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The new arbiters of taste

John Martin Robinson on the latest books by James Stourton amd John Harris

23 January 2008

12:00 AM

23 January 2008

12:00 AM

Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945 James Stourton

Scala, pp.480, 36

Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvage John Harris

Yale University Press, pp.240, 30

Both these books are dominated by the American connection, over half of each being devoted to transatlantic collecting in the 20th century. James Stourton’s theme is post-war art collecting, and his US section is headed ‘America Triumphant’. He describes the 60 years when the USA dominated the international art market through sheer buying power but also because of the vitality and originality of the contemporary American art scene in New York. John Harris, by contrast, paints a hilarious picture of the earlier 20th-century trade in historic interiors and architectural bric-a-brac when ‘period rooms’ were a must-have in American houses and art museums, though most of the latter have now been de-accessioned as fake.

The two books intersect at Basildon Park in Berkshire where Harris records the removal and export of the 18th-century interior fittings and Carr of York’s dining-room to the Waldorf Astoria in New York in 1930, whilst Stourton describes the post-war restoration of Basildon, and the Italian paintings collected to fill it by Lord and Lady Illiffe in the 1950s, when the lost Waldorf Astoria bits were replaced with other fixtures by Carr of York from Panton Hall, Lincolnshire.

Harris traces the origins of the antiques market and antiquarian taste in 19th- century Britain, and the emergence of a distinct strand trading in ‘period rooms’ and supplying millionaires with instant historic backdrops. This architectural salvage — much of it from demolished buildings — was assembled and titivated by wily London dealer-decorators who made up complete interiors out of old bits, copies and outright forgery, the identical chimneypiece or plasterwork sometimes being sold to several different clients.


Harris plays sleuth and unmasks many of these frauds in an amusing narrative underpinned by original research. There is a whole chapter on that megalomaniac, avaricious magpie, William Randolph Hearst (the original of Citizen Kane) who filled warehouses with panelling and ancient architectural fragments which he then never used.

James Stourton’s book deals with more serious and respectable collectors, including scholarly connoisseurs. All the great names are here: Mellon, Getty, Guggenheim, Rockefeller, Annenberg. Stourton’s book is a brilliant and succinct survey of art-collecting between 1945 and 2005 in Europe and the US but with some forays to the East, though the most interesting sections are those on England, France and New York. Near-contemporary history is especially fascinating. Many of the collectors covered are still alive. This is a book rich in personal detail, but also with an intelligent structure.

His theme is that the second world war was a watershed between European cultural primacy and that of America. ‘France is the father and mother of this book and America its virile child.’ He also traces the changes in the nature of collecting over the past 60 years, from an essentially private activity, part of the douceur de vivre, to a more public-orientated one. Some discerning collectors of the post-war period, like Paul Mellon or the Wrightsmans, formed their collections specifically with public museums in mind, while fashionable Modern and Contemporary Art, because of its character and gigantism, is increasingly created for exhibition — like the Saatchi Collection — rather than the embellishment of a private house or a setting for civilised living.

The central story is of American collecting ‘pulling up its European anchor and moving gradually across the Atlantic and into a largely 20th-century time-zone’. There is an aspect of Old Testament and New Testament here — Old Europe and Modern America — though not everybody will agree unreservedly with the picture of French primacy giving way to American. It is debatable how far France still enjoyed any real cultural pre-eminence after the second world war, most of the great Parisian collections in that period being assembled by foreigners, Greek ship-owners and South American tin millionaires. Twentieth-century American taste has often been narrow and limited, with an over-emphasis on modern and contemporary art, whose value it is too early to judge, and a conventional lust for late-19th-century French pictures of an easy-on-the-eye variety in expensive frames. Anybody who saw last year’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Renoir landscapes from American collections may have well-justified reservations about that field of activity.

The great boom in American collecting has been partly underpinned by a generous tax regime which enables the rich to pay their income tax by giving art to museums, and so both encourages people to buy, and has also filled the vast exhibition temples of North American cities. This has not been the case in England, where the Treasury has always opposed such fiscal encouragements. Instead, the post-war period was dominated by a group of educated scholar-collectors like Kenneth Clarke, Denis Mahon and Brinsley Ford, who used specialist knowledge of particular areas — the Italian Seicento, Chinese pots or ethnic artefacts — to create magnificent collections on relatively modest incomes, by American standards. Stourton also charts the rise of London as international art capital in the 1950s and 1960s, which he attributes to air travel and the role of the two big auction houses in creating a powerful global art trade, as well as the emergence of acclaimed living English artists, pop culture and the School of London.

What makes this book so interesting is the strong human dimension. It is part based on interviews with the collectors themselves. As a result, the individual personal nature of collecting is strongly underlined. It provides a colourful insight into one aspect of contemporary society and culture. Hugh Trevor-Roper said that writing about the present is the hardest task for a historian, as the narrative is so difficult to discern. James Stourton makes a good stab at it here, with a clear storyline, vivid detail and excellent illustrations.


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