The Art of Collecting: Alison Bevan

We’re inviting art enthusiasts to talk about why they collect art, to share their favourite pieces (and sometimes to bemoan the ‘ones that got away’). Our first collector is Alison Bevan, Director of the RWA…


What do you collect?
I can’t say I’ve been actively collecting in recent years, but what I have collected has tended to be contemporary work by artists I’ve come across through my work.  The majority of my collecting was done while I worked at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, and therefore it’s mainly work by artists living and working in Wales at that time.


How did you come to start collecting?
When I was a very young curator, I went to the home of two elderly artists – a delightful couple of very meagre means in a ramshackle farmhouse in West Wales. To my amazement, their walls were filled with treasures – works by Ben Nicholson, John Piper, Ceri Richards, etc.  I asked them how they’d acquired these works and they explained that, as students in London in the 1930s, they’d gone to exhibitions and negotiated with the artists to buy works for a shilling a week; consequently, they’d had the joy of living with and loving truly great artworks all their adult lives. That was it!  The next exhibition I was at I fell in love with a picture and determined that I would buy it.

I was living in a bedsit with no TV or other luxuries and had no money, but used the account number on a letter about my overdraft to fill in an Own Art application to buy the picture over 10 months.  It currently hangs in our bedroom and I still love it just as much to this day. I’ve since got to know some of the artists I most love, so have been lucky enough to be able to buy direct from them, spreading the payments over a long time to make buying a significant piece affordable.


Alison with Kurt Jackson (centre). Photo: Janette Kerr


Do you have a specialist area of interest? If so, did you start with it, or has a specialism evolved?
I don’t have a particular area of interest, just whether something ‘speaks’ to me or not. I love images that take you somewhere else, particularly if they bring back memories – such as the fabulous Kurt Jackson RWA piece I was given as a leaving present from my previous job, which depicts cattle on the clifftop in the wild West of Cornwall.  

My favourite art is that which verges on abstraction, but where the subject is still readable, and I’m a sucker for certain textures – I adore dry, scumbled paint; sgraffito marks, and interesting layers – though I loathe heavy impasto!  I love textile work, and pieces which have a secondary history – constructions using found objects, or objects that have been loved and used.


What makes you decide to buy a piece?
The only considerations I’ve ever had when buying a piece of art are (i) would I love looking at it every day for the rest of my life and (ii) can I afford it – even if that means spreading out payments.

I would never buy something as an investment to resell, although I did consider re-selling a delicate ceramic piece some years ago when we were getting a puppy, as I was worried it would get broken. Thankfully it’s still intact and I’m glad I kept it.

I’ve bought work from student shows and from totally unknown artists, and although it’s lovely when you get to know the artist and see their careers progress, I still cherish pieces that have no resale value whatsoever.  


Have you purchased works from RWA Academicians, or from an RWA exhibition like the Open or postcard auction?
The only RWA Academicians works I own have been gifts – the Kurt Jackson mentioned before and a delicious little Janette Kerr, one of a series of small paintings she did as Christmas cards for our Patrons and then allowed me to keep one as a birthday present (I love it!).

I’m not allowed to buy from the Postcard Auction as I know who each piece is by, and I haven’t yet bought from an exhibition, though I’ve been seriously tempted!


‘The Last Supper’ – copyright Glenys Cour


Which of your artworks is your favourite conversation piece?

Every piece has its own story, but perhaps the one I’d bore people most about is ‘The Last Supper’ by Glenys Cour [above], a large paper collage, which was borrowed by the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery when they reopened in December 2016 with a retrospective exhibition of her work.

Glenys is an amazing person and it was a small piece of her work that was my first purchase. I bought this work following an exhibition at the Taliesin Arts Centre, where I’d completely fallen in love with it, but couldn’t afford to buy it. I’d got to know Glenys and asked her if I could pay her £50 a month until it was paid for, and remember gleefully squashing myself and it into a taxi after having dinner at her house.

I love everything about it, from the memories it evokes of painting a ‘last supper’ at Sundays School, to the colours and textures. I particularly love that it’s by such an incredible human being – now in her 90s and still experimenting as an artist, and finding child-like joy in everyday things: she’s an inspiration.


Are you haunted by any ‘ones that got away’?
Yes, lots!  I really wish I’d bought a piece from Tony Goble (1943-2007), whose work I showed when I was at the Glynn Vivian, and one of Catrin Howell’s amazing dog sculptures when I was on the panel that awarded her the National Eisteddfod Craft Gold Medal in 1999.  I’m still ever so-slightly obsessed by a work by Janette Kerr PPRWA which I took to a retreat at Penny Brohn UK and completely fell in love with… and many more!


Have you learned any tips along the way you’d pass on to somebody just starting to collect?
Buy what you love and don’t let anyone tell you whether it’s good or bad. What makes your heart sing may do nothing for someone else, but that doesn’t mean your taste is any better or worse. But spend plenty of time looking before you buy: you may find that your taste changes as you see more work, and you need to be sure that it’ll still be something that you want to live with in 5 or 10 years’ time.  

Never buy just because of a ‘name’, and if you’re spending serious money, make sure you’re getting what you pay for – buy from a reputable source or the artist, and if it’s a historic work, make sure it’s got a cast-iron provenance that shows it’s not fake!


copyright William Brown


If you could only save one of your pieces from a fire, which would it be and why?
That’s a really tricky one!  Either that first little Glenys Cour, because it still fills my heart with joy, or a painting by William Brown (1953 – 2008) [above], which he gave us as a wedding present – they’re both in our bedroom, so I’d probably try to grab both!  


Finally, if money were no object, what artwork from anywhere in the world would you love to own?
Having worked in Museums and Galleries for my entire career, I think I’d be far too stressed out about the risk of damage to go for a Renaissance masterpiece (although I’m tempted to go for the Wilton Dyptych) or any of the huge names of C19th or 20th art… I think I’d go for a Grayson Perry ‘shrine’, ideally one made specially for me!


Photo top: ©Simon Galloway 2017. All Rights Reserved



The Friends of the RWA is an independent charity that supports the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol’s first art gallery. 
For just £35 a year Friends can make unlimited visits to RWA exhibitions and enjoy a host of other benefits, as well as making an important contribution to the arts in Bristol and the South West. Find out more and join up here.

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