Old Master collector Katrin Bellinger: ‘I want to keep drawings visible’
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“A collector is someone truly obsessed!” says the Old Master drawings specialist and former dealer Katrin Bellinger as she ushers me into her home, a tall Victorian villa in west London.
Indeed, the house bears evidence of her various passions: drawings and paintings cover the walls; carefully arranged on the tables are Chinese rocks, sculptures, tribal art, shells, a pot containing Japanese calligraphy brushes, bronze casts of paint sticks and ceramic vases.
“I have been a collector since childhood. Even now, when I go for a walk, I always come back with something — a rock, a feather. I think it must be a hunter-gatherer thing,” she says, laughing.
Tall, elegant, with long blond hair and clear blue eyes, Bellinger is simply dressed in trousers with jacket over a bright shirt. She is welcoming, relaxed with great flashes of humour as she talks about her collections and the journey that started when she became an art dealer in the early 1980s.
“I was 28 and having studied art, thankfully I realised that my talent was rather limited. But studying art does help you understand the techniques,” she says. “I started dealing in drawings in Munich . . . I really had no idea of what I was doing, and of course I made some mistakes. Drawings are difficult [to attribute] as they are rarely signed, unlike paintings, but I was so lucky, I had excellent mentors who were local collectors. And at the time you didn’t need a great deal of money to buy drawings.”
Bellinger was attracted to works on paper from the beginning because, she says, they feel “closer to what the artist is thinking, you can see their handwriting, how they figure something out. Drawings are part of the creative process.”
But as both a collector and a dealer, she was soon confronted with a dilemma — what to keep for herself, what to sell; how to avoid a conflict of interest. “I thought I would keep just one thing a year, but the problem was that it was always the one you could sell the easiest — so that didn’t always work out.”
She decided to focus on a theme: the artist, in portraits, at work, in the studio. “I have never got bored, as it never gets repetitive,” she says. “And now everyone knows that is what I collect, I get offered far more than I could ever buy.”
She adds, “but sometimes I had to relinquish something: for instance, I had set my sights on ‘Twenty Drawings Depicting the Early Life of Taddeo Zuccaro’ (about 1595) by Zuccaro.” But when asked by the Getty to bid on the series for them, she agreed.
There is much to see in the house and Bellinger enthusiastically comments on many of the works: for instance, a portrait of Claude Monet by the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry, showing the white-bearded artist staring moodily into space. It hangs in a well-lit room containing only oil paintings; a second, darker room displays works on paper, which are generally covered to protect them. “It often looks a bit like a work by Christo in here,” Bellinger laughs.
She is interested in works by or of women artists and one wall has an array of these. One is a portrait — possibly a self-portrait — by Anne Guéret, a student of Jacques-Louis David, and Bellinger points out that she has depicted her subject drawing a male nude: “She is showing the artist as a professional, defying the conventions of the time.” She notes that while watercolour was considered a desirable pursuit for well-bred young ladies — “As long as they were not too good at it!” — oil painting was definitely a no-no: “Not ladylike, messy and far too ambitious.”
Bellinger’s great love is Italian Renaissance drawings, but finding work has become more and more difficult. “A lot is to do with what is available on the market,” she says. “Last year I only bought two Old Master drawings; so many have gone into museums or into private collections and will not re-emerge.”
Bellinger’s interests range as widely as her collections. She also buys contemporary art — or commissions it. For instance, beside a narwhal tusk in her living room is a commissioned drawing of the object by Jonathan Delafield Cook. In the same room are a vibrantly coloured woodcut work by the German artistic duo Gert and Uwe Tobias, featured in a 2013 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, an array of pots by Edmund de Waal and a group of disembodied, silvered arms by the Swiss artist Not Vital.
Meanwhile in a mews house around the corner, Bellinger stores her extensive collection of prints and other items — such as books instructing artists on how to draw. Framed on a wall is an etching of David Hockney as a young man, sitting opposite Picasso (who in fact he never met). Stacked inside neat grey cupboards are everything from a Rembrandt print to a Tiepolo ink and wash on paper.
Back in 2002 Bellinger bought the London gallery Colnaghi jointly with the Old Master dealer Konrad Bernheimer and ran the drawings department until Colnaghi was sold in 2015. “I had been working for 30 years, and I was just not finding the material that excited me any more, so I decided to stop. Now I really enjoy visiting an art fair rather than exhibiting at it!”
She is hardly retired, however. As well as being a trustee of the National Gallery and on the visiting committee of the drawings and prints department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Bellinger has run the non-profit Tavolozza Foundation (the name means “palette” in Italian) since 2001, which supports museums, galleries and other cultural institutions.
“I want to keep Old Master painting relevant and drawings visible,” she explains. “Drawings are difficult, they are sensitive to light, they have to be kept in boxes. I don’t want drawings always to be the last ones to be supported, which is what the foundation does.”
As for the future, one of the two sons she has with her husband Christoph Henkel has started a contemporary art gallery in New York, called Palo. The other also takes a keen interest in the collection. “I didn’t want to burden them with 1,800 works — which in addition are a pain in the neck to look after,” she says. “But I found it was quite depressing, thinking of dismantling something you have spent decades building up. Since my sons are very interested, I will leave it to them to decide what they want to do. It would be so nice if it carries on with them.”