The Radev Collection, Redfern Gallery, London – review

Mattei Radev was a stowaway who fled communist Bulgaria via Turkey, hid in a lifeboat on a cargo ship sailing to Glasgow, and worked as a medical orderly at the Whittington Hospital, north London, in the 1950s. Here he met eminent eye surgeon and gay rights activist Patrick Trevor-Roper. Invitations followed to the post-Bloomsbury gay salons at Long Crichel House, Dorset, owned by the collector and dealer friends Eddy Sackville-West and Eardley Knollys. There the elderly novelist E.M. Forster fell in love with the young Bulgarian; Radev later set up as a frame-maker, met artists, inherited Knollys’ and Sackville-West’s pictures, and acquired his own.

He died in 2009, and this intriguing collection – a mix of Bloomsbury, post-Impressionist French pictures reflecting Roger Fry’s long influence on 20th-century British taste, plus a dash of modernism, notably a stunning Modigliani pen, ink and chalk drawing of artist Chaim Soutine – is now touring the country. It includes the Georges Rouault circus figure which hung in Long Crichel’s bathroom; Keith Vaughan’s “Two Male Nudes” given by Christopher Isherwood to Forster and then to Radev; Maximilian Luce’s view of Dieppe acquired by Knollys for £38 at Sotheby’s during the second world war; a Picasso coloured lithograph of the artist’s son as Harlequin, which Knollys bought for £14; and Christopher Wood’s melancholy “Nude Boy in a Bedroom”, purchased from the Redfern for £50 in 1938.

All three collectors favoured the strongly figurative, with an accent on portraits, though there are abstracting surprises – Sackville-West acquired Ben Nicholson’s “Carbis Bay” and a luminous Ivon Hitchens, “June Day”, among the strongest British pictures here (another is “Cornish Flowers” by the Matisse-influenced Matthew Smith), and as late as 1960 Knollys bought Alexei Jawlensky’s lovely “Blaue Strasse” for £1,200 from Redfern. It is appropriate that this gallery, original source for several pieces, is the tour’s London venue, before the show continues to Abbot Hall, Kendal.

Until September 5,

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