My grandparents had no art on their wall except an unknown reproduction of a Paris street, which hung over the fireplace. Their apartment was stripped of all beauty. This is not a criticism, it is simply an observation, a fact, so my father’s art education as a young man was looking through art books in the Vaughan library at Harrow School. His dream was to create a collection that would give enjoyment to those who viewed it. More than anything it was his ambition.
His first serious purchase was Alfred Munnings, Hop Pickers Returning, c. 1913. Oh how he loved this painting. He used to take me by the hand when I was about five into the drawing room and asked me to look up at the painting and ask whether I could see the figures move; I could. I saw them literally glide across the painting and I imagined their story unfolding in front of my eyes.
While it was Sir Alfred’s painting that sparked his passion to collect it was Mark Gertler who turned art collecting into a lifetime’s passion. Everything about Gertler fascinated my father; Gertler’s impoverished Jewish upbringing in London’s East End, like that of his parents, his complicated melancholic love story, his tragic end, but above all his talent. He experienced that sensation when you find an artist and you feel it is your own secret, that no one truly understands his worth and you’re okay about it because you don’t have to share his work with everyone; this is how he initially felt about Gertler. A human condition that when you’ve discovered something special, you don’t want to let it go.
As the years passed and his collection of Gertler pictures grew he felt a shift with everyone he mentioned the artist to. They wanted to see his work, and many a time I remember seeing people visit his home simply to see his paintings. There was no longer the desultory wave from an art critic’s left hand but a growing consensus that Gertler is one of England’s most important painters of the last century. In his will Edgar bequeathed two Gertler portraits: The Artist’s Brother Harry holding an Apple to Tate and Self-Portrait with Fishing Cap to the National Portrait Gallery.
Edgar encouraged many young artists and often went to shows to buy as much to be supportive as believing in the talent. But fundamentally his acquisitions reflected his taste. He loved popping in to The Fine Art Society on Bond Street in search of furthering his art education and in the hope that some of its art would eventually hang on his wall. It was there he regularly met its director Peyton Skipwith who encouraged him to buy Gertler, Bomberg, and Sickert, which he did. Having been entrapped by Gertler he then fell for his contemporary David Bomberg, a similarly brilliant and complex artist. Bomberg’s Siloam and The Mount of Olives remained my father’s favourite from the day he bought it. The light conceived on the canvas reminded him of the region’s heart and the biblical history that so fascinated him. For Edgar, owning a fine painting was just the start.
He once said to me how envious he was of people who had never been to Venice, because of the thrill that awaited them on experiencing it for the first time. He felt the same on first seeing a painting he loved.