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, www.redfern-gallery.com