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’). In this post we talk to Malcom and Rachel Hill about their collection of art from St Ives and Wales…
Malcolm and Rachel Hill live near Swansea. Now retired, both have scientific backgrounds and spent most of their careers working in the petrochemical industry. They’re also both art enthusiasts – Malcolm is a former Treasurer and Rachel a former Minutes Secretary of the Friends of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea. Here they share their thoughts on collecting, the RWA secret postcard auction and more…
What do you collect?
Mainly our collection is made up of abstract art in a variety of mediums – paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and ceramics built up over forty years. The collection primarily contains artwork from St Ives but more recently we have collected Welsh contemporary art
How did you come to start collecting?
Buying the first piece came out of the blue. We had always been interested in art and enjoyed visiting galleries, but it had never entered our heads that we would ever collect – until October 1979. We were in Swansea and I visited the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery. The Swansea Festival exhibition was running, which displayed a large retrospective by Denis Mitchell comprising of over eighty works. I knew a little about St Ives, Hepworth, Nicholson etc. but his was a new name to me. There were sculptures in bronze, aluminium, wood, stone, slate, bronze and slate reliefs, paintings and drawings. A huge range of work produced over a thirty year period.
I was not prepared for the impact which the show delivered and the effect it had on me. It was impressive and I felt an immediate connection with it. I spent a long time looking at the artworks and then was drawn to a bronze sculpture in particular – Endellion. I still don’t really know why but I thought “I’m going to buy it”. I met up with Rachel, we viewed the show together and I’m pleased to say it had the same effect on her. I said “what about that one?” and we both said “let’s buy it”. Which we did.
That was the beginning of our long friendship with Denis and his wife Jane. We made regular visits and family holidays to St Ives. We visited Denis at home and in his studio in Newlyn and collected artworks by him and many others. Our association with St Ives continues to this day.
Do you have a specialist area of interest? If so, did you start with it, or has a specialism evolved?
Yes, our specialist area of interest leads on directly from the previous question. The bulk of the collection is based around Post-War St Ives abstraction. We have made many visits to St Ives since 1979 and collected a range of work. When we first visited, work by Hepworth, Nicholson, Lanyon, Hilton and Heron was already out of our financial reach. However, there was a second wave of significant artists including Terry Frost, Denis Mitchell, John Wells, Willy Barns-Graham, Trevor Bell, John Emanuel, Roy Ray, Noel Betowski, Neil Canning and Janet Leach who were all within our budget. We bought their work from galleries, directly from the artists on studio visits and some at auction.
Over the last ten years or so we have also collected Welsh contemporary art which makes up the rest of the collection. These include work by Ceri Richards, Glenys Cour, John Uzzell Edwards, Meri Wells, Laura Thomas, Helen Sear and Alex Duncan. These were mostly purchased from galleries and auctions. Some however were the result of visits we made to the artists’ studios, a much more satisfying experience and two occasions in particular stand out.
The first was to the renowned Swansea painter Glenys Cour, where we bought one of her atmospheric landscapes. Glenys is a remarkable person. An artist who has produced a huge portfolio of diverse work over many years and still paints every day. Her contribution to the Arts in Wales over the last seventy years is immeasurable.
The second was to the studio of the figurative, ceramic sculptor Meri Wells in Machynlleth. It was a fascinating experience to see her art practice first-hand and learn of her inspiration to create the pieces. Meri’s autobiographical work is powerful, yet vulnerable and made an instant connection with us. Meri was a worthy winner of the Wakelin Purchase Award at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in 2011.
What makes you decide to buy a piece?
Generally when a piece really connects, sometimes instantly, sometimes over a longer period. Then comes the urge to own it. There have been many times when we have both responded to the former – probably a follow-on from 1979!
Like most collectors we are buying artwork we like, respond to and can live with forever. I think if art collectors bought with resale value in mind, they will become art dealers.
Have you purchased works from RWA Academicians, or from an RWA exhibition like the Open or postcard auction?
We don’t have any works by RWA Academicians yet, but it is not for the want of trying! We must be the least successful ever at buying in the Secret Postcard Auction. Over a few visits we have bid on at least ten works and only secured one. (Having said that, it is an excellent painting by Noel Betowski which is much admired).
On the other hand our son and daughter have been much more successful and have four Postcard Auction works each, including one VPRWA (Stephen Jacobson) two RWA Academicians (Andrew Munoz and Glo Williams) and one RA (Jock McFadyen). We really need to pick up tips from them!
So, here we go again on 16th May 2019 – who knows, this time it might all change.
Which of your artworks is your favourite conversation piece?
Difficult to decide on one, but the piece that most friends and visitors seem to pick out and ask about is the maquette for The Ashes Vessel – which is not as it sounds!
The piece was made by Laura Thomas, a woven textile artist and designer based in Cardiff. Laura has developed a technique to encapsulate her weavings inside acrylic resin. A fascinating visit to her studio ended with us buying a maquette of the piece, which was commissioned by the Welsh Assembly Government and the Arts Council Wales to commemorate the first Ashes test match played in Cardiff in 2009. After the game the Australian team were presented with their Ashes Vessel which is now in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Our version is in our living room.
Are you haunted by any ‘ones that got away’?
Not exactly ‘haunted by’, more ‘still aware of’. Inevitably, if you have been collecting for many years, there are quite a few that will have got away.
We don’t tend to dwell on the ones that were outside our budget, but possibly we still think of the affordable ones which we passed on. Some others being ‘lost’ at auction also.
One in particular was an affordable Peter Lanyon – words you don’t often hear together in the same sentence. On a visit to a Gallery in West Cornwall a few years ago we were shown two works from the Porthia Prints series, a range of prints on linen, to be used as table mats. They were produced by Denis Mitchell and Stanley Dorfman in 1955 to be sold in Heal’s Picture Gallery, London. Artists including Hepworth, Lanyon, Hilton, Heron, Frost, Mitchell and Lanyon designed table mats.
The Gallery had one by Peter Lanyon and one by Denis Mitchell for sale. Both were excellent and we decided to buy the Denis Mitchell (which we are still enjoying on the wall). With that wonderful, but elusive thing called hindsight, it made sense to buy them both.
Have you learned any tips along the way you’d pass on to somebody just starting to collect?
Only to follow the old cliché of ‘buy what you like’ really. Simple but true.
If you could only save one of your pieces from a fire, which would it be and why?
We are in agreement that it would be Endellion, as that was the piece which started everything off in a direction that we had not planned or envisaged.
Finally, if money were no object, what artwork from anywhere in the world would you love to own?
After much thinking about this one, and deciding that the Renaissance masterpieces are safer and better displayed in Italy, we would choose a modern masterpiece. Namely Conversation with Magic Stones by Barbara Hepworth. It should fit into our garden – we already have the trees and grass waiting. If not we would settle for the maquette, which will definitely fit inside the house.
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