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Yorkshire Art Collector, Ronnie Duncan Bequeaths Major Gift of Art to Wakefield

13 Apr 2021

We are delighted to announce that Yorkshire-based art collector, Ronnie Duncan is bequeathing to Wakefield around 30 paintings and drawings by artists including Trevor Bell (1930-2017), Alan Davie (1920-2014), Terry Frost (1915-2003), Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006), Roger Hilton (1911–1975), James Hugonin (b. 1950) and Callum Innes (b.1962).

The bequest is made in tribute to Duncan’s former mentor and friend, Helen Kapp, who Duncan describes as a ‘shining light of art in Yorkshire’. Kapp was Director of Wakefield Art Gallery throughout the 1950s, during which she championed contemporary artists, particularly abstract painters and sculptors and was responsible for building up the core strengths of Wakefield’s mid-century British art collection.

Simon Wallis, Director of The Hepworth Wakefield said: “Ronnie Duncan is the Jim Ede of the North, who over the last 60 years, through great vision and creative curiosity, has developed an astonishing art collection and fostered friendships with some of Britain’s greatest artists. The Hepworth has benefitted from Ronnie’s generosity for many years, regularly borrowing art works from his collection for our temporary exhibitions. We are delighted and grateful to accept this wonderful gift which complements and deepens fits Wakefield’s core collection of modern British art, much of which was acquired and championed by Ronnie’s friend and former Wakefield Art Gallery Director, Helen Kapp. Kapp was a pioneering Director with an ambitious programme of contemporary art for Wakefield. She’d undoubtedly be delighted by this generous gift from her good friend, which builds on her legacy and shows Ronnie’s commitment to the power of art and artists over many decades.”

Ronnie Duncan was educated at St. Andrews and Oxford universities, before returning to Yorkshire in the early 1950s to join the long-established family business of worsted spinners. Duncan’s passion for art developed early – his first purchase of art was in 1948, building up a large and unique collection which would be publicly shown from 1972 onwards. In 1984 he was the committee’s buyer for the Contemporary Art Society.

Around the time Duncan returned to Yorkshire, The Gregory Fellowships in the Creative Arts were established at Leeds University with patronage from Yorkshire businessman Eric Gregory. The scheme invited contemporary poets and artists to have a funded period at the University, making their work and creative ideas accessible to the whole university community. Recognising the talent of the Gregory Fellow artists, Helen Kapp gave each of them a room within Wakefield’s annual exhibition of contemporary art, raising their profiles and introducing them to a broad audience.

Duncan befriended several of the Gregory Fellows including Trevor Bell, Alan Davie, and Terry Frost when they came to Leeds to take up the fellowship. Duncan credits Frost with his introduction to abstract art, describing how the painter’s ‘warm, outgoing personality’ drew him in. ‘Through knowing him, I came to believe, as I still do, that the most innovative art in the Britain of the 50s and early 60s was abstract and the best of it was produced by artists with links to St. Ives.’ Duncan’s gift to Wakefield includes Frost’s large oil painting, Yellow Verticals, 1954.

While staying in St. Ives, Frost introduced Duncan to many of his contemporaries, such as Roger Hilton. Duncan regards Hilton as the finest artist of that generation and has collected over thirty of his works. Three oil paintings by Hilton and a selection of drawings will be part of the bequest, significantly enhancing the gallery’s holdings of Hilton works.

When Duncan first came across Alan Davie’s work, he was hostile to it, but enjoyed Davie’s company and often visited him during his Gregory Fellowship. As Duncan spent more time with Davie, the work converted him and he came to admire the artist’s ‘daring reliance on instinct’. With a leap of faith in 1958, Duncan purchased Davie’s large painting Blood Creation (1952). Having lived with the painting for over 60 years, Duncan regards it as the jewel of his collection. The painting, which was most recently lent to The Hepworth Wakefield for its 2019 Alan Davie & David Hockney: Early Works exhibition, is included in the bequest to Wakefield along with four other paintings by the artist.

A small selection from Duncan’s gift to Wakefield, including five etched German metal wall-hung sculptures by Rachel Whiteread from 2002, were included in Vision & Reality: 100 Years of Contemporary Art in Wakefield, which can be enjoyed online.


“The Gregory Fellowships in Leeds, together with Helen Kapp in Wakefield, played an important part in establishing the careers of many of the artists who I have been fortunate to know. Spending time with them and living with examples of their work has so enriched my life, I often think I am the greatest beneficiary of those Fellowships.”

“I truly believe that we are all just custodians of our possessions and I am so pleased pass on to Wakefield a collection of works of art I have lived with and loved, so that many more people can enjoy them for generations to come.” – Ronnie Duncan, 2021

Ronnie Duncan talks about his friendship with Alan Davie

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