Bevis Hillier

An accretion of accumulators

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Obsessions

Stephen Calloway and Katherine Sorrell

Mitchell Beazley, pp. 192, £

The word ‘camp’ is often used as shorthand for ‘homosexual’. Its wider cultural sense has been best defined by Susan Sontag: the sublime treated as ridiculous or the ridiculous treated as sublime. In Sontag’s first category might be Marcel Duchamp’s daubing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. And in the second? Well, suppose somebody wrote a huge, respectful, footnoted book on the St John’s Wood Clique — the group of Victorian artists which included W. F. Yeames, painter of ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ (I wrote an article on them in Apollo magazine 40 years ago. That’s as far as it went, but my father commented, ‘It may be heretical, Bevis, but I believe in studying good artists.’)

I have reviewed two of Stephen Calloway’s books in this magazine, both on camp of one kind or the other: Baroque Baroque and Divinely Decadent — the titles alone are campissimi. Calloway is a very bright historian of culture and design on the staff of the Victoria & Albert Museum. I enjoyed his previous books, but felt (and wrote) that each of them was marred by … not exactly silliness, but a curious fey quality that detracted from the deep research and intelligence of his work — as it were, stardust sprinkled on a wholesome steak pie. The Victorian songwriter Edward Teschemacher wrote the lyric ‘Where my caravan has rested…’ and Calloway’s signature tune might have been ‘Where my camp has rested…’ Indeed, his books gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘striking camp’.

Now at last, in his and Katherine Sorrell’s new book, he has found a subject ideally suited to his talents, one which only rarely (and, one must admit, entertainingly) tempts him into the old bedizenments. It is a book about living collectors, superbly illustrated with photographs by Deidi von Schaewen, who also supplied the pictures for Calloway’s Divinely Decadent. With one possible exception (modesty forbids me to name it), it ought to be the book of this year, and the price is just what it should be.

There are some admirable television programmes on collecting, led by The Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt and Flog It!, but I miss a BBC show called Collectors’ World that used to be produced by John King and presented by the ever-reliable Hugh Scully. The simple idea was, you interviewed a collector about his or her speciality and showed the collection. The beauty of that approach was that you saw people who really knew what they were talking about; and you got away from the everlasting mantra ‘Have you any idea what it’s worth?’, the experts’ pie-in-the-sky guesses and the punters’ greedy, incredulous ‘You are joking, aren’t you?’ You caught the collectors’ enthusiasms; you learned from their mistakes. Granted, a new mantra rather too often came into play: ‘And which, Mrs Fanackerpants, is your favourite item?’

Is there a collective noun for collectors? An accretion? An accumulation? A set? A completely new generation of connoisseurs must have sprung up since Scully’s programme was on the small screen, so perhaps it is time to revive the Collectors’ World idea. (Bags I be presenter: anything to keep out Loyd Grossman — though, as they say, I like his sauce.) John King told me in the 1970s that some of the grander collectors declined to appear on television for fear of burglars. The same could apply to people appearing in this book. Maybe it was Calloway’s charm and enthusiasm that enabled him to corral so many wonderful and extraordinary collections, some of them very valuable. Fit new locks and alarms, you whom he seduced.

The authors begin by setting the living collectors in perspective, with a brief race through the history of collecting. They suggest that the emergence of civilisation is indicated by ‘the desire to make and possess things that lie beyond the mere necessities of existence’. Some of these objects, they add, were spoils of war, trophies of triumph over enemies. Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon preserved statues from the time of the kings of Ur, even then many centuries old. Collecting things for their beauty begins with the Greeks, reaching a high point in Athens of the 5th century BC. Calloway and Sorrell make the perceptive observation that the Romans, so self-confident in most things, lacked confidence in their own art and look- ed back to Greece and a ‘lost golden age’.

The summary moves on to the Renais- sance princes with their Kunstk