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THE COLLECTIONS OF NIALL HOBHOUSE
Some twenty years ago, Niall, godfather to our eldest son, Tom, gave him a present which encapsulated those qualities that make for Niall's distinctive taste - objects that are beautifully made, created by someone with a particular vision, elegant, quietly but insistently commanding attention, and containing a wide range of associations. Definitely not a conventional present, nor conventional taste. No, something that distinctly combined both aesthetic and intellectual pleasures. In Tom's case a diverse run of literature published by Everyman's Books, recently reinvigorated by Niall's friend David Campbell. These volumes with their elegant typeface and crisply designed covers provided an immediate aesthetic pleasure especially when contrasted with the stuffed animals and riotous colour of the Thomas the Tank Engine duvet which then held sway in his bedroom. Intellectual pleasures were to be found thereafter and ones of Hobhousian diversity - who could think of more contrasting 'exiled writers' than Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Albert Camus. Indeed the volumes, so carefully chosen, were to provide a wide spectrum of what great literature could be rather than tying our son down to any particular school or form.
Thinking of Niall's taste, reflected in the objects offered it is clearly made up of many facets yet there are consistent qualities, reoccurring benchmarks, that seem to affect his judgement when acquiring works of art. He tends to weigh up each piece's credentials. What it looks like, who might have created it, what is its background, where has it been and what it communicates about all those factors. One suspects that hundreds of objects have been mentally and intellectually sifted. Most discarded in his search for the unusual. It has been a rather restless approach but it has borne dividends in the strengths of the individual objects and the character they possess. It is exclusive in that the ordinary and the repetitive have been dismissed and objects that do not combine both aesthetic and intellectual properties have failed to gain admittance. It is, though, a wide ranging catholic taste, created on knowledge of specific areas built up at certain times but none discarded as new interests have emerged. You cannot talk of Niall Hobhouse's collection, but rather of his collections. That is not to say they do not co-exist together - indeed the contrasts and juxtapositions are what make the assembled material so exciting, and because of Niall's formative years the range is both idiosyncratic and highly diverse: here West really does meet East.
How did this come about? The clue lies deep in Niall's background. Whilst growing up in a world of aesthetic privilege - born in a beautiful part of the English countryside, his grandparents living only a few miles away in one of this country's most beautiful houses, holidaying in the Western Isles, educated amongst venerable buildings and experiencing European travel, he seems early on to have taken all this rather for granted. It was instead the world of literature that entranced him - somewhere different that he could call his own. By the time he came to London in his early twenties his world was of books, shared with his lifelong friends such as Candia McWilliam, Cassandra Jardine and Fram Dimshaw. But exactly at that moment, life took an unexpected turn through another literary friend, the publisher John Calman. It was he who almost inadvertently led Niall towards art dealing both through introduction to his father, the great dealer Hans Calman, whose enthusiasm for the chase and sale of works of art made him such infectious company and to Giles Eyre whose sideways approach to the art world clearly held an appeal for Niall. In the late 1970s and 80s the art world in London was expanding. New areas of interest were being opened up, pioneered by unlikely enthusiasts. Giles was one of them, building up a successful business based on Anglo-Indian art - a subject all but forgotten had it not been for the ebullience and enthusiasm of Mildred Archer at the India Office Library. The aesthetic historical and intellectual properties of the subject were fascinating in their own right but given added piquancy through the questing for material which largely disappeared from the daily art market. This intoxicating brew was exactly the right mixture to galvanise the young Niall into becoming a knowledgeable dealer. The small gallery of Eyre and Hobhouse as it became in Duke Street was the hum of activity. Exhibition followed exhibition with heaps of material stacked up in the basement awaiting research by Niall and a growing number of addicts.
Through the gallery, Niall met some of the most forward thinking collectors and decorators of that era. Anglo-Indian art was a brand new area of interest still ignored by many connoisseurs but intensely fascinating to others who admired both the impact the subcontinent had on European artists and in equal measure the impact European artists had on native painters and craftsmen. The works of art they produced had very individual qualities setting them apart from the normal 18th and 19th century canon. This had an overriding impact on Niall's aesthetic judgement, evident even now in the unusual selection of works of art that he surrounds himself with. It was during this period that his own collection started to grow, siphoned off from the business. With anyone familiar with Niall's series of London bases at this time - almost invariably unusual, obscure and discreetly impressive (like his art collection) you became familiar with the growing collection of Anglo-Indian art that lined his walls. It is no accident that some of the best and rarest Thomas Daniell views of India which are offered here, were acquired during these formative years.
In time the artistic boundaries of the gallery began to broaden - exhibitions were put on devoted to living artists like Teddy Millington Drake and Melinda Patten. Equally, Niall's eye might be caught by an unusual item turning up on the market whose potential he would recognise, as the London sign designs which emerged as part of Lord Clark's collection in the early 1980s and which were exhibited as Specimens of Genius truly English in London and New York in 1984. The catalogue for that show was a hallmark of Niall's style; well produced on 18th century laid paper, crisply but informatively foot-noted, and containing an excellent ground breaking-essay by Niall's friend Celina Fox.
The broadening of Niall's artistic boundaries from East to West, continued with his decision to join Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox in the mid 1980s. The company's reputation was one that appealed as it was built on their own idiosyncratic and selective take on western art - oil sketches, French 19th century drawings, terracottas and the unusual bywaters of Italian Art. It was a natural home for Niall with his unusual approach to art and the art market. India had already taken him to the world of plants, bugs and animals and his years at Hazlitt's would equally introduce him and his clients to a growing range of interests (in terms of his interest in botanical items we enter the Hobhouse world of chicken and eggs as it is difficult to establish whether Niall's interests fostered those of his mother, Penelope Hobhouse, the gardener, or vice versa - certainly the walls of her Drawing Room were hung with almost abstracted watercolours of Indian plants - did she collect these or did Niall give them her, either is both possible and probable). The Hazlitt years also witnessed an emergent interest in architecture, design and particularly of architectural drawings. The activities of new friends such as John Harris at the RIBA drawings collections was a definite stimulant - Niall is a gregarious animal and if there is any overlap between his interests and others, strong friendships are born. This said, the immediate cause for Niall's architectural interest came through the possibility of buying a vast accumulation of such works formed by the late bon viveur, Lodewyck Houttaker. The prolonged negotiations, sometimes frustrating, and involving innumerable journeys to Amsterdam and more soused herrings and gin than is good for you, certainly gave Niall the time to absorb and become fascinated by another new world - that of European Architectural draughtsmanship. What fascinated him, and this is typical of his elliptical approach, was that these drawings could embody the intellectual heart of a scheme - the moment when the architect's mind was fully engaged on his vision, not blunted by either the process of building or the need to negotiate his thoughts with a patron. As earlier with his India collection so too here, architectural drawings became part of his private accumulation not least the spectacular vision conjured up by Joseph Gandy. Yet again he also pushed out the boundaries making discoveries especially with designs for furniture, silver and other works of art. He again was following his own instincts. Twenty-five years ago there was almost no commercial interest in such works falling between the Old Master drawings market on one side and the somewhat conservative market of silver and objects on the other. It is such gaps in people's knowledge and appreciation that seem to spark Niall's imagination and collecting flair.
It would seem that each decade, something occurs in Niall's life to both broaden his horizons and set him on a slightly different course. In the early 1990s it was to be the death of his father and in its wake his decision to base part of his life on the family estate at Hadspen. By this time it would have been surprising if he had just accepted that he had inherited a beautiful house and simply rearranged the inherited furniture, giving the rooms a lick of Farrow and Ball. None of this of course happened. He consciously stood back, thought things through and took his own stance on the house, the family collection and the surrounding landscape.
Hadspen had been in the family since the late 18th century. The rich mercantile Bristolian Hobhouses acquired a ready-made estate with a stunning Palladian house sheltered beneath the escarpment in north Somerset between Wincanton and Castle Cary. The house, well known and admired for presenting such an enviable ordered façade to the passing world, had been encircled by the famous garden designed by Niall's mother. However, beyond this perfect vision of England lay something of a muddle which in turn seems to have authorised Niall to make radical changes. The principle rooms did not work particularly well, the Dining Room 'stole' the best garden aspect, the entrance hall was dim and ill proportioned and the rear of the house - the less said the better. It was also the repository of the family's possessions, the good, the polite, the poor and the unusual. Niall winnowed out the good and the unusual and said goodbye to the rest in a house sale. He then, in league with the doyen of Roman decorators, Federico Forguet, and the young Soanian, Ptolomey Dean, set to work creating a succession of memorable rooms. This also provided a stimulus to further collecting in the worlds that have become familiar, India in the East, and architectural designs and models from the West. His by now formidable eye and encyclopaedic knowledge were put to the task of discovering unusual furniture, paintings and works of art for the new interiors. There were no boundaries to his taste, what mattered was the quality and distinctiveness of the pieces themselves. The rooms at Hadspen were full of the unusual and delightful from the sunrays in the carpet of the Grande Gallerie to the table designed by Frank Brangwyn's studio. Like much that Niall has accomplished, it was to be a passing phase, but one of intense activity and enjoyment. The house first sang with builders and then with decorators and finally with Niall and all those patient movers and hangers who set about creating those distinctive rooms that enliven the pages of Interiors and House and Garden in the late 1990s.
Of late the entrance hall was dominated by the presence of Javanese Courtiers, seeming waiting to be called, each as stationary as the fossilised remains that hung pendant over the mantelpiece. In the adjacent Library the walls were thickly hung with both West and East - architectural drawings jostling with prints and watercolours of India and the near east. Just sufficient space was left for the sketches of Sir Walter Scott that he had inherited from his forbears. These ancestors were provided seats 'in the gods' in the Morning Room where they surveyed unusual pieces of European and Indian furniture which created unusual points of interest in this harmonious classical interior with its delicate plasterwork and enviable proportions. In the adjacent new Dining Room, based on Soane's Breakfast room in the architect's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, hung the neo-classical designs for silver by Moitte. The furniture here was equally distinctive - the 19th century table with its exercise of legs beneath and the Danish neo-classical chairs upholstered in local Castle Cary horsehair.
Upstairs was equally beguiling with its bedrooms often gained up small staircases. Each had a distinctive melange of Indian and English furniture ranging from the 17th to 20th century - from rich neo classical mahogany to the palest of Arts and Crafts Oak. Here you found the exotic languor of a 19th century Maori girl as well as the urgency of Brangwyn's Stations of the Cross.
At Hadspen, West certainly met East. The trajectory of Niall's personal exploration of both European and Indian sub continent's aesthetics creates a series of highly personalised interiors. There was no attempt made to 'blend' the objects, rather they stood out in strong juxtaposition creating unfamiliar contrasts.
It was perhaps predictable that Niall's enthusiasm for repopulating his house with idiosyncratic pieces - what John Stefanides would call 'the oddities' - would run away with him. In search of the 'right' objects, he would occasionally buy alternatives - luckily there were outbuildings at Hadspen to take occasional refugees. No definitive solution was eventually sought and indeed as the project neared fruition, Niall's life and interest took another turn. It could perhaps have been predicted. The sight of Peter Smithson's skeletal tower, rearing up among the parkland trees was a definite clue. Niall's aesthetic and intellectual searchlight had cast its beam across another area - contemporary design. In London this meant involvement with the LSE's Cities Program. In Somerset it would mean the recasting of a 19th century farm building into an unusual living space replete with glass underlit floors, moving walls and slate hot water tubs in which to immerse yourself after a hard day's work. This naturally had an effect on the direction of the collection and that same curiosity and restlessness which had characterised all his previous endeavours were brought to focus on what lies behind the creation of a new aesthetic. Architectural drawings and models witnessing the creative process have been sought out and purchased and at Hadspen itself the famous walled garden was gutted to form the basis of the Parabola Project which has brought in its wake a large corpus of highly original designs. This is a typical Niall project - something that engenders a number of approaches, something that has no absolute answer, something that stimulates both Niall and us in its wake and has certain iconoclastic potential. Here as in every aspect of his life, Niall is involved in an intellectual and aesthetic search where the multiplicity of possibilities is in fact the end game.
Hence no collection but collections, West and East. This is no butterfly approach. Serious new interests are not just taken up, absorbed, lived with and abandoned. Each element has left an indelible mark. His characteristics do not alter, his friends remain unchanged, his excitement for literature had not diminished and above all his continual quest for a whole range of objects - a range that has expanded dramatically over the years - remains embedded in his enthusiasm for West and East. In this sale he gives the buyer the opportunity to select pieces for their own collections that will have a similar impact. Whilst he says goodbye to their physical ownership, the experience of having owned them will undoubtedly inform the development of his taste in whichever way it runs in the coming years.