“Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”
– Willam Morris
Surrounding oneself with beautiful things is one of life’s great pleasures. Collecting art isn’t just for millionaires – the Vogel art collection is proof of that at least! No matter if you have £5 a week to spend on art or £5,000, it is possible to build a collection of original art that makes you happy. Admittedly, more ample finances do make it easier, but a dash of guile can more that make up for that…
First, spend a bit of time working out what kind of art you like. Go to galleries, auctions, exhibitions, museums… Surround yourself with the most glorious art you can find and try to figure out which pieces speak to you and why. Me, I tend to prefer eighteenth century portraits – ideally continental or in the grand manner, or the high Victorian spectacularly romanticised landscapes. Deeply, deeply unfashionable, but they make me happy 🙂
Next, work out how much you want to spend. I would never recommend buying art as an investment (whatever the gallerinas say) – and much like a new car if you buy it from a gallery it will almost certainly halve in value by the time you get it home – so only buy art you love, and don’t spend the rent money on it. Now that’s not to say don’t buy from galleries – they can introduce you to wonderful works of art that you would never have found otherwise, the people are (usually) deeply knowledgeable about art and provide great advice on choosing works and artists and growing your collection, not to mention assurance that their pieces are genuine (particularly important for historical pieces and big name works). But do recognise that their time and expertise don’t come for free. The stereotype of an art gallery is an unkind one – a chilly place, all white walls and snooty gallerinas. The reality, I find, is very different. Most galleries are full of lovely folks who are truly, madly, deeply passionate about art, and who are delighted to share it with another enthusiast. I can’t count the number of staff who have taken the time to walk me around the most gorgeous items in their collection, pulling more paintings out of storage to show me how an artist has progressed through time, inviting me to art fairs and exhibition launches and plying me with coffee (or sometimes wine!) – even when I was quite clearly a student and scarcely able to afford wine, never mind anything in the gallery.
Now, on to the fun part – finding your perfect artwork! In roughly decreasing order of expensiveness….
First up, if there is a contemporary artist that you like, try to meet them. Commissioning something directly from them will get you exactly what you want – at a price no worse than their gallery would charge you for anything else! If their work tends to go for more than you can afford, ask if they did any studies for your favourite pieces. You’ll often be able to pick up a gorgeous sketch or a watercolour study for a fraction of the price of the final bronze or oil painting. The best places to meet them is at the launch of their exhibition – talk enthusiastically to the chaps and chapesses at their gallery, and ask to join their mailing list – they should be able to sort out invites for you. These events are by invitation only but are almost always free, usually provide wine, and there’s no obligation to buy – the gallery just uses them to build enthusiasm for the artist and get people slightly tipsy in the presence of good art.
Look out for auctions by small, country auctioneers – but make sure you include buyers premium (usually about 20%) in your calculations. Ask to see their unsold paintings after an auction. You are admittedly unlikely to find a bargain in Bonham’s Knightsbridge auction rooms, but their Oxford branch is well worth trying – they’re selling this lovely little nineteenth century Russian watercolour without so much as an estimate on July the 18th.
Buying art online is another possibility – eBay has some great bargains, along with a remarkable number of “original” artworks that sell and get re-listed every week so caveat emptor. Etsy is a brilliant way to buy directly from less well known artists, and because you are usually buying direct there is much less risk. Many artists also have their own gallery online, so do a bit of research and see what you can find.
Next, work your network – you’ll find more artists (both amateur and professional) there than you might expect, and they can be remarkably talented! If you’re after something personal – a family portrait, or a sketch of your cats – this is particularly effective. Look out for local art groups and university art departments – go to their shows, and see if any of the work catches your eye. The glowing little watercolour below is by the Renaissance Man’s aunt, Audrey Robards.
Keep your eyes open at flea markets, charity shops and car boot sales. Ok, so you probably won’t find an undiscovered Da Vinci, but sometimes you can pick up a whimsical watercolour for a song. Below is a little oil I scooped up for a princely £4 in a charity shop. The frame is awful, but the painting reminds me of childhood holidays in the alps. Speaking of which, focus on the painting when you’re choosing art, not the frame. A bad frame can ruin a painting, but is relatively easy to fix…
My last thought is once you’ve got your artwork, do look after it. Keep it away from steamy bathrooms, baking hot attics, damp, mouldiferous basements, and the sticky paws of children and animals….