A Modern British passion: The Allen and Beryl Freer Collection
Assembled over a lifetime, works from this famous collection of Modern British paintings, prints and drawings — many of which were bought directly from the artists — come to auction on 23 January in London
Until recently Allen and Beryl Freer lived in a detached Sixties house in a suburb south of Manchester, in the northwest of England. The modest frontage of their home offered no clues as to the treasures inside.
The hallway, sitting room and large dining room extension were densely hung with pictures, including works by some of the most celebrated names of Modern British art — Ivon Hitchens, Winifred Nicholson, Prunella Clough, John Piper, Eileen Agar and John Craxton, among others. So too were the bedrooms upstairs, with the main bedroom containing some of the best and most intimate of the Freers’ substantial collection of paintings by John Nash, one of Allen’s favourite artists.
‘There was so much to admire, that trying to list it in my mind afterwards, I scarcely knew where to start,’ recalls art critic Andrew Lambirth, who first visited the Freers in October 2007.
Collecting pictures was not the couple’s only passion. Ceramics, glassware, art books and Allen’s own bookbindings and treen (wood turnings) adorned the shelves and mantlepieces.
‘There [were] no empty spaces — pictures [were] even hung on the sides of bookcases and beside windows,’ recalls Dr Catharine Davies, the Freers’ eldest daughter. ‘Having a mirror or a cupboard was much more of an issue growing up — that meant a challenge to much needed wallspace!’
Allen Freer began his working life as an English teacher, and then, from 1962, as an Inspector for English for the Manchester Education Committee, where his job involved ensuring poetry and art were part of the school curriculum.
For much of their married life, Allen and Beryl Freer surrounded themselves with art. The origins of their splendid collection of 20th-century British art are found in Allen’s early interest in all types of printmaking. One of the first prints to enter the collection, in 1951, was an original lithograph by Vanessa Bell. Works by Edward Bawden, William Scott, Eileen Agar and others soon followed.
‘This interest went hand-in-hand with a passion for private press books and the art of illustration,’ explains Lambirth. ‘From that base, [Allen’s] collecting branched into painting and drawing, and he bought widely but discriminately, whenever possible from the artists themselves.’
‘Only buy what you like to live with,’ Allen once replied to an enquiry about which artists to invest in. ‘There are no guarantees.’
For the Freers, meeting artists and exploring their workplaces was an integral part of the collecting journey. ‘The artist and his/her world was just as important [as a purchase] and many became friends,’ recalls Mary Freer, the couple’s youngest daughter.
Allen and Beryl would journey across the country, often with their children in tow, to visit artists they admired in their studios. Along the way they met John Nash, Henry Moore, Josef Herman, Winifred and Kate Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens and Michael Ayrton, among others.
As the collection expanded, so did its notoriety. Keen to share it with as many friends and acquaintances as possible, the Freers delighted in throwing open their doors. As a consequence, a cohesive display became increasingly important.
‘Like the best flower arrangements, a display of pictures needs to be carefully done but appear to have come together naturally,’ notes Mary. ‘Dad was very good at this.’
It is not the only thing that he is very good at, for Allen Freer is also a distinguished watercolour painter, specialising in landscape subjects and miniatures. He has exhibited widely and enjoyed a succession of solo shows across the country. ‘It was the experience of painting that gave him the knowledge and confidence to relate to the artists whose work he collected,’ affirms Catharine.
In addition, Freer purchased and commissioned art on behalf of Manchester City Council and organised exhibitions of artists he admired, including John Nash, Winifred Nicholson and Edward Bawden. In 1993 he authored The Delighted Eye, a monograph on John Nash, and in 2007 published an annotated edition of Nash’s wartime letters to his fiancé.
The Allen and Beryl Freer collection grew and fluctuated as needs required, but it has always remained what Catharine describes as a ‘lively and vivacious creation, a series of interactions of pictures, objects and people.’
On 23 January, works from The Allen and Beryl Freer Collection are offered in a dedicated auction in London. ‘Everything has been lived with, has lovely provenance and is beautifully presented,’ says Rachel Hidderley, Senior Director of Modern British Art at Christie’s. ‘With many works offered at accessible price points, we expect interest from both new and well-established collectors in the category.’
Leading the Freer collection is an important group of paintings (including early watercolours) by Ivon Hitchens, best known for his panoramic canvases celebrating the Sussex landscape of woods and water.
Allen Freer knew Hitchens for the last seven years of his life. ‘As a consequence,’ Lambirth explains, ‘he was able to build up a holding of Hitchens paintings and works on paper of considerable range and interest.’
Still Life with Azaleas (above), painted by Hitchens in 1931, is one of the standout works in the collection. ‘It has a hard-edge definition of form not found in his later work,’ explains Lambirth of this early flower painting. ‘The colour is carefully arranged in rich contrasts, but does not yet have the spontaneous brushing and soft edges of the later flower pictures.’
Further Hitchens works coming to auction include Woman and Child (John by Jordan Series) (1942), one of an extended series of paintings of Mollie Hitchens and their son John; and two further flower paintings in oil — Still Life with Lilies (1935) and Two Poppies (1935).
Other notable highlights include Red and Black (1953), a small but magnificent painting by Terry Frost, dating to his Corsham period; and Winifred Nicholson’s The King’s Road, an abstracted still-life set on a window sill from 1925. This composition is one of only a small number of townscapes painted by the artist. ‘All painting is to me painting of air and sky — that holds colours and light — not pictures of objects,’ the artist once said.
A grouping of early watercolours by John Nash (1893-1977), the younger brother of the more famous Paul Nash, will also be offered for sale. Among the highlight lots are Interior of a Wood, Whiteleaf (1919), an attractive landscape depicting the beech woods at Whiteleaf in the Chilterns; Misbourne Valley, Chalfront St. Peter (1915), an unusual study of a landscape executed in what Lambirth describes as ‘bruise-blue ink’; and Tuscan Landscape (1915), above.
Sign up today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
The inspiration for the latter dates from a trip Nash made to Florence in 1914 after the success of his joint exhibition with his brother Paul at the Dorien Leigh Gallery in London (November 1913). ‘Clarity of drawing and controlled use of colour add to the image’s authenticity and appeal,’ says Lambirth.
Keith Vaughan, with whom Allen enjoyed a cordial relationship, is also well represented in the collection. Study of a Woodman in a Clearing (1955), above, is a typical Vaughan gouache study of a figure in a rural setting, while Welsh Industrial Landscape (1951), a gritty mixed-media work, illustrates the influence of Graham Sutherland on Vaughan’s practice.