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Collectors' Q&A: Terence Bacon & John Oldham

03 Apr 2020

John and Terry generously promised to bequeath their collection of ceramics, paintings, and works on paper to the Wakefield art collection. We asked them how they started collecting, their relationships with artists, and how they discover new work.

Could you tell us a little about how you first started collecting?

It all started for us completely by chance, whilst holidaying in St Ives, Cornwall. We happened to walk past the New Craftsman Gallery and spotted a display of beautiful pots for sale by Lucie Rie that stopped us in our tracks. After a great deal of discussion, we took the plunge and bought two wonderful ‘bottle’ forms. I believe they touched us so profoundly because we unconsciously recognised something intrinsically beautiful, which we had unknowingly been looking for. It sounds dreadfully pretentious but in a funny way it feels as though they chose us. A real life changer!

What drives your collection? How do you decide what or who to collect?

We buy only what touches us – if we can afford it and perhaps sometimes even when we can’t – and what we know we want to live with. Everything is bought with the heart not the head. There truly is no underlying strategy to the collection, it’s just a great thrill to discover pots, paintings, sculpture, and a few ethnic bits that we know will enhance our lives. For us it all seems to sit comfortably together. We really don’t define ourselves as ‘collectors’, we just buy what we know will give us pleasure.

You have built a wonderful collection of ceramic works. What attracts you to this art form in particular?

Lucie Rie was a very lucky first eye opener for us – start at the top and all that – even though she was totally unknown to us at that time. We then began to look properly at her work and this led us to exploring the work of other potters. We gradually started to admire and buy. The New Craftsman Gallery in St Ives had work by many other wonderful ceramicists, sculptors and painters. The then owners of the gallery, Mary ‘Boots’ Redgrave and Janet Leach, and their manager Michael were all very kind and patient with their advice and time because I think they saw that we were feeling our way into collecting.

How do you discover new work for your collection?

It happens invariably by accident. For example, we sat next to Sara Flynn at a Hepworth Wakefield lunch a couple of years ago and she told us of her work as a potter/sculptor. We followed this up by researching her and visiting her dealer. We were completely blown away by her work. Her elegant forms just dance before your eyes and are simultaneously simple and complex. We now have four of her exquisite pieces and would buy many more if we had the cash, but there’s time yet I hope! We first came across John Ward’s glorious work at Amalgam in Barnes, London, completely by chance. There was a wonderful tactile pot of brilliant form and decoration which we just couldn’t leave behind, so we splashed out and it has been a joy to live with ever since. Ward’s work then became a bit of an obsession and we now have 43 pieces. We are still on the lookout for two more to finish off our John Ward wall. This is the informal way we find things: they usually sneak up and bite us on the bum! It makes life interesting.

What is your most treasured piece of work?

That’s really like asking which of your children is the favourite! Almost all our pieces have back stories and some hold particularly wonderful memories of the artist. Craigie Aitchison was a very dear, eccentric friend. We would never part with his paintings, not just because they are fantastic works, but because they are physical reminders of him and the brilliant times we had together. Terry Frost and his lovely wife Kathleen were also super people. Each time we look at the pieces we have by Terry, his wicked laugh and delightful personality pop into our minds. They are/were wonderful, talented and generous spirited people who know what life is about. I’d (Terry) save Craigie’s ‘Donkey with a Shaft of Light’ first if we had a fire, John would grab a portrait by Craigie entitled ‘Pilar’. Of course after we had saved Dolly, our dear little Bedlington terrier.

How important is meeting the artist behind the work for you. How does it change your relationship to the piece?

It isn’t vital to meet the artists one collects, but doing so does add a personal dimension to their work as you can discuss their inspiration and the artists they admire. They will want to know where you are coming from and the artists you collect. It can lead to great friendships. Ultimately though, a work of art has its own life when it leaves the artist, so it must stand or fall on its own merits. Acres of fine words are written about art, but ultimately the viewer must make up their own mind about whether the work touches something in them or not. You shouldn’t allow anyone’s opinion to trump your own feelings about a piece. The more you expose yourself to art and artists the more confident you become in exercising your own judgement.

Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to start a collection?

Get cracking! You don’t have to be wealthy and it will enhance your life, but know that it will likely take you over if the bug really gets hold. Really look at things: the form and decoration of a pot or a brush stroke in a painting can be utterly thrilling. Many people look but don’t see. Don’t be afraid of approaching artists. We have found they are invariably welcoming people and generous with their time. After all you are taking an interest in what they feel they must make. Treat them with respect and they will return the compliment. Never be afraid of buying what you like, if others don’t agree that’s their problem. After all you’re the one who will live with it. Don’t over analyse, we have always trusted our gut reaction. Art in all its forms is a product not only of the mind but also of the soul.

You have recently generously promised to gift your collection to Wakefield’s art collection. What motivated this decision and what do you hope it will achieve?

Our collection is hugely important to us and we particularly wanted the John Ward pots to be kept together as a collection as they are quite representative of his career. Being based in Yorkshire we have visited and supported The Hepworth Wakefield as Patrons since its early days. The gallery hosts international quality exhibitions, while also exuding a welcoming community feel. It’s usually buzzing with children having fun, being creative and being exposed to wonderful things of the soul. We found the directors, staff and volunteers warm and welcoming, and we never get the feeling of academic superiority and separation from us punters. We felt from the beginning that it embraced our own outlook on what interaction with the arts should be about. We are delighted to support it as much as we are able.

So, in view of what inspired our support of The Hepworth Wakefield, we thought who better to take care of some of our bits and pieces when we fall off the perch!? Art is made to be seen and enjoyed, so we thought that The Hepworth Wakefield would be the best place for some of our stuff to – hopefully – be shown at regularly. We thought the gallery might only want a couple of items when we offered them and we were truly amazed – but very glad – when it came back with a list of 100 or so. We’d take them with us if we could but it would be far too hot where we’ll probably finish up!