like Zillah Bell in Thirsk, Yorkshire. , which houses the archives of Norman Ackroyd’s work. , master of aquatint.
But my collection is not about the big names. For me, value has nothing to do with fame. There is something exciting about hanging a photo you saved and saved to buy next to one you paid £ 50 for in 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 drop here). But one of my most beloved finds – a delicately beautiful engraving from 1939 by an artist whose name is illegible from Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron, Israel / Palestine, where I lived as a child – I bought for £ 40 at an antique fair in Suffolk. Friends who were there will testify that I almost passed out with excitement when I handed over the money.
The judgmental cliché is that a person can either 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 “have their meals back to back every day for a month.” Only then would they know what they thought about it; whether he is dead or alive. I think he was right. A painting will seem to change as you live with it. Like someone you have known for a long time, they will always be able to surprise you.
Maybe you will move it to a new location; maybe the light will move, falling on her in a new way; you might find yourself staring at him 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 will be back in the first surge of love, delighted by the absolute correctness of your own taste; because your eyes and your heart once whispered to you, and now repeat it to you insistently.
How to do
Many art history or art appreciation courses are offered, including those from the Courtauld, the Royal Academy of Arts, London University of the Arts or the national gallery. Most are online.
For more practical activities, To create is a charity that helps disadvantaged and vulnerable people access the arts. Action Space is for artists with learning disabilities and Association for cultural promotion through the visual arts runs educational arts programs for various communities. Most local art schools also run evening classes.
If you want to be inspired by other sources of inspiration in the art world, Russell Tovey and Robert Diament’s Talking Art podcast is enthusiastic and accessible, while Great women artists podcast tells shamefully overlooked art stories.