‘The Légion d’honneur arrived in the post’: the collection of financier, polymath and arts patron Sir Nicholas Goodison
Among his many interests, the former London Stock Exchange chairman wrote books about barometers and the decorative arts, championed crafts and modern British art — and served as chairman of the Courtauld and president of the Furniture History Society
An affectionate joke was told about Sir Nicholas Goodison in the 1980s. What a bonus that he’d written the standard reference book on English barometers, it was said: it meant he knew all about pressure.
Goodison was a remarkable individual, who didn’t lead one life so much as two: one in finance, the other in scholarship and the arts.
Between 1976 and 1988, he was chairman of the London Stock Exchange and steered that hitherto highly conservative organisation through the moment of most radical change in its 350-year history: the Big Bang of 1986.
Outside finance, he was a polymath — with a PhD in architecture and history of art — who wrote several books. These included the aforementioned English Barometers 1680-1860: A History of Domestic Barometers and Their Makers, published in 1968.
Goodison was also a keen collector of fine and decorative arts, and built up a collection striking both for its variety and its quality. He proudly displayed or used the vast majority of it in his Mayfair home, with items ranging from 15th-century Nottingham alabasters to 21st-century ceramics, via clocks, barometers, silverware, furniture, Modern British art, and more.
Following Sir Nicholas’s death in July last year, some 250 of the works he owned are being offered in The Collection of Sir Nicholas Goodison — British Art: Innovation and Craftsmanship, to be held at Christe’s in London on 25 May.
Born into a stockbroking family in Hertfordshire, England, in 1934, Goodison attended Marlborough College before going up to King’s College, Cambridge, to study classics. In 1958 he joined the family firm, HE Goodison (later Quilter Goodison), and became a partner four years later.
His first brush with collecting came on a visit to the home of a client called Ernest Prestige, in Kensington, shortly after he’d started work. Prestige was deaf, distrusted the mail, and demanded that his share certificates be delivered to him by hand.
On entering the house for the first time, Goodison was bowled over by the stunning collection of clocks. ‘I just looked and looked at these things,’ he said in later life. ‘I couldn’t believe it. It was an eye-opener, [and] I became very interested in the design of them.’
After he expressed that interest to Prestige, the latter’s hearing improved — and over the course of several months, the collector began sharing his great knowledge of clocks with the young man.
Goodison would start his own collecting journey in the early 1960s with the purchase of two longcase clocks, one from the late 17th century by Richard Greenhill, the other from the early 18th century by John Ellicott (both shown above).
Soon Goodison’s appreciation of clocks evolved into an enthusiasm for barometers, too — he admired the ingenuity of the figures who had created these objects charting time and place, as well as the sheer beauty of their designs.
For Goodison, collecting and learning went hand in hand, and in 1974 he wrote his second book, Ormolu: The Work of Matthew Boulton, a biography of the 18th-century manufacturer from Birmingham. (His updated edition of the book was published by Christie’s in 2002.)
Boulton is renowned for his splendid works in silver and, perhaps above all, ormolu (gilt bronze). He counted George III and Queen Charlotte among his most ardent patrons.
The upcoming sale features a number of Boulton pieces, including a pair of so-called ‘lyre vases’ (above) in blue john with exquisite ormolu mounting. (These would have been used to hold aromatic oils which were burned to scent a room.)
When asked how he managed to pack so much into his life, Sir Nicholas replied, ‘Well, I never read the Sunday papers’
In 1960 Goodison married Judith, whom he’d met at Cambridge. The couple had a number of shared interests, chief among them being furniture. This was Judith’s area of expertise, and in 2017 she published The Life and Work of Thomas Chippendale Junior, a biography of the son of Thomas Chippendale, the famous English cabinetmaker.
Chippendale Jr. successfully took over the family business in the mid-1770s — around the time that a mahogany armchair (below) in the upcoming sale was made. One can’t say for certain, but its design was possibly a collaborative effort between Chippendale père et fils.
Sir Nicholas was a member of the Furniture History Society from its inception in 1964, and served as its president between 1990 and 2020. This was one of several important posts that he held at arts organisations over the decades.
Others included being chairman of the Courtauld Institute of Art (1982-2002), the Crafts Council (1997-2005) and the National Art Collections Fund, now known as the Art Fund (1986-2002); he was also vice chairman of English National Opera (1980-1998).
It’s also worth mentioning the report he produced for HM Treasury in 2004, Securing the Best for our Museums. This addressed the thorny issue of how to help the nation’s museums acquire major artworks that might otherwise end up abroad. It was as a result of Sir Nicholas’s recommendations that the Cultural Gifts Scheme was introduced.
So continuously occupied was Goodison by the arts that it can be hard to believe they didn’t represent his main career. When his friend, Charles Cator — deputy chairman of Christie’s International and furniture expert — once asked him how he managed to pack so much into his life, he replied, ‘Well, I never read the Sunday papers.’
Goodison was elected to the Stock Exchange council in 1968, before becoming its youngest ever chairman (aged 41) less than a decade later. He was knighted in 1982 — four years before the moment that defined his career.
The Big Bang entailed the sudden deregulation of the London Stock Exchange, on 27 October 1986. Though it has come to be regarded since as a great success, helping transform the City of London into arguably the world’s leading financial hub, at the time there was a lot of scepticism and criticism.
‘I felt it was the right thing to do,’ Sir Nicholas said in an interview as part of the British Library’s National Life Stories project in 1997. ‘[But] I was prepared to fall if it… all went wrong. You must be prepared to fall if what you’ve backed goes wrong — that’s part of the risk. In fact, it’s the most substantial risk… of being at the top.’
After the Stock Exchange, Goodison went on to accept banking posts, as chairman of the TSB Group between 1988 and 1995, and deputy chairman of Lloyds TSB between 1995 and 2000.
All the while, he never stopped discovering areas of artistic interest. A good example was the fondness he developed in the 1990s for Modern British art, especially post-war work in an abstract vein by the likes of Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Keith Vaughan and William Turnbull (whose bronze sculpture, Ancestral Totem, is the top lot in the sale).
Lanyon was a particular favourite, and in 2015-16 Goodison was a driving force (in both monetary and curatorial terms) behind Soaring Flight, a critically acclaimed Courtauld exhibition of the Cornish artist’s paintings inspired by gliding.
Sir Nicholas and Judith were also passionate supporters of contemporary craft. In 1997, they initiated the Goodison Gift to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, through which they regularly donated new pieces of glass, pottery, furniture, jewellery and metalwork by British makers.
The sale at Christie’s offers the chance to acquire works by many of the same craftspeople (Kate Malone, Rachel Woodman and others) — works that were dotted around the Goodisons’ home.
One final accolade worth mentioning is the Légion d’honneur. Sir Nicholas received this from the French state in 1990, on the grounds that his work with Parisian counterparts during his spell at the Stock Exchange had furthered Anglo-French relations.
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‘It arrived in the post,’ he told National Life Stories. ‘I didn’t feel this was quite right, so I telephoned my best contact — I didn’t want to bother the ambassador — and said “Look, is this right? Should I not come along and receive it?” He said, “Do you want to?” And I said, “Well, it might be rather fun.” And then he named a date that I couldn’t do, so that was it. I’m a postal Légion d’honneur.’
Given Sir Nicholas’s various commitments as a scholar, collector, arts executive, philanthropist and businessman, it’s perhaps no surprise that he was busy.