Mark Hudson meets an avid collector who's donating his remarkable homeful of art to the Hepworth Wakefield
“I went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1972, and I bought a John Nash watercolour. It all just got out of hand from there,” says Tim Sayer, surveying his domain of art with a deadpan shrug. Here are African sculptures, beside ancient Chinese pottery and spectacular pieces of modern ceramics. And on every bit of wall that isn’t taken up by Sayer’s very substantial art library are paintings, drawings and prints by leading 20th-century artists: David Hockney, Sonia Delaunay, Roberto Matta, Robyn Denny and more. And that’s just the sitting room.
If you’re fortunate enough to own proper art, you’ve probably got it in your sitting room, where it can be most easily enjoyed by you and your visitors. You might have the odd piece strategically positioned in the dining room or the hallway.
Sayer’s art starts right inside the front door with works by Bridget Riley, Paul Nash and Jacob Kramer, and continues in an unbroken stream throughout the house, with major modern artists in every room: Gerhard Richter in the dining room, Henry Moore in the kitchen, Robert Motherwell, Sol Le Witt and Louise Bourgeois on the upper landing, Anthony Caro on the bathroom door and Alexander Calder, Antoni Tapies and Antony Gormley in what he refers to picturesquely as “the bog”.
When I heard that West Yorkshire’s Hepworth Wakefield was planning an exhibition of 100 works from a collection of 500 given to the gallery in his will, along with the owner’s house and library, I assumed the donor would be some muck-and-brass local businessman with a mansion in the Dales. I certainly didn’t expect to find such riches hidden away in an anonymous townhouse in a quiet north London street. (Money made from selling Sayer’s house will go towards raising funds for the Hepworth.)
Sayer is a quietly-spoken, 70-year-old retired BBC journalist of modest means, who has been doggedly acquiring domestically scaled art works for over half a century.
“There’s no big plan," he says. "I just buy what appeals to me at a given moment.” If Sayer’s house sounds like a profusion of insane – if expensive – clutter, the overall effect is curiously satisfying and cohesive, with an underlying order you don’t at first appreciate.
The dining room, which is mostly abstract, with 16 works by the wonderful British painter Prunella Clough, leads through into the sitting room where there’s a softer feel with mostly figurative pieces, including two exquisite watercolours of parched fields by the under-rated British artist Alan Reynolds.
It may all feel a world away from the megalomanic accumulations of the Medici, say, or today’s Russian oligarchs - but as with any great collection, there’s a strong sense of the person who’s brought it all together. And because, unlike many modern collectors, he doesn’t use advisers or consultants to maximise investment potential, relying instead entirely on his own instincts, there’s an intimate feeling of how his enthusiasms have developed, between abstract and figurative work and different periods of modern art.
Sayer, who used to write sport reports for Radio 4 and news items for the now-redundant teletext information service Ceefax, likes to play the role of the slightly crusty Middle Englander who wandered into art world by accident. But it’s clear that behind his bluff façade, he’s highly knowledgeable.
And it’s obvious, just looking around, that a collection like this couldn’t be amassed – even with the shrewdest buying – without considerable expenditure.
“We don’t go on holiday much,” shrugs Sayer. “I bargain with dealers, and generally negotiate payment in instalments over many months. It tends to work out one way or another.”
“For years I was spending over half my BBC salary on art,” he adds. (Sayer also recently inherited money from his mother and an aunt, which has allowed him greater spending power.)
Sayer’s wife Annemarie, a theatrical costume-maker, points out that when they do go on holiday it tends to be to Venice – for the art Biennale. Not that she’s complaining. “Neither of us are very good at beach breaks.”
As a boy, Sayer was always an avid collector (“Clockwork trains, cigarette cards, girlie mags), but he really caught the bug when, aged 17, he bought a portfolio of 153 prints, including several works by the 17th century French master Claude Lorraine for ten shillings (50p). “I’m still getting them framed,” he says.”
That purchase sewed a seed that was to bear fruit with his fateful visit to the Royal Academy 10 years later. From there he began building and developing his collection, focussing on early 20th century British art, until the late Seventies, when he took a slightly different turn.
“There was a formidable lady at the Contemporary Art Society called Nancy Balfour, who said to me, ‘Darling, only buy living artists!’ The idea was to help artists working now, which seemed a good thing. So I got rid of everything by dead artists, including the John Nash watercolour and a very beautiful figure of a woman in clay by Frank Dobson.” He winces at the thought of it even now. “But you can’t hanker after things. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.” When his living artists started to die off, he realised the absurdity of constantly having to eliminate people from his collection and went back to buying whatever took his fancy.
Sayer’s collecting has given him a whole life beyond the pleasure of simply owning the art. In time off from his work for the BBC, he has worked for galleries, writing catalogue notes and liaising with artists. Art world luminaries from sculptor Anthony Caro to Tate director Nicholas Serota have visited him to see the collection – always with delight. He’s become friends with many artists, in some instances paying their studio bills in return for work. “I never feel I’ve done that well out of those sort of arrangements, but…” He gives a what-can-you-do shrug.
Rather than poring over his treasures in seclusion, wary of opportunists and potential thieves, Sayer is passionate about allowing as many people as possible to see his collection. Recently he has been confronting the questions that eventually hit every serious collector: what happens to his acquisitions when he goes – particularly since he doesn’t have children; and what really was the purpose of the whole thing.
The idea of his art being sold off piecemeal and his collection as an entity disappearing into thin air as though it has never existed, he finds “horrible”. So a few years ago he approached a well-known public gallery who initially seemed interested in taking his collection, but then went very quiet.
Then, last year, visiting the Hepworth Wakefield for the first time and inspired by architect David Chipperfield’s harmoniously proportioned exhibition spaces with the River Calder rushing past outside, he made another attempt at gifting his collection. The response was immediately enthusiastic, and an agreement forged whereby he will keep his collection during his lifetime, with the works held in trust by Annemarie, should he predecease her.
It’s an arrangement which, he says, “gives meaning to 50 years of collecting”, and it’s an example he hopes other collectors will follow, at a time when provincial galleries in particular need all the help they can get.
While he deplores the current over-commercialisation of the london art scene – “it’s all got so bloody boring” – he has no intention of stopping buying art. “Collecting really concentrates your mind on what you’re looking at, and it gives you a reason for being involved. You’ve got to have something to do, and I can’t imagine anything as horrible as not having art in my life.”
‘The Tim Sayer Bequest: A Private Collection Revealed’ is at Hepworth Wakefield, West Yorkshire, from Apr 30 to Oct 9; hepworthwakefield.org 01924 247 360