I was lucky to have an interesting childhood in that my family moved all over Europe. We lived in Brussels, Milan, Vienna, Lisbon, London. I was brought up looking at pictures in museums, and had a deep interest from the start.
One particular painting struck me early on: Paolo Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest (below), which is at the Ashmolean in Oxford. It was one of the first paintings to make use of perspective, and it somehow draws you in, but what I remember is the red jackets of the huntsmen. It’s still one of my favourite works.
I have always specialised in 20th-century British art — that is my strength and my knowledge. I think it is a kind of hidden gem: when you dig down, you find a distinct style and language.
There is a historical moment in London before the war when you have Ben Nicholson and Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth all living close to each other — and Mondrian passing through on his way to New York. Hampstead was for a short while a crucible of art, the centre of the art world.
The art schools are a crucial part of the story. Around the time of the First World War, it was the Slade: the experimental generation that came out of that school really shifted modern painting in Britain.
Later the focus moves to the Royal College of Art and the group that included Hockney and the great early Pop artists. That whole period encompasses some amazing painters. If you were to make a list of the greatest artists of the 20th century, it would have to include British figures such as Bacon, Freud, Moore and Riley.
In fact we’re offering a standout work by Riley in our 20th Century Art sale on 23 March which I really love. It’s a brilliant example of her Egyptian palette paintings from 1985 called Cupid’s Quiver. It is a beautiful, bold painting in which the luminosity of each colour — recreated from the memory of colours she had encountered in Egypt in late 1979/80 — is pushed to the extreme.
Stanley Spencer is a unique phenomenon. He’s one of my all-time favourites. First you have his early work, when he is painting around Cookham and thinking deeply about religion. Then there comes the moment when he starts painting unbelievable nude portraits of his second wife, Patricia Preece.
I am thinking of one work in particular, in which she has a knee against her chest. It is beautiful — and intimate rather than revealing. In many ways, those works are precursors of Freud’s incredibly powerful nudes.
For me it is not about the artist’s name so much as the quality of the paint. I have a picture at home by an American painter named John McDonald. It’s just a little portrait of a boy on a chair, and the artist is not someone you could say is important, but it’s a piece of work that I love, and look at every day.
‘I collect in my own specialism, which makes working at Christie’s a bit like being in a sweet shop: I am always handling amazing works that I can’t have’
You find out a lot about yourself when you climb. I became interested in mountaineering at school, and I’ve been on expeditions everywhere from the Himalayas to the Southern Alps in New Zealand.
Climbing takes you far away from the craziness of the art world, but you also learn things that you can bring to your working life. I mean, you come to see what you can achieve, and you also realise that there is nothing wrong with failure: the mountain will always be there another day.
Reaching the top of Everest was emotional. My mother had died the year before, and I wanted to get there for her. I made it to the summit about seven or eight in the morning and spent a magical hour looking down on Tibet and across towards India. Sitting up there, I could see the curvature of the Earth.
If you are in the art world, you can’t help but to want to collect. I collect in my own specialism, which makes working at Christie’s a bit like being in a sweet shop: I am always handling amazing works that I can’t have.
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I’ve long held a particular affection for an artist called John Duncan Fergusson, who could be described as the Picasso of the Scottish Colourists, a pioneering Modernist. He painted beaches, café life, and was forever sketching, so there are many brilliant drawings, fabulous depictions of the Highlands, too. My love for landscape painting is an extension of my love for mountains.
Art can surprise us and shock us. But the point is not always to challenge us in the manner of the Saatchi Sensation show. Art is also there to soothe and please. It’s a wonderful thing, the way artists can express their own voice, their unique understanding of the world, through watercolours or oils or in stone. It’s an act of creation, and if the finished work moves you, then that is something very worthwhile.