Issue Number: 91
The architect Colin St John Wilson RA talks about how he caught the art bug, as his impressive collection goes on show at Pallant House in a new gallery extension he has designed
I was given £35 after being demobbed in 1946, and I blew it all on a painting by a Sickert-like painter called Spencer Gore. That’s when my collecting obsession – my ‘disease’ – started.
Richard Hamilton, Swingeing London 67, 1967 At heart I wanted to be a painter, and although I started studying architecture after the War, I was passionately interested in painting. In the early 1950s, the ICA became my watering-hole and I soon became friends with the Independent Group – artists who included Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Nigel Henderson.
I bought work from my artist friends whenever I could such as Richard Hamilton’s Swingeing London print, which I bought before it was finished, after seeing it in his studio, which was typical of many of my purchases.
I used to go to galleries at lunchtime to snoop and one day I went into Freddy Mayor’s gallery and saw some fantastic Paolozzi collages. I picked one up and heard a voice behind me say, ‘Well, you can have it if you want it.’ It was Eduardo. I didn’t have much money on me, so I gave him everything I had in my pocket.
You think you are collecting art but, after a certain point, the collection collects itself. It becomes a responsibility. The collection now has over 800 works. It’s broadly School of London, including RB Kitaj, Michael Andrews, Patrick Caulfield and so on, plus father figures such as Sickert and Bomberg. I have often bought studies as well as final work, which makes the collection an interesting research resource.
We have a family cottage near Chichester and Pallant House is the best local gallery – a beautiful and rather grand 1712 townhouse. The director Stefan van Raay asked me to design a new extension there to show my collection permanently. As I have a small home, many of the works have been out on loan or in store – now I can see the works together for the first time.
I know the best conditions to view art and so I’ve created as much wall space as possible and dropped in plenty of natural light from the roof. Art galleries should always be about the art, not the architecture.
Interview by Sam Phillips
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