Some people are art collectors. I’m not one of those. I’m not rich enough and, even if I were, I’m not interested in that kind of acquisition. I’m just someone who likes pictures a lot and who buys as many as I possibly can. Naturally, this depends – mostly – on my funds at any given moment. But not exclusively. When my passion first overcame me, after all, I was about as broke as it was possible for a salaried person to be.
It was 1992, and I was trainee reporter in Glasgow, where I rented one small room, from whose single bed I could see everything I owned, which was mostly a load of letters from my bank informing me that I was overdrawn. I can’t remember whether the idea of travelling to Jura to write about Julie Brook, an artist who was living and working in a cave on the uninhabited side of the island, was my idea or my editor’s but, either way, I was mad keen to do the story, mostly because I knew that it was there that George Orwell wrote 1984. Of my interviewee’s work, I had rather less knowledge. Apparently, she liked to build stone structures on the beach in which she would then set a fire, the idea being that, as the tide came in, it would briefly look as though flames were rising from the sea itself.
I arrived by ferry. Julie had hiked to Craighouse to meet me and, in the bar of its hotel, we talked, and she showed me some photographs of her land art, which was indeed dramatic. Then she took me outside, where some huge oils were propped against a wall.
This was when it happened. Standing in front of a painting of two salmon, my heart began to pound. “I would like to own this,” I heard a voice rather like my own say. “But I’ve got no money.” Julie must, I think, have felt my longing, which was extreme. She didn’t hesitate either. “Pay me in instalments,” she said. Which is what I did, for the next 18 months.
It was all quite mad. Why was I buying this enormous canvas when I’d nowhere to hang it? More to the point, why was I spending money I didn’t have? But though I could hardly justify what I’d done, I didn’t regret it either. I was… relieved to have the painting in my possession, a sense of satisfaction that only grew as I transported it to Glasgow, and then, some weeks later, drove it to London in a hire car (I was moving again). When friends remarked on it, their disbelief (“you… bought this?”) induced in me only a crazed kind of pride. Better my salmon than any number of dresses from Top Shop.
For a time, this was the only art I owned. But in my 30s, more flush at last, I started buying more. An abstract print by Victor Pasmore (he was less fashionable then, and his prices less loopy). A tiny oil of an old-fashioned newsagent, its window bedecked with tinsel, by no one you would ever have heard of. A portrait by John Aldridge, one of the (very much) less well-known artists associated with Great Bardfield in Essex. In each case, the feeling was the same. If a vaguely affordable picture speaks to me, the tips of my fingers seem to tingle and burn. I’m like Raffles, the gentleman thief, in the presence of a diamond tiara.
It is still possible, if you’re clever, to get amazing things for the price of a couple of easyJet flights (I’m including the taxi to the airport). I have a drawing by Edward Burra that cost me less than £200; I bought it at Abbot & Holder in Museum Street in Bloomsbury, where I’ve had a lot of luck down the years (Tom, who runs it now, is very knowledgeable, but also very kind and non-intimidating). I haunt online auctions and sales – for the latter, I recommend Liss Llewellyn, which specialises in 20th-century British art – and I favour galleries outside London, such as Zillah Bell in Thirsk, Yorkshire, home to an archive of work by Norman Ackroyd, master of the aquatint.
But my collection is not about big names. For me, value has nothing whatsoever to do with fame. There’s something thrilling about hanging a picture you scrimped and saved to buy next to one for which you paid £50 in a street market, and finding both equally beautiful; it’s like having a secret. I do own some pictures by fairly well-known artists (though I won’t name drop here). But one of my most beloved finds – a delicately gorgeous 1939 engraving by an artist whose name is illegible of Rachel’s Tomb in Hebron, in Israel/Palestine, where I lived as a child – I picked up for £40 at a Suffolk antique fair. Friends who were there will testify that I almost fainted with excitement as I handed over the cash.
The judgmental cliche goes that either a person can spend money on stuff, or they can spend it on experiences. But a painting is both. Ben Nicholson thought people should hang a picture on the wall and “eat their meals with their back to it every day for a month”. Only then would they know how they felt about it; whether it was dead or alive. I think he was right. A painting will seem to change as you live with it. Like a person you’ve known for a long time, it will always be capable of surprising you.
Perhaps you’ll move it to a new spot; perhaps the light will shift, falling on it in a new way; perhaps you’ll find yourself staring at it unexpectedly as you try to remember what you were going upstairs for. At any rate, you’ll see it anew, and suddenly interest and affection will rise inside you. Before you know it, you’ll be back in the first flush of love, delighted by the absolute rightness of your own taste; by what your eyes and heart once whispered to you, and are now telling you insistently all over again.