Jewish collectors lead the field in Britain when it comes to contemporary art — Charles Saatchi, Anita Zabludowicz and Frank Cohen have all opened galleries featuring selections from their extensive collections. However, all three are multimillionaires. So is it possible to build up an important art collection on a more modest salary?
One man who proves you can is retired Leeds GP Jeffrey Sherwin who, with his wife Ruth, has over the past 20 years or so put together the country’s largest collection of British Surrealism. Comprising over 220 paintings, drawings, sculptures and mixed media works, it is a collection of national importance that is currently on display at Leeds City Art Gallery.
Sherwin’s mother was an amateur artist, a sculpture by whom he displays next to one by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. But he really became interested in art at Oxford where he studied medicine, although he had an ulterior motive for buying his first paintings. “My bed-cum-settee was pushed against the wall. I decided that if I had some pictures behind the settee it might encourage my girlfriends to crawl on to it to have a closer look. I went up to London and bought some pictures from Hyde Park railings and hung them on the wall. When I look back at that time I am really rather embarrassed, not at the subterfuge but at the poor quality of the paintings.”
He describes most of his early purchases as “rubbish” and it was only in 1986 that he first became interested in the British Surrealists following an exhibition on the subject at Leeds City Art Gallery. He has no clever explanation for his conversion. “It sounds banal but I found the works very interesting,” he explains. “Surrealism in its simplest terms takes the ‘everyday’ and turns it on its head. The thing about Surrealism is that you can recognise the images but there is an intellectual twist.”
Sherwin often visited artists in their studios to purchase works. He describes “meeting artists as the plus side of collecting. All the artists impressed me because they have the talent that sadly I do not possess. I realised they were ordinary people. The major artist with whom I was friendly for over 20 years was Conroy Maddox, who led me down the seductive path of British Surrealism.”
Sherwin owns 16 works by Maddox who died in 2005. He also was friendly with Henry Moore and bought three sculptures and a drawing from him. He remembers one visit to Moore’s home in particular. “While we were having tea, Moore’s secretary came in and said: ‘Mr Moore, Lauren Bacall is on the phone.’
“‘Oh not her again,’ he answered in a slightly irritated tone. ‘Tell her I have my friends from Leeds with me.’ To put us poor mortals from Leeds before Lauren Bacall — now that was something.”
While meeting artists is his favourite part of collecting, there are some negative points. “I loathe auctions,” Sherwin reveals. “I only bid on the phone and am paranoid that the auction house will forget to telephone. I feel sick until the phone rings.” He also dislikes the competitive nature of auctions. “There are works that are pivotal to my approach to collecting. When I fail to acquire them, it leaves a hole that might take a long time to fill.”
So what tips would he give to aspiring collectors on a limited budget? He acknowledges that being actively involved as a local councillor with responsibility for the arts helped. “I was lucky that because of my association with this gallery, the curators were always here to advise.” He also suggests spending time looking before buying. “The more you see, the more you are able to compare and contrast.
“Dealers can be helpful and will let you pay things off over months or even years. But they are there to make a living so you can’t let them form your taste.”
Sherwin keeps his entire collection at home — the pictures cover the walls and even the banisters are hung with sculptures. “One advantage is that you don’t have to decorate all that often. Our dining room carpet has duct tape over the holes. What’s more exciting, buying a picture or buying a carpet?” He is particularly proud of a sculpture called Spanish Head by FE McWilliam, made to reflect the violence of the Spanish Civil War. “It should be in a public collection,” he declares. He also loves a collaged plaster head by Eileen Agar and a painful portrait by Leonora Carrington made while she was in a clinic in Spain.
“She was stripped naked, tied to a bed and given tranquillisers by her psychiatrist. I am sure that this is Carrington’s vision of herself at that time.” Other works are personal. “After I had my quadruple heart bypass, I commissioned Anthony Earnshaw to make something for me using things from my surgery.”
One of the resulting mixed media works entitled Make Mine a Quadruple includes Sherwin’s stethoscope and a playing card — appropriately enough, the four of hearts.
Sherwin is glad that the public will now have a chance to see his collection. “It is a collection of national importance and I am only a temporary guardian. I have to give consideration to its future. In my view it is important that the collection be kept together.”