Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
I met Neil for the first time in 1991. Aged twenty-six, he had already been working for some years at Christie’s South Kensington, and when his boss, Alex Meddowes, came to run the Victorian picture department at King Street, he brought Neil with him. Before long Alex left for a new posting in Scotland, but Neil stayed on. There were only a few of us in the department, and each had a role to play. Martin Beisly, our leader, was the brilliant business-getter and salesman. Jane Hollond ensured that everything ran smoothly. This was before the days when ‘administrators’ as such existed, but she was one avant la lettre, performing her duties with a touch of eccentricity that did nothing to make her less efficient. My job, as ‘consultant’, was to research and catalogue the more valuable or interesting pictures (by no means always the same thing).
Neil’s contribution, if more varied, was no less essential. Well-informed about Victorian paintings, watercolours and drawings (and we handled the lot; no nonsense then about separate departments), he was laid-back and totally unflappable, invaluable attributes when catalogue deadlines were looming, pictures needed last-minute research, or owners were dithering about whether to sell their treasures anyway. Nor were his lot-gathering skills by any means negligible. His calm, authoritative manner reassured would-be vendors, and he could disarm the most recalcitrant with quiet good humour.
Neil, in short, brought sweetness and light to circumstances that were often potentially explosive, while adding substantially to the merriment that was never far from the surface. It was only twenty or so years ago, but the milieu in which we were operating already seems remote. There was still life in the ‘old’ Christie’s. Many of the pressures that beset us now had not yet reared their heads. Things were simpler, less fraught, less controlled, and we laughed a lot.
The highlight of Neil’s time at King Street came in December 1992 when we sold the remaining contents of Penkill Castle, Ayrshire. Located four miles east of Girvan, with Ailsa Craig in the Firth of Clyde visible in the distance, this miniature schloss had been the home of the Pre-Raphaelite painter William Bell Scott and his mistress Alice Boyd, whose family had owned it since the thirteenth century. Alice’s brother, Spencer Boyd, had rebuilt it in the 1850s, causing it, with its spiral staircase, steeply-pitched roofs, turrets and crenellated battlements, to look like something out of Disney or the Brothers Grimm. Scott and Alice had lived there for thirty years, initially using it as a summer retreat and sharing it with Scott’s wife in an amicable ménage à trois, then, after Mrs Scott’s death, as an elderly married couple in all but name. Meanwhile many of their Pre-Raphaelite friends had come on visits: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his sister Christina, William Holman Hunt, Arthur Hughes and others.
Having helped with the catalogue, Neil, Jane and I went up to view the sale, being joined at Penkill by Neil McRae, who was working for Christie’s in Edinburgh. It was a cold wet winter day but we all fell in love with the place, exploring the castle and the glen carved by the Penwhapple Burn that had inspired D.G. Rossetti’s poem The Stream’s Secret when he was staying at Penkill in 1869. But for Neil, a Scot by birth and an out-and-out romantic by temperament, Penkill represented more than a beguiling, end-of-season adventure. Its geographical position, fairytale appearance and Pre-Raphaelite associations combined to move him deeply, seizing his imagination to the point where he later tried to buy it. To see him installed as laird of Penkilll would indeed have been a joy.
Having worked at Christie’s for a decade, Neil left in the summer of 1996 to set up as a dealer in Victorian pictures and drawings. He traded under the name of Campbell Wilson in recognition both of his Scottish ancestry and the fact that his mother, Margo Campbell, was deeply involved, giving it her moral support and financial backing. From the outset he showed a genius for the work he had undertaken. His former colleagues at Christie’s had long been aware that he nursed dealerish ambitions, but I doubt if any of us had anticipated how quickly he would make his mark, emerging overnight as a major player with an instantly recognisable taste and style.
Dealing had been one of the most vibrant expressions of the Victorian revival that had gathered such a head of steam in the 1960s. Thirty or more years had since elapsed, however, and those who had pioneered the field had aged, retired, or, in some cases, died. Even the stock of the survivors tended to look staid and predictable.
Into this lacklustre scene bounced Neil, young, full of enthusiasm, catering for a new and equally keen generation of collectors, and with a view of Victorian art that was nothing if not personal and idiosyncratic. He was never doctrinaire, and, like every dealer, his offerings were subject to availability. Nonetheless his primary concern was one specific area: the romantic tradition which, rooted in the work of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, had flourished in the late nineteenth century and persisted well into the twentieth, resisting, with astonishing tenacity, the blandishments of French realism and the modern movement.
As it happened, I had curated an exhibition on precisely this subject in 1989. Entitled The Last Romantics (a phrase borrowed from Yeats) and mounted at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, it had impressed Neil deeply; he was even kind enough to describe the catalogue as his ‘bible’. But he was prepared to go further than I was. I had fought shy of the wilder excesses that some of these artists had indulged in, finding them vaguely embarrassing and excluding them from the show. Neil had no such inhibitions. He loved the wackier manifestations of late British Symbolism, and would search out and celebrate the exponents with what sometime seemed reckless abandon.
Not that he lacked discrimination. He knew a good picture from a bad one as well as the next man, but he was prepared to be tolerant, even to operate tongue-in-cheek, and if collectors wanted the more outré examples of this particular aesthetic, who was he to deny them? He was a good businessman as well as a fine scholar and connoisseur. Nor would many of his discoveries, outré or otherwise, have been made without the oxygen of commerce that he provided.
Inevitably I saw less of Neil after he left Christie’s, but I was aware that he had married Becky and had three children: a step-daughter, Manon, and two little boys, Inigo and Archie, whom he adored. I also knew that he occupied a series of enviably beautiful houses. A Georgian terrace house in Southwark was followed by one in a stuccoed Regency square in Brighton, which in turn was exchanged for the Castle of Park in Aberdeenshire. Even in his Christie’s days Neil had been something of an interior decorator, and I could imagine these homes done up in style. But they offered more than a choice environment. Georgian houses, he would say, ‘are not practical, with all their stairs and small rooms, but I love them’. Castle of Park must have been a surrogate Penkill, and satisfied some of the same yearnings.
The care that went into Neil’s domestic surroundings also found a place in his dealing. Presentation, if not ‘everything’, was vitally important. He offered wall-to-wall service, and his pictures invariably appeared in public looking their best. His frames were always handsome, and often seemed to be specially designed. I once bought a drawing from him but returned the frame, feeling it was a little above my station.
Perhaps it is no surprise that, with his charming houses and beloved family, Neil was happy to deal from home. Besides, he believed that for those potential buyers who sought him out it often helped to see a picture in a domestic setting since it gave them some idea of how it would look at home. Otherwise, he relied on fairs, appearing regularly at Olympia, the London Watercolours and Drawings Fair, the BADA fairs in Mayfair and Chelsea, and the Birmingham NEC. He also issued catalogues, sometimes themed, sometimes featuring a variety of recent acquisitions, but always as elegantly presented as the pictures themselves, paper, images and typography all being of the highest quality. Unlike many dealers’ catalogues, these were ones you wanted to keep.
And now this gallant, not say quixotic enterprise is no more. Fairs are duller affairs without Neil’s presence. Even from a distance his stands stood out, their walls aglow with Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist pictures in golden frames. And Neil and Margo, invariably his assistant on these occasions, always made you welcome. There was generally some new discovery to marvel at, perhaps to smile at if it was one of Neil’s more uninhibited flights of fancy. Or some question of attribution might await you, to be mulled over not only with Neil but with the other aficionados who buzzed like bees round the honeypot of his stock.
I miss all this, but I shall not of course forget it. Neil’s legacy is a lasting one. Encountering the Victorian revival at a certain stage in its development, he nudged it forward into hitherto unchartered territory, stamping it with the impress of his own personality while instructing, delighting and amusing us in equal measure. ‘A very Neil Wilson picture!’, someone is bound to exclaim if a work in his characteristic taste pops up in the warehouse at Christie’s. To the end of my life I shall be seeing ‘Neil Wilson pictures’, and thinking fondly of my old friend himself.
Neil died peacefully in his sleep on the night of Monday, 16th June 2014, while this catalogue was in preparation. He would have been forty-nine on 12th July.