Picture perfect: Amazing art and where to find it in Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 08:00 19 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:44 19 January 2018
Whether you're interested in art for its aesthetic appeal or simply as an investment opportunity, there are many galleries to choose from in and around St Albans - as Richard Burton discovered.
A financier entertaining at his West London home a few years ago pulled me from the throng to show me his drawing room. On the wall was a Bomberg and what I’m sure - it was a few years ago - was a Lowry.
He was a money man so, naturally, he alluded to the value of both; reeling off the sort of figures you would for a three-bed detached on Marshalswick Lane.
That was no surprise. He’d talked investments all evening. But when I spotted a smaller, almost anonymous piece lower down; a square charcoal sketch in a pencil-box of a frame he became quite animated.
The artist? He didn’t know but if he had he’d have tracked them down and probably bought lots more. Once he sensed he had my interest he told me the story behind it as if he was telling me how he met his wife.
So there I was in the home of someone later described to me as a “pretty serious collector” surrounded by works that wouldn’t be out of place in the Tate and talking about a piece he’d picked up for £30 in a junk shop in Ireland.
He’d chosen it because its dark, brooding lines and sullen background set the perfect mood for the room he was trying to create and complemented those with alarm-sensitive pressure pads behind them.
And that, if you listen to those who know, is the only way to buy.
Art, whether we like it or not, will always be seen by some as part investment, part aesthetic, which is why rich investors trawl the gallery scene and have been known to buy up entire graduation shows in the hope of getting in early on the next big talent.
But for most of us we’d be happy with something we like to look at that - just as important - lifts the room that it’s in.
“People, by and large, buy for the love of it and nothing more,” said Hatty De Barnard, curator of the Nude Tin Can gallery in Hatfield Road, St Albans.
“It’s great if they select something that has potential and becomes collectable but they rarely come in for that. They buy simply because they see something they like.”
That simple? Not quite. She added: “I’ve had quite a few clients who have come in because they are renovating or adding an extension and have a blank space that they are looking to fill. But one couple I knew waited three years before they found something they both agreed on.”
Gallery Rouge director Kuldip Chohan agrees. “Buy what you love and don’t buy on the basis of future appreciation because you are going to live with it - whatever it’s worth.
“I do get people who say ‘tell me about something that’s investable’ but I say let’s put that to one side, I have no authority to give that advice.
“In fact, one of the things that gets my goat are galleries and shops that sell art purely for investment.”
There’s no doubt art plays a big part in what we do with our rooms these days. I’ve lost count of the number of times a developer has shown me a new build and mentioned how the mass of neutral wall space makes “an ideal canvas” or an interior designer has stressed the importance of how “that statement piece” can totally transform a room.
Equal merit in each to be honest but if the art is worth displaying it needs the right surroundings to do it justice.
Chohan make the point when he says: “Find your art early. It’s no good saying later, ‘I do love that piece but it’s the wrong shade of red’. It’s art, not a decoration, an afterthought, merely a wall-filling at the end of the process.”
He adds with a sense of irony: “It’s easier to go to Bunnings, buy paint and redecorate to match the colour preferences than go back to an artist and patronise them.”
In many respects it has never been easier to buy, thanks in no small way to the rise of online-only galleries and the fact that everyone from those you’ll find in small market towns to major auction house such as Sotheby’s are able to showcase so effectively online.
But there’s no match for seeing it in the flesh and it’s also worth, if you have in mind an artist whose work you admire, taking a trip out to a gallery that knows their work and champions them.
And there are plenty of those. Galleries are always keen to get behind emerging talent in the way Oxford’s Sarah Wiseman has with Bristol-based and recent RSA fellow Peter Kettle. Or Messums in Wiltshire who opened their 2018 season with works of Orlanda Broom, whose work finds its way into the lobbies of top international hotels.
My best friend recently drove all the way to Chipping Norton to visit the Albion Gallery where director John Eades spent a fruitful hour on a sleepy Sunday bringing his collection of Hester Berry landscapes up from the basement.
A fabulous woodland scene from the woman shortlisted for Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year now takes pride of place in her Harpenden living room.
Quite a few others, myself included, make regular pilgrimages to Cornwall to see work by the likes of the exceptional landscape artists Michael Porter and Sarah Adams. Both are represented by top London galleries, Porter by Purdy Hicks in Kensington and Adams by the Maas Gallery in Mayfair.
But you don’t have to take the M5 to see great art up close. Nearer to home, owners like Hatty De Barnard champion an eclectic mix of their own, showing in her case for example, the Italian artist Irene Raspollini whose portrait style has been compared to Chagal alongside local talent such as St Albans’ own Dave Nelson who, until three years ago, was working in the marketing team at Tesco in Welwyn Garden City.
Personally, and given I’ll probably never be able to afford the Raoul Dufy watercolour one charitable curator allowed me the privilege of actually holding in his storeroom while he rearranged his collection, I’d have found a space on any wall for my party host’s Irish charcoal.
And I bet it was worth more than the £30 he paid for it.
Where to see, where to buy
St Albans: The Nude Tin Can gallery in Fleetville showcases local and international artists. Wide range of genres from original paintings to sculptures and photography. Exhibits regularly with varying themes. Expect the quirky.
St Albans: Victoria Fine Art opened in 1965 and it remains one of the oldest and best-established in the country. Specialising in 19th and 20th Century oils, it’s a full-service operation for budding and serious collectors with celebrities and international royalty among its clientele. Based in Long Spring, Porters Wood.
Welwyn Garden City: The New Maynard Gallery is set in the foyer of the Hawthorne Theatre at Campus West, in a space grown from a request by local artist Sally-Ann Jones to use one wall. Run by charity trustees and volunteers who display local talent alongside professional painters.
Radlett: Art You Grew Up With began life on the walls of Harrods and Selfridges before establishing a base at Station Approach. Notable for premiering new works by the iconic pop artist Deborah Azzopardi on their opening night.
Harpenden: Gallery Rouge, sister gallery to the one in Chequer Street, St Albans. Far end of the High Street. Prides itself on innovative contemporary fine art for an audience as diverse as its mix of genres. International in its approach.
Still want to invest?
Wealth managers say modern art can be a hedge against inflation but there are a few things to note.
When selling, anything under £6,000 doesn’t incur capital gains tax and there are further reliefs up to £15,000.
But unlike property it won’t provide you with an income. And it’s not exactly a liquid asset so you’ll need to buy something you’ll want around for a few years.
Also, you may not be able to sell when you want and it’s an unregulated investment, so the Financial Services Compensation Scheme won’t help if something goes wrong.