I love art.  Paintings.  When I was very young, I used to wander round my Uncle’s studio soaking up the brilliant colours, and the intoxicating smell  of turps and oil paint.  For most of my subsequent life, I have always been surrounded by the colour of modern paintings.

Alas I cannot paint myself.  Maybe that is why, when I was at University, I started collecting.

What’s the Difference Between a Good Painting and a Bad One?

My parents had a friend who was an art critic of a major national newspaper.  Before I became a teenager, I asked him what the difference was between a good painting and a bad one.  After all, both have the same ingredients: canvas, oil paint, applied by brushes.  He paused for a moment and said ‘quality’.  What an excellent answer to give a youngster.  Of course, quality is extremely difficult to define.  You know it when you see it.  But not all people do!

During the Impressionist period, very few people were bright enough to buy the new vibrant paintings produced by likes of Van Gogh.  In order to pass the quality test, paintings must then at least stand the test of time.

When I was at University, there were several colleges with inspired junior common room art committees.  It also happened that at the turn of the 1960s, there were some superb artists around: Keith Vaughan, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Michael Ayrton, Alan Davie, Larry Rivers, to mention but few.  Many of their works could have been bought, even by the standards of the day, for a song.

Starting with Lithographs

I always regarded my judgement as unreliable.  I knew a good painter when I saw one, but I needed time before making any decisions.  The first thing I did was to accept that there were painters who were acknowledged masters.  These included Picasso, Braque, Utrillo, Dufy, Cezanne.  It was possible in those days to buy numbered lithographs for peanuts – £3-£6.  I loved these lithographs and hung them round any walls I had access to.  But the one thing that was absolutely certain was that, if you took one of these lithographs off the wall and replaced it with any other painting, if that other painting did not have ‘quality’, it would stick out like a sore thumb.

Rules for Collecting Originals

When I started collecting ‘originals’, I made three rules.

  1. The first was never to buy other than at a ‘one-man show’.  That meant that you had a choice from the previous 2 years of the artist’s work.
  2. The second was never to buy other than on the first 3 days of a one-man show.  That enabled you to choose from the best few paintings in the show.
  3. The third rule was imposed on me through impecuniosity: never to spend more than £30.  (This, because of inflation, I could not hold on to for long!).

In those days, I used to say to the gallery owner that I was too green to make a sensible choice without taking the painting back home for a day or two to get used to it.  Surprisingly, most gallery owners did not seem to mind my doing so. 

The first thing I would do is take one of the lithographs off the wall and replace it with the borrowed painting.  It would tell me immediately if the choice was a good one.

I Never Buy A Painting Unless I Love It!

It doesn’t matter how valuable you think the painting might become.  I once went to a gallery in Bond Street that dealt with David Hockney.  At that point he had gone to America to live, and the gallery had nothing in store.  Eventually they produced a Picasso-like coloured primitive sketch drawn on a piece of battered cardboard.  It wasn’t good enough for me and I declined to buy it for £40.  I have never regretted doing so.  Preserve your integrity!

Nowadays there seems to be enormous artistic movements in various places.  St Ives, Bridport, etc, and other regions in the country seem to be promoting modern art shows of work done by local unknown artists.  There is wide choice available, and because of the competition, prices are very reasonable.  But never buy unless you love the painting.  Consider the young artist.  Ask yourself how long it would have taken to produce such a painting as the one that you love.  Some painters are plodders; some work fast, but even the fast ones produce work at what you may regard to be a miserly hourly rate.  And then they have to frame the painting, as well as pay for the costs of raw materials.

One of the problems of collecting is that if you are any good at it, you will find that the paintings you bought early on, when the artist was unknown, become less and less affordable as the paintings become more and more appreciated.  No matter.  Move along.  At least it will be vindication of your judgement.  And who knows?  You may one day find that your local auctioneer becomes a source of supply, even of the painters whose works you have collected earlier on, and they will be a good deal cheaper than the painters you would get from the artist’s gallery.

Good luck with your collecting.

‘A Collector’

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