No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 15% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.
The inspiration for the collection occurred one morning in 1984, just after we had opened the gallery. Mel Gooding describes that moment in his introduction, which I had recounted to him when we first met. It came out of five paintings, one of which was a beautiful and poignant work in egg tempera by John Armstrong, Invocation, 1938, (lot 49), another the subtle, but strong, abstract by Alistair Morton, Opus 9 Red and Blue Stripes 1937, (lot 111) and a John Tunnard. My historical knowledge of the period at that time was the sketchy outline of the unstudied amateur.
First and foremost for me, as for many of my friends in the business, buying and collecting art starts with an intellectual curiosity. I do not mean this in some sort of academic elitist sense, but simply as the first step on a new adventure, setting out on the trail of discovery of both the very human history of the artist and of the point in time in the local historical setting in which painting took place. One of the great privileges of this journey of discovery has been to meet some of the artists themselves. The first was Cecil Collins. With his wife Elisabeth, this extraordinary visionary couple provided for me a safe haven of sanity in the increasing maelstrom of commercial insanity that was Thatcherism.
I try to buy my art with as innocent an eye as possible, ignoring, as best I can, any build-up of academic knowledge and judging the image as simply as possible in its own right. This modus operandi reflects in part Cecil Collins's important philosophy, as embodied in 'The Vision of the Fool'1, in which the fool, who views the world with the pure eye of childhood, is untainted by the loss of innocence that besets us all as we mature into the knowledge of survival that is the human condition. The Peace of the Fool, (lot 4) was the very first and also one of the finest of the series of Fool drawings that he made to illustrate this important philosophical essay, first suggested by his wife Elisabeth, which was created in the darkest days of the war and sheds some rays of hope on the madness of civilised man.
The collection grew throughout the 1980s, and with it my understanding of the climate of the times in which it was created. It was almost certainly a perfect moment to form the collection. We were generating enough profits to bury a proportion in non-trading stock. The market was raging, but mainly focused on impressionism and post-impressionism. There were opportunities to buy from the great dealers, such as the Mayor Gallery and Andrew Mackintosh Patrick's Fine Art Society. The focus of the market was elsewhere and since I try to buy the very best with my limited budget, buying against the market has always been one of my favoured gambits. Toward the end of the 1980s I had accumulated about 250 paintings, which I photographed and pasted up in sets of large folders in an order that made visual sense to me.
For a year or so I could find no one who understood the point of the collection, until I met Mel Gooding in 1989, who not only immediately understood but created the most accurate and emotive chapter-headings and synopses for a projected monograph. Mel's wife Rhiannon is the daughter of Ceri Richards, whose work I had come greatly to admire. Mel, in turn, introduced me to Michael Rothenstein and his wife Sam, who also became important friends to my wife Renate and I. Michael explained how he had painted three watercolours on the joyous V.E. Day, of which lot 234 is one. The personal messages imbued in such an artist's paintings become clearer on getting to know and to like them personally. This friendship led me on to create, with Mel, and install Michael's great one-man show at the Royal Academy in 19922.
Another artist that I found the courage to contact was Felix Kelly. I have always had an affinity with his strange and rather unsettled images and was lucky enough to buy two of the stronger images that I knew from the Falcon Press monograph on him, published in 19463. I suggested that I meet him and bring all the paintings now in this collection (lots 35, 175, 178-179, 269, 271-272) and leave them with him for some time - a sort of mini private retrospective. He explained to me about Lower Soar Farm (lot 175, see footnote), information that would be lost to history but for this one occasion. He described how, when he had been stationed there, he had an exhibition opening in London. He had asked his commanding officer if he could attend the opening and was told that he could not have leave to do so, but if the officer did not see him until the day after next he would not notice. On arriving at the gallery early the next day he found it had been bombed (a similar incident had happened to Cecil Collins). I was curious to know why this New Zealander, who had come to London aged 19, and who told me that he had no artist friends except Keith Vaughan, (with whom he shared a love of cars and worked with at the Lintas advertising agency before the war4) had been chosen by Herbert Read to illustrate his one little philosophical book, The Green Child. Herbert Read was the most lucid and important champion of contemporary British art between the wars, the John Ruskin of his era, and had had his pick of every major living artist. I am not sure that I was given the answer, but Felix Kelly did agree that in his paintings there was an extra-visionary sense beyond the norm.
These vignettes represent a few of the highways and byways through which I have journeyed in this twenty year adventure. We bought Mel a tape recorder to record interviews with the artists, and some of these were to become part of the Artists Lives Collection in the National Sound Archive. (His interview with Victor Pasmore was a lot more exciting and successful than the short sharp shock that I received on telephoning that sometimes irascible master.)
For the first half of the 1990s, the collection hung cheek by jowl in our warehouse in Islington, where academics, museum curators and directors came to study it. The legendary director of Guggenheim Bilbao made a special trip and a young curator at Tate Britain used the philosophy to re-hang several galleries. The Yale Center for British Art not only came but kept my volumes for two years whilst they added to their collection. Although I rejected advances to sell individual works, I did, however, allow the Imperial War Museum to buy a work by John Tunnard that they coveted. Paintings were loaned to twenty-four museum exhibitions worldwide, some containing as many as from fifteen to fifty works from the collection.
Why, it might be asked, is the work of artists such as John Tunnard, John Armstrong, Robert Colquhoun and Alistair Morton so strongly represented in the collection? Well, there are the acknowledged heroes, the most obvious being Paul Nash, undisputable as one of the greatest artists in Britain in the 20th century, and there are other artists of subtle strength and undeniable quality who are unsung heroes (whose time nevertheless always comes; they are, in art market terms, simply the late developers). If they were to be added to the collection, then there was another simple requirement: they needed to be affordable and available. I bought my first John Tunnard in the late 1960s and have steadily accumulated them ever since, sometimes acquiring them reasonably and sometimes paying a world record price, as I did for his great masterpiece, Painting No. I, 1939 (lot 100). Alistair Morton, Ben Nicholson's friend, and as good an artist, was also available and became a favourite of mine; and I have always adored John Armstrong's tempera images that seem to deeply reflect a very personal reaction to his times. For me, not only are Colquhoun and MacBryde (lots 218, 220, 250, 252, 254, 256-257 and 251 and 260 respectively) wondrous draughtsmen, but they were the artistic centre of the extraordinary bubbling cauldron of that most creative moment in the contemporary arts in Britain, Soho in the 1940s and early '50s.
The whole point that this collection, and each work within it, demonstrates is this: that every work of art bought is the beginning of an adventure, in the same way that reading the first paragraph of a good book takes you on a journey to un-thought-of places. I swore that I would never break up the collection and have tried, for fifteen years, to raise the money in order that a museum could display it as a study collection. But, then again, one of my guiding principles is that art should be redistributed so that everyone has a chance to live with it and enjoy it. So my first principle has overtaken my last! 'Sell and regret' is the first rule of art dealing, but ultimately Renate and I will have sold without regret, for the whole experience - one of the great adventures of my life - will remain with us.
1 C. Collins, The Vision of the Fool, London, 1947.
2 London, Royal Academy, Michael Rothenstein's Boxes, Spring 1992.
3 F. Kelly (H. Read intro.), Paintings by Felix Kelly, London, 1946.
4 Lintas was the precursor to the agency J. Walter Thompson.
The Poetry of Crisis; The Peter Nahum Collection of British Surrealist and Avant-Garde Art, 1930-1951
by Mel Gooding
'One day, after I had laid five or six pictures against the wall of my gallery, I had an instant flash of realisation: of a common bond uniting all the works. This link did not relate to the normal stereotypical pigeonholes that academics are so fond of - Surrealism, Neo-Romanticism, Abstraction etc. - but ran across them all: the link was an emotional one. I saw beneath each painting the extreme pressures of the times. I saw young men in their formative years growing up through an era of exceptional emotional and psychic pressure'
The beauty of any remarkable collection lies not simply in its gathering together of individually great works, but in the critical light it throws on the works thus brought together. This light is generated by the intelligence, sensibility and taste of the collector, or of those - dealers, critics, connoisseurs - who have advised in its collection. A personal collection of quality does not necessarily have - and does not need to have - the historically representative virtues of a museum collection; it enthrals, enlightens and educates us in the way of a brilliant conversation rather than in the programmatic manner of an academic art historical exposition. It will quite likely include minor works that illuminate its underlying thematic impulse and which enable us to figure the meanings and feel more clearly the power of the greater works it contains. And its historical importance will be determined, above all, by the ways in which it modifies, however subtly, our understanding and appreciation of the art - of whatever time and kind - it exemplifies.
In its concentration on a pervasive spirit and mood, irrespective of categories of style and school, Peter Nahum's collection, Poetry of Crisis, achieves just this distinction. Its title was intended to convey that the work it contains - mostly British paintings and drawings from the mid-nineteen thirties to the end of the 'forties - was characterised by a distinctive poetic response, discernibly typical of its time and place, to the prolonged crisis of those dramatic years. By 'poetic' I mean intensely personal in feeling, emotional in tone and emotive in expression, and tending in its imagery towards the metaphorical or symbolic. It is, nevertheless, an art of actuality, the product of the consciousness and vision of individuals whose work reflected the intensities of extraordinary historical circumstances. What was the experience they shared in common with the others of their generation, the 'crisis' of which their art was a crucial expression?
To begin with, it was of the darkening time in Europe that Churchill described as 'the gathering storm': the years of Depression, the defeat of Republican Spain, the triumph of fascism and the beginning of the war. For many British artists this finally shattered the progressive optimism that had been a key aspect of their growing participation in an international artistic project that encompassed each of the great competing Modernisms (Cubism, Abstraction, Surrealism etc.). British art in the late '30s increasingly reflects the disquietude of the time; the landscape becomes a metaphor for alienation, natural forms seem animated by some malevolent or violent force: the British pastoral is infected by a mood of foreboding.
Secondly, it was the shock and awe of the cataclysm of war, in which the ordinary was often heroic, and in which nature, architecture and industry alike were both compacted and dislocated in elementally destructive concatenations. With a renewed and sharpened sense of national identity came an intensified consciousness of the vagaries of individual destinies. The war put everything, national, social and personal, into hazard. The careers of most British artists were disrupted, and the radical humanism of Modernism gave way in many cases to private poetics expressed in psychologically-charged imageries of sinister landscape, perturbed topographies of urban ruin. Some artists persisted in ordered abstractions, as if in a kind of heroic denial, others concentrated on a clear-eyed and phlegmatic documentary realism of places and events on the Home front or in the theatres of the world war.
An atmosphere of crisis continued in the dark aftermath of war, with the revelations of the camps, the apocalypse of the Atomic Bomb, the visions of civic destruction, the years of austerity. Artists turned then increasingly to an often anguished expressionist imagery of the human body. But in the late '40s there were signs of a new spirit, a renewed optimism. There was an affirmation of the pleasures of peace, which climaxed in the brave post-war optimism of the Festival of Britain. Though the figurative 'geometry of fear' and the glum realism of 'the kitchen sink' were to have their fifteen minutes of Biennale fame, the fifteen years of crisis whose powerful and disturbing art is so richly represented in this collection, and which is now definitively documented in this catalogue, was at an end.