Over the years Chris Beetles must have made the pencil-wielding fingers of Quentin Blake and Ronald Searle itch with a desire to draw him. He presents a vigorously compact figure, possesses a pair of appropriately beetling brows sheltering an extremely shrewd gaze and sports an unabashedly splendid set of bugger’s grips. Standing in the doorway of his gallery on Ryder Street in the heart of art-dealing London, both he and his collection are a world away from the smooth-talking, sharp-suited power-broking of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the plush hush of Colnaghi.
The walls of the gallery bristle with pictures, hung to fill every possible available space from floor to ceiling. Rowlandson rubs along happily with Brabazon, Edward Lear with Mervyn Peake, Quentin Blake with Ronald Searle. Large blue folders labelled alphabetically lie on shelves, filled with more treasures from Ardizzone to Zinkeisen. The order and profusion betray a certain element of obsessive hunter-gathering. I wondered how early on in life he had been bitten by the collecting bug.
‘Pretty early on. I was the sort of boy who, if I got something, anything — a marble, a cigar band — I’d want to start collecting until I had all the different colours and varieties I could find. It wasn’t because I had an unhappy childhood; some people are just natural collectors and I certainly fell into that category.’
Collecting pictures, however, came later, after he had studied medicine and qualified as a GP. ‘I moved to London to take up my first job and needed some furniture for the flat I was renting. There was a place where you could pick up all sorts of things for very little money so I bought a whole lot of rather dreadful second-hand stuff — rattan chairs and that sort of thing — and then I saw a couple of pictures and thought that I might as well put something on the walls while I was about it. That started me off. I became fascinated by pictures that tell you something about the social and domestic history of this country, the sort of pictures that thousands of people possess and that have real value despite the fact that, at the time, you could buy them for next to nothing. Even now they’re undervalued.’
So it was English watercolours that were his first love and he set out to learn everything he could about them. He read every word there was to read on the subject, he visited galleries and museums all over the country, persuading curators to let him look at pictures that weren’t on display, looking ‘fairly rough with my beatnik hair and my sideburns’ as he craned over padded brass rails placed in front of pictures and ignored the supercilious attitudes he frequently encountered. ‘I don’t have much respect for the trade,’ he admits, ‘because the trade never had much respect for me. People in auction houses particularly would hardly give me the time of day. There was a way of speaking many of them had, prefacing every remark with a sort of half-sneer. “Nyerm-have you got an appointment? Nyerm-is he expecting you?” Needless to say it was quite pleasing when those people started coming to me for my so-called expert opinion.’
Beetles worked as a GP for 14 years while, alongside the day job, amassing a collection, beginning to deal in pictures and every now and again, for light relief, writing television scripts (highlights included Doctor on the Go and The Secret Policeman’s Ball). Eventually he realised that it might be beneficial to focus his considerable energies and decided to concentrate on pictures. Beyond watercolours he has promoted the work of numerous illustrators, cartoonists and photographers, the last proving so successful that he has opened a second gallery devoted to photography.
He is passionately opposed to the stuffy, reverential atmosphere that can still scare people away from galleries and hates the fact that the pictures on view in this country are the tip of the iceberg, with thousands tucked away in vaults and hardly ever seen by the public. As a result, his gallery is both a warm and welcoming place with frequent parties held to launch exhibitions, and a place where the pictures are constantly on the move, ensuring that everything gets an airing. His pricing is keenly competitive and you can look up the entire stock on his website, check out the costs and even buy online if you prefer to forego the pleasure of purchasing in person. ‘I like talking to people about pictures,’ he says. He also likes writing about them and publishes a stream of beautifully illustrated catalogues to accompany his exhibitions. ‘If people can’t afford to buy a drawing or a photograph, they can at least buy a catalogue with really good reproductions.’
The Beetles zeal for letting people see the work he collects and sells means that the gallery has almost become an extension to courses on offer at art schools. Students come in to look through the vast collection of pictures — ‘I’ve probably got enough to carry on holding selling exhibitions for ten years without buying anything new’ — and while some of them are ‘bored rigid and only turn up because they have to, others are really bright-eyed and eager’. He’s good at offering employment to the bright-eyed and eager ones, who find it invaluable experience, but there’s no room for slackers. Although he doesn’t expect the same of all his staff, he himself is at work each morning by 7 a.m. He also has a flair for publicity — at a recent show of Cecil Beaton photographs he orchestrated a marvellous series of photographs of members of his team ascending a spiral staircase holding framed pictures over their heads, displaying the images to perfect advantage.
The chief characteristics of the pictures and artists that appeal to Chris Beetles are the same as he so abundantly possesses himself: a vital engagement with life, a sharply observant eye and a keen wit.