Collecting stories: James Perkins

Property developer James Perkins describes how he came to populate his 18th-century country house in Oxfordshire with a variety of eye-popping collections, from stuffed animals to classical statues and antique globes

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect setting for James Perkins’ spectacular collections of Victorian taxidermy, sculpture and architectural mouldings that Aynhoe Park in Oxfordshire. The neoclassical interiors of the 18th-century house were designed by Sir John Soane, while Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton laid out the 15 acres of grounds. Every room is filled with modern art, statuary and exotic stuffed animals. A startled-looking giraffe hangs in mid-air from the ceiling of the orangery, seemingly held up by a clutch of large white balloons.

‘Rather than these pieces languishing in the basements of museums, I thought it would be fantastic to see if they would let go of them,’ explains Perkins of his menagerie. ‘They’ve got to be in a certain pose, as though if you blinked they could come to life.’ 

A crocodile stands upright on its hind legs, carrying a silver tray; a zebra wears a tiara; the heads of a hippopotamus and a leopard are adorned with a pith helmet and a fez, respectively. ‘A sort of Jumanji  moment, maybe,’ the property developer elaborates, with a twinkle in his eye.

‘This house is a bit of blank canvas, but somehow it all works together’ — James Perkins

Perkins — whose collections also includes vintage cars, photography, books and furniture — has been passionate about classical sculpture since he was a teenager. ‘When I was 15 years of age I met a gentleman called Mike Aston [a master restorer]. I had a paper round, but of course I didn’t really have any money. I saved up and six months later I bought my first bust off him. He did me a very special deal. From there I’ve built the collection up to 4,500 pieces.’

Our short film reveals a treasure trove of plaster pillars, gryphons, urns, lions, busts and horses, dominated by a statue of Hercules in the stairwell inspired by Antonio Canova’s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. The collection of casts have come from the vaults of the Louvre, the V&A and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

‘I fell in love with the medium,’ says Perkins, who is as appreciative of a piece of ceiling moulding as he is of a Medieval church frieze. ‘I’d been collecting pieces from important buildings where casting companies had realised that they weren’t going to be using their moulds any more. So I was buying all the masters. As someone who loves architecture, I could have casts of those buildings.’ One of the mouldings discovered by our camera, for example, is clearly marked, ‘House of Lords’.

‘This house is a bit of blank canvas, but somehow it all works together,’ says Perkins, and his collection of 200 well-fingered globes is further evidence of that. ‘You would entertain your guests in the library and you’d be spinning your globe around, and you’d say, “Look, this where I saw the giraffe”, or, “This where I saw a dodo,”’ he explains enthusiastically. Romance, theatre, glamour, wonder — call it what you will, there is a thread that runs through all the pieces in Perkins’ collections that make them, at the least, thoroughly entertaining.