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An Urge to Collect

Just months ahead of his retirement as Head of Aberystwyth University’s School of Art and Keeper of its Museum and Galleries, Robert Meyrick reflects on a lifetime of collecting...

As someone trained to make art, yet over time ceased to practice, acquiring, displaying and redisplaying artworks came to be a substitute for making. Collecting has been for me a creative experience, the art of discovering connections and making new meanings by hanging pictures in new settings. Collecting, in my experience, seldom starts in a deliberate way. A baby-boomer youth from the coal mining valleys of South Wales, from a home with no books let alone works of art, I am not from a background typically associated with art collecting. This article has given cause to reflect on what for me has been the urge to collect, to explain the motives that have over four decades underpinned my collecting habits.

John Roberts, Seller of Paper Birds, Madrid 1, mixed media, 1958

John Roberts, Seller of Paper Birds, Madrid 1, mixed media, 1958 

As a frustrated maker, I find myself drawn to consummate draughtsmanship and craftsmanship of any period. The artworks I collect are a bridge between me and the talent that created them. Each carries associations for me. They are evocations of artist friendships, things experienced and remembered, places visited and reminders of my native Wales, its people and its landscapes. It is my interests, passions and imagination that hold the objects together as a collection.

Robert Meyrick, The Great Staircase, Old College, Aberystwyth, linocut, 1992

Robert Meyrick, The Great Staircase, Old College, Aberystwyth, linocut, 1992

I especially respond to art that documents the everyday of Britain’s working classes: Stanley Anderson’s and Charles Tunnicliffe’s records of traditional farming methods and land management; George Chapman’s depictions of the mining communities of the Rhondda valley; John Elwyn’s peaceful visions of rural life and labour in south Cardiganshire; Charles Keeping’s lithographs of inner city life, the terraced houses and working horses of Lambeth; and John Roberts’ portrayals of street life at home and abroad, anybody who led unconventional lives on the fringes of society.

Charles Keeping, Clerks and Ponies, lithograph,1955

Charles Keeping, Clerks and Ponies, lithograph,1955 

At first, I bought what I could afford. Over time, I favoured certain artists, media and moments in British art history over others, and themes such as the arts in Wales and aspects of 20th-century British printmaking emerged. In time, I sold in order to trade up, acquire superior examples, fill gaps, and hopefully make my collection a better collection. I acquired from artists and their heirs, galleries, dealer catalogues, auctions and eBay, even antique shops and house clearances. Like most collectors on a budget, I have enjoyed the thrill of the chase and the prospect of picking up a bargain. Chance has also played a part. Opportunities have presented themselves by word of mouth or my being in the right place at the right time.

Edward Bawden, Audley End House, linocut, 1973

Edward Bawden, Audley End House, linocut, 1973 

I date my art collecting to have begun in 1976 when I asked my parents for Edward Bawden’s 1973 linocut Audley End House as an 18th birthday gift. It was offered by Christie’s Contemporary Art through The Sunday Times (which I had to seek out for myself as only the Sunday People arrived though our letterbox). I had been introduced to the prints of Edward Bawden as a 15-year-old schoolboy and was soon emulating his bold vibrant compositions, emphatic tooling, and wry sense of humour in my own prints. Audley End was to be the first of many Bawden prints to enter my collection.

I was fortunate to have mentors at grammar school and university: John Arfon Jones, our inspirational art teacher, and headteacher-cum-art-history-instructor, W. J. (Bill) Price who instilled in me an appreciation for the history of art. Jones was born and raised in Aberystwyth. Price, his wife and three daughters were alumni of the university and so there was no question where I was headed. At Aberystwyth University, printmaker-historian Alistair Crawford encouraged me to collect. I soon realised that insights gained from living with original artworks and studying them first hand helped me appreciate, interpret and reflect on an artist’s achievements in more informed ways.

Gladys Vasey, Gabrielle, oil on canvas, 1938

Gladys Vasey, Gabrielle, oil on canvas, 1938

In 1982, Crawford organised the dispersal of the studio of Manchester-born, Wales-domiciled portrait and landscape artist Gladys Vasey (1881-1981) about whom little was then known. I bought several canvases for what even then seemed like derisory sums. Tentative research on my acquisitions revealed that over six decades she had exhibited hundreds of paintings at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Society of Women Artists, and Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. In no time, I was interviewing her family and friends as well as visiting private and public collections across the UK to catalogue her works. The outcome was my first curated retrospective exhibition and accompanying publication for the National Library of Wales in 1990. Old enthusiasms die hard. I recently picked up at auction Vasey’s 1945 portrait of young art student Boris that 41 years ago I had lost when outbid.

Importantly, studying Vasey’s paintings got me addicted to archival research and visual archaeology: rediscovering and re-evaluating an artist’s oeuvre, piecing together a trail of clues, and making accessible works of art hitherto excluded from the canon due simply to a paucity of information or lack of exposure to artists and their practices. My focus since has been recovering, collecting and exhibiting marginalized art.

Unwittingly, it was Mike Goldmark that gave me the opportunity that put me where I am today. I was introduced to Mike in the late 1980s by his friend, mentor and gallery artist Rigby Graham. I was by now teaching art and art history at Aberystwyth. Rigby, our external examiner, had recently undergone surgery and so Mike chauffeured him to west Wales to undertake his duties.

Robert Meyrick with George Chapman, 1992

Robert Meyrick with George Chapman, 1992 

Mike learned from us that painter-printmaker George Chapman lived at nearby Aberaeron. George had built his reputation in the 50s and 60s with his gritty depictions of the industrialised landscapes of the south Wales valleys. Yet despite his many achievements, he had not gained lasting critical acclaim. We visited the studio where Mike offered George an exhibition at Uppingham, and I was tasked to make the selection and write the catalogue.

Working with George provided my first opportunity to identify, catalogue and document all prints made by one artist. George had never recorded his etchings and so the prints had to be sourced. A chronology had to be determined and edition sizes figured out. Some extant proofs survived in his workshop, a few zinc and copper plates lie in corners, and an assortment of old exhibition catalogues offered further clues.

George Chapman, The Steps, oil on canvas, 1958

George Chapman, The Steps, oil on canvas, 1958

George had used several printing plates to repair the Yara, a decommissioned lifeboat he had bought in Swansea and moored in Aberaeron harbour. While the plates welded to Yara’s hull were irretrievable, the large etching plates beneath bedroom carpets, nailed to reinforce failing worm-eaten boards, could be salvaged, cleaned and printed. Though I had trained as a printmaker, printing and hand colouring such large deeply bitten plates represented a significant challenge.

For me, Chapman’s paintings and prints are a relic of a world I once inhabited and know intimately. I have collected his works ever since. His dynamic compositions evoke the sights, sounds and scents of Welsh mining communities just like mine. Miners changing shifts, women chattering on doorsteps, children on the streets competing at hopscotch, riding scooters and gyrating hula-hoops, pithead winding gear, puffing steam trains laden with coal, and precipitous rows of steeply terraced houses built by 19th-century coal owners as the barracks of the workforce.

Sydney Lee, The Sleeping Square, aquatint, mezzotint and roulette,1928

Sydney Lee, The Sleeping Square, aquatint, mezzotint and roulette,1928

The success of our 1992 Chapman show led to further collaborations and visits for me to Uppingham. On such occasions, I was given free run of the stock room, rifling through Mike’s racks and delving into drawers. There I encountered familiar names and unearthed new ones. A chance discovery, at the bottom of a plan chest, was two magnificent aquatints by Sydney Lee (1866-1949): The Mountain Fortress (1914) and The Sleeping Square (1928). I became an obsessive collector of Lee’s prints, and acquired several paintings too. Few early 20th-century British printmakers, it seemed to me, were in command of such a broad range of graphic media. Ambitious in experimentation and imposing in scale, his intaglio prints especially pushed the boundaries of traditional practice as he explored the play of light and shadow on ancient architecture, geological formations and epic prospects.

Lee had been a Royal Academician with a studio on Holland Park Road, Fellow of the RE and RWS, and founder member of the Society of Wood Engravers. He had done much to advance printmaking as an original expressive art form, and yet the name he had made for himself all but died with him. Here was an oeuvre awaiting rediscovery and re-evaluation. It was time for me to draw Lee out from the shadows. But it remained only a personal endeavour until 20 years later the Royal Academy of Arts invited me to curate an exhibition for their Tennant Gallery and John Madejski Fine Rooms. Stuart Southall, fellow collector as well as supporter and promoter of 20th-century British printmaking, sponsored the catalogue raisonné.

Eric Fraser, The Case of the Jealous Doctor, ‘Nightmare’, pen & ink,1949

Eric Fraser, The Case of the Jealous Doctor, ‘Nightmare’, pen & ink,1949 

As projects mounted up, as my circle of contacts widened, and more auction houses went online, so my collection grew. I have no truck with those who claim to ‘have no more space’ or say, ‘I don’t know where I am going to put it.’ Pictures can rotate and rest or even sit on the floor propped five deep against a wall and shuffled occasionally like a deck of cards.

Since 2003 eBay, the world’s most popular virtual yard sale, has opened international markets for me. I have found it to be a friendly, self-policing marketplace where through person-to-person online auctions I have met others with similar interests and enthusiasms. eBay has yielded for me hundreds of artworks, among them: lithographs by Glynn Boyd Harte, Charles Keeping and Ceri Richards as well as 1956 Guinness posters by Bernard Cheese and Barnett Freedman, in mint condition from a vendor whose father had been master printer at Curwen; etchings and engravings by Goya, Hockney, Sheila Robinson, Valerius de Saedeleer (Belgian landscape painter who taught art at Aberystwyth 1914-1922), Julian Trevelyan, Charles Tunnicliffe, and Joseph Webb; woodcuts, wood engravings and linocuts by Roderic Barrett, Edward Bawden and Philip Sutton; oil paintings by Sydney Lee and Garrick Palmer as well as John Tenniel’s Conspiracy depicting Guy Fawkes and his fellow gunpowder plotters, painted in August 1850 for the new Palace of Westminster mural competition; and drawings by John Bratby and Laura Knight as well as Eric Fraser’s remarkable pen and ink illustration ‘Nightmare’ from The Case of the Jealous Doctor Nightmare for Leader Magazine in 1949. It tells the gruesome true story of Buck Ruxton, an Indian-born doctor in Lancaster, who was convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and their housemaid, dismembering their bodies as his children lay asleep upstairs, and disposing of their remains in a Scottish stream.

George Richmond, An Old Calabrian Goatherd, oil on canvas, 1838

George Richmond, An Old Calabrian Goatherd, oil on canvas, 1838

In the real and virtual worlds, I never know what I am looking for until I see it. I have seized and also squandered opportunities. We all remember the ones that got away just as much as the triumphs. I kick myself for passing up a magnificent still life in oils by Robert McBryde, ex-collection John Lehmann, that I can picture to this day hanging on the staircase of a Bloomsbury gallery. It was £2,000. Visiting Bond Street dealer Robin Garton at his Devizes home on the eve of his retirement, I chanced upon George Richmond’s arresting portrait, An Old Calabrian Goatherd. It was painted in February 1838 when the Richmonds were in Italy for two years accompanied by newlyweds Samuel and Hannah Palmer. The figure studies Richmond painted in southern Italy that year helped secure his reputation as a preeminent portrait painter of his day. It was 50% discounted and I was not going to let one escape. As well as discounted Chapmans and Keepings, the relocation to Australia of a London gallerist yielded for me Derrick Greaves’ 1949 painting Baby in a Pram that I had remembered from Julian Spalding’s 1984 landmark exhibition, The Forgotten Fifties.

Derrick Greaves, Baby in a Pram, oil on board, 1949

Derrick Greaves, Baby in a Pram, oil on board, 1949 

Meanwhile, further projects came my way and I leapt at the opportunities to meet artists or their heirs. Having discovered my work on British etchers of the 1920s and 30s, Edgar Holloway (1914-2008) asked me to stage an exhibition and write on his work. The first of several projects, Edgar Holloway at 80, toured the UK for three years. My catalogue raisonné The Etchings and Engravings of Edgar Holloway was published by Scolar in 1996 and a supplement (because Edgar was still making prints) followed in 2004. Remembered chiefly for his remarkable series of 33 etched self-portraits spanning January 1931 to August 2002, Holloway was one of few the surviving exponents from the inter-war Etching Revival and for me a tangible link to a period in the history of the British print that had long been subject of my research and acquisitive eye.

Edgar Holloway, Self Portrait No 6, etching, 1932

Edgar Holloway, Self Portrait No 6, etching, 1932 

The Vasey show led to another invitation from the National Library of Wales to stage a retrospective exhibition of paintings by John Elwyn to mark his 80th birthday. Elwyn’s peaceful visions of life in rural Ceredigion, by then my home county, had always struck a chord with me. For seven decades, he had drawn on his wide experience of the working life of the farmyards and cattle pastures of the Teifi and Ceri valleys. His large decorative compositions such as Sioni Winwns (1958), a Breton door-to-door onion seller at Newquay on the Cardigan Bay coast, convey Elwyn’s affection for a community, love of locality and regional character. A monograph John Elwyn (Scolar, 2000) and centenary exhibition followed. As a consequence, figurative artist Claudia Williams (1933-) and her husband, landscape painter Gwilym Prichard (1931-2015), approached me to write on their work and secure them National Library exhibitions in 2000 and 2001 respectively. I have derived much satisfaction from surrounding myself at home with artworks by the many artists that have and continue to be subject of my projects.

Claudia Wiiliams, Le Petit Dejeuner, oil on canvas, 1986

Claudia Wiiliams, Le Petit Dejeuner, oil on canvas, 1986 

Research in partnership with my husband Dr Harry Heuser has resulted in monographs for Sansom – Gwilym Prichard: A Lifetime’s Gazing (April 2013) and Claudia Williams: An Intimate Acquaintance (September 2013) – as well as curated exhibitions and catalogues raisonné on British printmakers for the Royal Academy of Arts: An Abiding Standard: The Prints of Stanley Anderson RA in 2015 and Second Nature: The Prints of Charles Tunnicliffe RA in 2017. Covid-delayed work on Harry Morley ARA is ongoing. Our research on Royal Academician printmakers aims to demonstrate how legacies are constructed, historical relevance is determined, practices abandoned and traditions rejected, how spheres of influence widen and reputations fall into oblivion or face critical neglect. Our catalogues raisonné are now a principal source of reference for curators and private collectors, dealers and auctioneers, educators, and the general public.

John Elwin, Sioni Winwns (Johnny Onions), oil on canvas, 1958

John Elwin, Sioni Winwns (Johnny Onions), oil on canvas, 1958

We just never know where life is going to take us. One thing leads to another and, before you know it, wheels have been set in motion. The discovery of two Sydney Lee prints and Mike Goldmark’s invitation to showcase George Chapman’s career resulted for me in a lifetime enriched by living and working with original works of art. As public institutions today – with a few notable exceptions – shy away from solo shows and monographs that highlight the wealth and diversity of Britain’s artistic heritage, long may such exhibitions and the dissemination of scholarship remain the lifeblood of Goldmark Gallery.

 

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