Why did you start collecting Indian art?
V.S. Naipaul: My background led me to take an interest, a kind of dull interest, in Indian art. Dull because it was uninformed. Then I met Len Deighton, the thriller writer, at dinner many years ago. He demonstrated to me that Indian art could really be approachable. I bought from [antiquarian book seller] Maggs because of Len Deighton pushing me onto [them] as being a very fair dealer, saying that they do not charge you much more than they should. That’s a marvellous thing to be told.
What is it about a painting that makes you decide you want to buy it?
Its quality, its technique... I can tell you now, there’s a lizard at [the former antique dealer] Spinks. And this lizard is most beautifully painted. All over the body of the lizard [are] different colours. It’s very hard to resist a painting like that.
Was the aspect of investment in your mind when purchasing paintings?
No. I wanted to possess them. It’s the thing about the ancestral wish to deal with material related to oneself that is important. I wish I was [a collector who has sold to improve the collection]. I think it would be a very good thing to do. I am an accidental collector. It’s just accident.
Why do you need to own a painting?
For the simple foolish reason that you’ve begun to buy these pictures, so you want to add to what you have. You feel compulsion once you have started.
I am an accidental collector. It’s just accident.
Did you prefer buying from a dealer or auction house?
An auction house I preferred every time, because I was freer to choose how I was going about this purchase. By that, I mean I was a freer man. When going to Maggs, good as they were, I was a prisoner of their choice and their taste. And I didn’t like that. These pictures in a dealer’s office have already been selected by him. The auction is wider.
Was there a conscious eclecticism in what you were buying?
No. I bought just what appealed to me, and I let it be like that, you know.
Do you ever still have the urge to add to the collection?
That’s something else that’s happened to me: I’ve stopped buying. I don’t look at any painting [of mine] on a regular basis. I look at it from time to time. I can’t remember now if it changes when I look again. But when looking again recently at the Fraser picture I was dazzled and thought it extraordinary. Look at the colours. I am so glad I bought it. It was a good choice. I no longer even look at the catalogues. The paintings I chose are still important to me. They come with all sorts of associations. Why should other people know what I have? I’ve kept them in one house and I closed up the house and closed up the cupboards in which they were, rather like an old-fashioned Japanese collector’s cupboard. That was their home.
Is there anything that you regret about the collection?
Yes. I think when I was starting I made a colossal error. I followed the critics, the famous critics, and they were Ananda Coomaraswamy and Coomaraswamy’s wife and follower Luisa Runstein. They made me believe that Moghul art was worthless. They made me believe that anything that’s pretty and immediately attractive is probably also worthless. That’s how it came to me, what they were saying. And so because of that advice, which, being young, I obeyed, I missed wonderful pictures which I could have bought in the 1950s and 1960s.
Do you know what you want to happen to the collection?
Yes. Very selfishly, I’d like them all to stay together. I’d like to be able to walk into a room in a museum or some similar place and look at them. I would like to do what I was never able to do in my own house because I never had the space. Never had a big enough house. I’d like to have that. I don’t want to lose them; I want to see them, in whatever part of the world would keep them for me. I love the pictures. I would like to look at them often enough so I was satisfied I understood them or understood how they were done. I would like them to become more part of me.
Photography by James Mollison. Interview William Robinson
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