Art collector Andrew Lambirth comes Face to Face with Gainsborough in new Sudbury exhibition
- Credit: Gregg Brown
Art critic Andrew Lambirth is one of life’s enthusiasts. In effect his work is his hobby. He lives and breathes contemporary art – particularly portraits and self-portraits, with a sideline in trees.
“Trees have distinct personalities so it could be argued that they are portraits too,” he says with a wry smile.
Andrew started his passion for collecting paintings as a student at Nottingham University. His first cost him £35. It was a small oil study of a tin can by the then university artist-in-residence John Gray. Over the years he has spent much more than that on paintings, but also less.
His message is that anyone can be a collector. You don’t need to be a millionaire haunting the world’s top auction houses to acquire art. What you do need is a sharp eye, a knowledge of your tastes and an inquisitive nature. Paintings can pop up anywhere and you need to be able to respond quickly to add them to your collection.
He passionately believes that anyone who loves art can become a collector. In an effort to reinforce this he has collaborated with Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury to show 65 pictures drawn from his collection which been acquired since the late 1970s.
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He says that an early decision to restrict his collecting to 20th Century portraits and trees was an important decision because it focused his attention on creating a collection that would reflect on his own interests.
To boost the personal feel of the exhibition Andrew has come up with some witty captions on the identity and background of the sitters.
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“Because of what I do, I know or have known many of the people in these pictures and indeed the people who created these pictures. So there is a lot of personal history here. I have visited artists in their studios, I have got to know many of them over the years, so there is a strong connection there which makes the collection very personal.”
He’s also really thrilled that two artist friends of his, Maggi Hambling and Martha Parsey, have created two Gainsborough-themed prints which can be bought to support the community work being carried out at Gainsborough’s House.
“Martha and Maggi have a long history with Gainsborough, which you don’t expect. Martha’s work is quite poppy. You don’t find many artists involved in the pop-idiom doing Gainsborough.”
Martha’s print is based on her self-portrait Gainsborough Girls II which is a re-imagining of a Gainsborough painting. Meanwhile, Maggi Hambling’s print is taken from a canvas called Gainsborough Gold which reflects Gainsborough’s fresh and fluid landscapes and evokes the golden light that was very much apart of Gainsborough’s paintings.
He says he is thrilled the exhibition makes the point that Gainsborough’s legacy is still relevant.
“This is one of the larger points that Gainsborough’s House is making now, the relevance of Gainsborough is wider than you think and Gainsborough’s House is more than a museum it is a living, breathing artistic centre which works in the contemporary art world.”
For Andrew, a personal connection with the work is very important. “I would say collect what appeals to you. See shows, take a look around and discover what speaks to you.”
Andrew collects drawings and sketches as well as finished works and likes the immediacy that these pieces torn from sketchbooks display. “You get a sense that you are getting close to the artist and the artistic process. On one of the pieces we have the fact that the torn edge of the page is there and the artist has spilled oil on the page which has given a warmth to the image, which he has enhanced with pastel.
“He has obviously used the drawing as a study for a painting in the studio. It has been bashed about a bit but it has a lovely quality to it and it displays a wonderful sense of urgency.
“I love pictures with stories behind them. One of my favourites is by R B Kitaj of the poet Laura Riding. She was the original White Goddess in Robert Graves’ book of the same name. She had a passionate affair with Graves, lived with Graves and his wife, and ended throwing herself out of a first floor window and breaking her back, not dying obviously, and she complained bitterly about the way that Graves had written her up in the book.”
He says that stories and what he describes as constellations of pictures, pictures with links or themes, will guide visitors through his collection and through the exhibition.
“We have the Kitaj picture of Laura Riding in the centre of the room and alongside that three pictures of Kitaj by Arturo Di Stefano at various stages of his life. So you have various interpretations of the artist and his work – told in quite different ways.
“I love the variety on display here. I have had several works framed especially for the show and it’s great to see them together and on the walls. One of the oldest works I love dates from 1925 which shows a very young artist painting the portrait of an old man. It’s youth and age, innocence and experience. What I love about it is that you can only see the back of the old man’s head. Unusually you don’t see the face of the sitter, what you do see is the artist at work.
“Then I love these two self- portraits of Augustus John. One when he is young and dynamic and the other when he’s mad and old. Then we have one of John’s own portraits of his friend T W Earp. There are connections throughout the collection.”
Talking to Andrew, it’s clear that he remains a huge enthusiast and art is his passion. So why did he choose to collect portraits rather than landscapes, sculpture, cloud studies or abstracts?
“I love figure drawing and fine draughtsmanship. At first I thought I would just collect self-portraits but that soon became obvious that there are not enough self-portraits to sustain an interesting collection, so I broadened it out to include how artists also saw other people, particularly people they knew really well, their friends, and that forms the basis of my collection and also provides some interesting stories.
“I also love the opportunity to introduce people to Jacob Kramer, good artists that have slipped under the radar to a large extent. I love Kramer’s work but not a lot of people know about him.”
Andrew’s advice to aspiring art collectors is to keep an eye on the smaller auction houses and regional auction houses as well as auction websites. “London auctions don’t tend to have the cheaper end of the market but some of the smaller auction houses still do. But I believe in getting out there and seeing what’s around. I have found things at charity shops in all sorts of places. But, go out and immerse yourself in art and find out what you like.”
Face to Face: The Andrew Lambirth Collection exhibition runs at Gainsborough’s House until October 16. Limited edition prints by Maggi Hambling and Martha Peavey are available. For more information email@example.com
Andrew Lambirth: Collector
Andrew Lambirth does not come from an artistic background. His parents were not artists but he discovered art as a schoolboy and has been immersed in it ever since. He started off as a porter in London’s leading auction houses before becoming one of the capital’s leading critics and author of many biographies and books of art appreciation.
From 2002 to 2014 he was the art critic on The Spectator and has supplied art features for The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian as well as the Royal Academy’s own magazine.
Today his own collection includes work by Maggi Hambling, Walter Sickert, Eileen Agar and John Nash. He is also proud of the fact that it also embraces a wide range of styles and covers almost a century of creativity.
“I find modern British art endlessly fascinating. I love the intimacy of the self-portrait, or the way that formal or informal portraits by friends can reveal the true character of someone.
“I didn’t enjoy a particularly artistic upbringing, in fact books were more important in our house than paintings. Art first came into my life at school through the enthusiasm and skill of a particularly fine teacher. That man was Alan Clark. He was inspired and inspiring. I also read widely during those early years and that set me on my way.
“I began to attend museums and exhibitions. I remember the Paul Nash show at The Tate in 1975 and the LS Lowry exhibition at the Royal Academy the following year.
“Alan Clark wasn’t just concerned with British artists either. He was the first one to point me towards Picasso by showing me some marvellous books of illustrations.
“I bought my first painting at university and so a life-long hobby was born. It was the beginning of a passion for collecting that has only increased as the years have passed. It’s true I only have a limited budget and I have to shop around but, as any collector will tell you, that is part of the fun.”