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A Dealer Recalls...
On 11 December 1970 a rusty blue van stopped outside The Fine Art Society, allowing us to read the crudely applied inscription on the outside: Rumpus Cat Eating Tables for the Cat who has Everything. In came a very youthful Warner Dailey, antique dealer, fixer and erstwhile partner in business with his companion. Dailey introduced this companion as Malcolm Forbes, who was then younger than I am now by nearly a decade, and who admired the painting by John Burr, The Peepshow (lot 255), that was then hanging in our shop window, priced at £650. Forbes secured the picture with a cash deposit of £20, and Andrew McIntosh Patrick trustingly allowed him to bear it away in triumph on the promise of a cheque for the balance being forthcoming. The same blue van has a more personal place in the younger Forbeses' memories, having occasionally acted as a dormitory when Dailey's then girlfriend, Cordelia, declined to have Malcolm's sons cluttering up her floor in their sleeping bags.
Andrew's faith was justified, for this was the first transaction of thousands over the next three decades. In 1971, the year that Old Battersea House was acquired and the first full year of our relationship, the Forbes name appeared a mere twenty-six times in our sales book, but after that the pace of acquisition increased. The variety of the Forbeses' collections is now legendary, but at that time it appeared to us to be almost arbitrary in its range: tinplate toys and lead soldiers; pictures of the Franco-Prussian War; Orientalists; Impressionists; documents, books and photographs relating to Winston Churchill, John Galsworthy, all the American Presidents, and matters of global significance; the entire history of ballooning; the legitimate Kings of France, as well as the Emperors and pretenders; wine; Fabergé; Royal underwear; together with dockyard models of ships, chess sets, furniture from the seventeenth century to Fornasetti, and sculpture of every description. The list, if not endless, was certainly mind-boggling to a young man who thought he was a picture dealer but who, on one memorable occasion, found himself holding the feet of a hyper-realistic sculpture by John de Andrea of a beautiful naked octaroon girl in a natural, relaxed pose while she progressed down Bond Street to the amazement of shoppers and taxi drivers alike. I also recall that I had the sculpture's merkin tucked into my top pocket like a handkerchief. Her fate was to share a vast office in Manhattan, lying on a red plush couch, with a handsome stuffed tiger. Both are long since departed from the Forbes Collection, and how impossibly incorrect it all sounds in 2003, but what fun it was nearly thirty years ago.
Although Malcom Forbes was a collectors' collector and a creator of collections sans pareil, what marked him out from the crowd was his energy and enthusiasm. He shared his enthusiasms with his family and with us, and he also encouraged his children to collect in their own chosen fields. As he has explained elsewhere in this catalogue, Kip Forbes had already decided that British Victorian art was a fascinating and neglected field, and had determined, with his father's encouragement, and with the happy coincidence of the newly-acquired Old Battersea House as a potential depository, to pursue the then largely forgotten Olympians of Queen Victoria's Royal Academy.
When the builders finally departed from Battersea, I was part of the team that carried in and hung the nascent collection that was to grace the walls for the next thirty years. I recall there being not many more than fifty pictures at that time. Among them was the enormous John Phillip, The Early Career of Murillo (lot 8), which, when it was moved many years later, shamed me by revealing that, in the rush to prepare the house for its first formal reception, we had raided the builders' supplies and hammered six-inch nails into the seventeenth-century panelling in order to hang it.
From those innocent days onwards the Collection continued to grow, reflecting the knowledge, energy and enthusiasm of its protagonist, Kip Forbes. Kip frequently telephones from New Jersey at five in the morning, but a more civilised ten o'clock in London, whilst en route to an airport - a routine with which he is only too familiar - in order to discuss a possible purchase, often in a sale that is about to commence in London, or will do in Paris in a few hours' time. Somehow he always judges the timing perfectly, and whilst I may have irritated many an auctioneer's clerk and even bought 'blind' on occasion, I do not recall any incidences where we were too late when it really mattered. Often the thrill of the chase may have been temporarily suspended by the fear of not arriving in time, but the result has generally more than made up for the worry.
So much of the enjoyment derived from The Fine Art Society's connection with the Collection has come from sharing it with others. There are, out there, many thousands of afficionados who, when they read of this sale, will say proudly to their friends and family: 'I was there, I know those pictures'. With extraordinary generosity, any group or charitable body that could demonstrate a proper interest in the Collection has been encouraged by Kip Forbes to visit the house and to subject its members to my rambling discourse. Kip provided the house, the Collection, the wine and me, and over the years considerable sums have been raised from tickets bought by members of such august bodies as the National Art Collections Fund or the Friends of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Gallery, the Royal Academy and myriad others, all at no cost to those bodies. It has been a feature of these occasions, many of which became annual events, that visitors would come back time and time again, delighting in the changes that had been wrought in the intervening year by new acquistions, the departure or return of loans, and other causes.
The Forbes family have always been the most generous of lenders to exhibitions. When, in the 1970s, the Japanese were discovering the pleasures of British painting, many of those touring exhibitions were underpinned by loans from Battersea. Exhibitions travelling through the USA, though they sometimes resulted in large parts of the Collection being absent for more than a year, were readily accepted by the Forbeses. Scholars such as Dr Susan Casteras, John Christian, Lionel Lambourne and others were encouraged to use the Collection as a resource to be tapped; every museum and art gallery was given access and their requests facilitated; and the foreward by Kip Forbes in this catalogue is but the latest in a distinguished series that he has written, proselytising on behalf of Victorian painting. If the charm and beauty of Victorian art are much less of a mystery to audiences all over the United States than they were, it is largely due to the wonderfully selected and themed exhibitions drawn from the Collection that have criss-crossed that country since the first exhibition of its kind, The Royal Academy Revisited, was held at The Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 1975. This of course was to lead to a certain amount of rehanging. Indeed the walls have sometimes appeared to me to be in a permanent state of flux, and our visitors would often comment that they were puzzled at not being able to immediately find some favourite picture. I have even been accused of selling the one work that they had come to see without telling them first! Perhaps this sale will be their opportunity to fufil a secret wish, and not only see but own that favourite work.