One of the aspects of my work which I most enjoy and as Arthur Daley might say a”nice little earner” is advising on art acquisition. I am sufficiently critical of myself, my clientele and the art world to say there is an element of hypocrisy here. The client may say and will be advised that the arbiter is he/she has to like the painting but I know fully well that they are looking to me for an assessment of value. When I started I called myself Alecia Mansfield, consultant in fine art, and sent in my handwritten account in guineas in copperplate to satisfy the pretensions clients had of art dealing.
This said, a clever businessman will outwit a posh dealer very time. He will be the better negotiator and sense that this may be the picture in stock for some time that the gallery is trying to unload. So I found my role changed and I began more to research into artist himself and attempt to evaluate whether the cost is under, over or conformed with reputation. Let me give you a recent example.
A client of mine built his collection around twentieth century British art and is quite knowledgeable both on price and reputation. He was thinking of buying a Christopher Wood watercolour of a beach. gave him my immediate reaction that I liked its vibrant colours not unlike a Dufy. Christopher Wood enjoys a high reputation. He had a short life (1901-30) and ended it under a train in Hampshire. He packed a lot into it, being an active member of the twenties Paris set of Picasso, who rated him highly, Diaghilev – for whom he designed and drew ballet scenery – Jean Cocteau who probably started his opium habit and many wealthy patrons. One Tony Gandrillas, a rich Chilean diplomat, an inveterate party animal was his lover. Gandrillas’ aunt was the patron of both Picasso and Stravinsky. Another wealthy supporter Lady Cunard bought an oil beach scene. He wanted to marry Meraud Guinness but her mother Bridget blocked it. He developed a schizophrenic complex fuelled by the opium addiction and this may have accounted for his untimely death as he was convinced private detectives engaged by the Guinnesses were following him.
I first came across his work at the Kettles Yard gallery in Cambridge curated by Jim Ede. This is one of those wonderful eclectic galleries that are far more wieldy that the huge museums. There are works by the Cornish fishermen Alfred Wallis, who had no art tuition, but painted naive pictures of high quality which are highly collectible. Wood on a visit to Cornwall to visit Winifred – who was in love with him – and Ben Nicholson passed the cottage where Wallis lived on his own and peered in Wood became much influenced by Wallis’ work and it is thought this inspired a more independent style. Wood had pretensions of being the greatest artist England ever produced and certainly he was the first artist this country has produced since Whistler to be shown in Paris. There has been a recent resurgence of interest and one gallery bought a work for over £800,000. My researches did motivate my client who may buy the water colour but I suspect its the upward swing in prices that is ultimately influencing him. Wood’s life made me think of John Constable whose prospects were deemed not good enough for the family of his wife Mary Benfield, whose father advised the Prince Regent.The Guinnesses are still a substantial family but I bet they would have like a collection of pictures from son-in-law Wood. The paths of wealth and art are interwoven often in the most unlikely and intriguing ways