“To you it will look like a muddle but for me it all falls into categories,” forewarns John Scott as he leads me into his home in London’s Notting Hill. My coat has been hung on a gothic revival hat stand designed by George Edmund Street for the Royal Courts of Justice and I have been stopped in my tracks by the magnificent – and monumental – “Pericles” dressoir designed by Bruce Talbert for the 1867 Paris International Exhibition. More than 3m wide and nearly as high, this elaborate oak tour de force is decorated with a bas-relief scene from Shakespeare’s Pericles and its canopied shelves, carved with quotations from the play, are laden with exotic Minton cloisonné porcelain and other ceramics, much of them designed by Christopher Dresser. Their brilliant enamel hues and gilding gleam in the hall’s stygian gloom. When Scott acquired this great cabinet 32 years ago, the underbidders were Gilbert & George.
Up the stairs, long flanked by Eric Gill’s nude beer stone Headdress, complete with hand-coloured lips and nipples, we arrive in the top-lit studio of a reception room. Here words fail. Under a purple ceiling supported by dark pink beams and green ironwork brackets is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of predominantly British decorative arts and design from 1830-1930, much of it inspired by sources from across the globe. Almost every inch of every surface resounds with ornament and colour. Green walls are lined with what remains of the peerless Victorian tile collection that was given to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust last year. There is barely space between the wooden or cast-iron furniture conceived by the greatest modern British architects and designers – AWN Pugin, William Burges, Christopher Dresser, Charles Eastlake, Owen Jones, Thomas Jeckyll, John Pollard Seddon, CFA Voysey, Talbert. On the furniture stands imposing British art pottery: vases, bowls, chargers and grotesques by such distinctive hands as the brilliant and eccentric Martin Brothers and William De Morgan. This is evidently a room of a collector of the old school for whom less is certainly not more.
All the above, plus glass, textiles, stained glass and sculpture – more than 1,000 pieces, representing the fruits of more than 50 years of collecting – are now for sale, through the Fine Art Society in London. Unusually, Scott has chosen not to go through the usual channels for selling large disparate collections: the big auction houses. When asked why he is selling through the FAS, he replied: “In the early days, they let me buy pieces for £100 a week over a year. I never forgot that kindness.”
Tantalising glimpses of the offering were first unveiled at the Winter Antiques Show in New York in January, and then at Maastricht in March, and now the FAS is staging three simultaneous shows in its New Bond Street gallery: ‘Modern English’: Design from the 1860s and 1870s, Powell & Sons: Whitefriars Glass 1860-1960 (both June 11-July 3) and British Art Pottery (June 11-20). Much of it has also been exhibited in various international museum shows under the name of the Birkenhead Collection. Now, as its dispersal approaches, the discreet and unassuming John Scott has emerged from the shadows to talk about its creation. It is certainly not what one might expect from a self-proclaimed “rugger bugger” who once played for Oxford and England.
“I’m now in my 80th year, I have not been well and have been advised to tidy up my affairs,” he explains wryly, blue eyes twinkling. We are sitting around a table in a small but no less stuffed sitting room almost opposite another of his initiatives, the award-winning “Turquoise Island” public lavatory and florist’s kiosk on Westbourne Grove, designed by Piers Gough. (Scott, a founder member of the Notting Hill Gate Improvement Group, is also a champion of small shops, many of which are still part of his property portfolio). “I always liked things. I was an only child and I think I was lonely,” he says. “I remember being taken to the flat of a collector, a friend of my stepfather, who gave me an ivory skull. I put it on my mantelpiece and wanted other things to go with it.” After the army, he went up to Oxford and chose prints from Piranesi’s macabre Carceri series of imaginary prisons to decorate his rooms. “As a personality you are either ‘static’, ‘dynamic’ or ‘melancholic’. I am the last. I have always been drawn to things that other people have thrown away. Take that,” he says, gesturing to the cast-iron Pugin hat stand behind me. “My mother would have paid the dustman half a crown – quite a lot of money – to get rid of what she would have called a dust-trap.”
Collecting proper began when “dear Uncle Eric” lent him £2,650 to buy a house in Hammersmith in 1961. “No point in buying a Times Furnishing chair for £3 10 shillings when £1 10 shillings could buy a cabriole-leg balloon-back Victorian chair.” The habit of trawling Portobello Road market every Saturday has never left him. Drawn to the visually striking and tactile (almost no paintings here), his difficulty has always been limiting his range. Not everything is English. One of Scott’s first – and greatest – passions was for the then much derided art nouveau. In Paris, he photographed the sinuous ironwork of the great Hector Guimard and bought glass by Emile Gallé for £35 in the marché aux puces. Several stellar examples of the latter’s technically innovative glass are here.
The highest price he ever paid at auction in Paris was for an asymmetrical occasional table of perfect proportion and line by Guimard, probably made for his own home. “Nothing more than that needs to be said about art nouveau,” he says. One of the very few pieces he cannot bear to part with is another deceptively simple piece by the architect, a “revered” ravishing gilt-bronze vase of 1908. He acquired art deco too, including Gustave Miklos’s unique patinated bronze “Tête de Femme” of 1929.
“I had never heard of Miklos until I saw this … I loved her at first sight.” It was one of many pieces acquired through his hero, the American dealer Bob Walker.
Architects’ designs dominate this very exacting collection. Moreover, many were either conceived as bravura pieces for the hugely popular international exhibitions of industrial design that began with the 1851 Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, or made for the architect’s own use. The glorious “Wheel of Fortune” octagonal table by arguably the most fantastical and extravagant architect-designer of his day, William Burges, is one such piece, exhibited at the International Exhibition in London in 1862. There is also Harry Powell’s silver-mounted glass centrepiece – rather restrained English art nouveau – exhibited at the 1902 Turin International Exhibition, and part of a vast service of nearly 400 pieces commissioned by Count Lionel Hirschel de Minerbi for his newly acquired Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice.
Here, too, is the little table that Voysey ate off. “After the war, he had to eke out a living doing watercolours,” sighs Scott. “Fame comes and goes so quickly. So many of them had sad endings.” Guimard died in New York largely forgotten, Jeckyll spent his last years in an asylum, Robert Wallace Martin – “England’s greatest studio potter” – lay under an unmarked gravestone until recently, while Dresser – “greater than William Morris, and the foremost art designer in Europe” – remains in his. To some extent this collection represents Scott’s attempt to rehabilitate and burnish their reputations. As for his own, he concludes: “I was rather embarrassed about what the FAS wrote about me. I thought they were laying it on a bit thick but then I looked around the collection again and realised that the things are rather good.”
Prices £100-£1m. Four further exhibitions are planned for 2014 and 2015, faslondon.com
A tale of two fairs
On June 26 two very different fairs will open to the public within walking distance of each other in London’s Chelsea, writes Iona Goulder. Masterpiece – now in its fifth year – will again take place on the South Grounds of the Royal Chelsea Hospital, displaying fine art, antiques, applied arts and luxury goods from international exhibitors. A few minutes walk away, at the Saatchi Gallery, the inaugural START art fair will aim to shed light on young and emerging artists from around the world.
Highlights at this year’s Masterpiece include F Scott Fitzgerald’s personal walking cane, given to the author by his publisher Maxwell Perkins in c1927 (priced at £46,000), a portrait of Admiral Nelson’s mistress Lady Hamilton by George Romney (valued at £350,000) and a bronze-cast, gold leaf sculpture of Kate Moss by Marc Quinn (£1m).
Contemporary artist-duo Tim Noble and Sue Webster have been commissioned by Blain Southern to make “The Masterpiece”, a 13.5kg work made up of animals cast in sterling silver and valued at £200,000. Sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green will be making works on site at the Sladmore Contemporary stand.
START, meanwhile, is organised by The Global Eye Programme, which was founded by collectors and philanthropists Serenella and David Ciclitira to nurture artistic talent where there is currently no infrastructure to do so. For START, they have collaborated with the Saatchi Gallery to provide a space for galleries from south and southeast Asia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Mexico to compete with their western peers. Galleries range from the more established, such as Athr Gallery in Saudi Arabia, to artist-run spaces (Arcadia Missa, The Loft) and project spaces such as east London’s Roman Road; prices range from £1,000 to £20,000.
Prudential, the fair’s sponsors, also support the Global Eye Programme. To date this includes 18 exhibitions worldwide that focus on emerging artists from Asia.