An Evangelist for Art
Mercedes Stoutzker’s belief in art’s transformative powers has led her to gift, with her husband, part of their remarkable collection of modern and contemporary works to the Tate. She spoke to Apollo about sharing out the art.
Susan Moore, Friday, 1st June 2012
As this issue is published, Tate will announce an ‘irrevocable gift’ of paintings and sculptures promised by Ian and Mercedes Stoutzker, whose collection of modern and contemporary British art embraces not only the late and great but also mid-career and up-and-coming artists. To those who know the cosmopolitan couple it is an act of generosity that will come as no surprise, but what is striking is how well the gift reflects the sureness of eye and prescience of Mrs Stoutzker, as well as her approach to collecting and commissioning works of art.
When we first met many years ago, I wondered whether ballet had been her first love, for there seemed something of the dancer about the ever-elegant Mrs Stoutzker, with her dramatically dark hair worn swept back into a tight chignon. I confessed this when we met recently and her surprised denial, in the slightest of French accents, was accompanied by a characteristically gentle peal of laughter. Books, not ballet – or even art for that matter – had been the passion of her early life. That all changed after the unexpected death of her mother.
‘I grew up in cosmopolitan Tangier, in Morocco, and I had a very sheltered upbring-ing, far away from the sophistication and culture of Europe,’ she explains today, slowly and thoughtfully. ‘I had no knowledge of art but I read a lot and I did travel. It was a terrible shock to all of us when my mother died when I was 18; I was feeling very depressed, so an aunt took me on holiday to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, in Spain. I would take the train to Madrid just to go to the Prado. Art for me became a way of escaping reality: it absorbed me in such a way that whilst I was looking at something that I loved, particularly the paintings by Velásquez, I forgot everything else. It has remained that way for me until this day. ‘That was in 1958, when the museums were empty,’ she continues. ‘I was there at the height of summer and I remember distinctly walking through the museum and it was quite dark and totally deserted. The pictures were hung very badly – sometimes you could hardly see them – but the feeling that I was the only person there with the works of art has stayed with me too.’
It was in Paris soon after that she met her future husband, a violinist turned merchant banker. ‘Once I was married I was living in London, where I did not know anybody. Ian was just starting out in his career and working very hard. We had very little money, and I would spend the day in museums. Then I discovered the auction-houses: I would go to them the whole time just to look, and by looking I was developing my taste. I came to know what I liked and what I did not like.
I remember being surprised that in the same sale some things sold for a great deal of money while others made very little.’ In the British art sales, for example, she was perplexed at how horse paintings by Alfred Munnings could sell for a small fortune while works by Samuel John Peploe were all but being given away.
She started frequenting the galleries too, focusing on British contemporary art of the day. ‘I wanted to own art, to live with it,’ she explains, ‘but I did not know anything about it. I realised that with contemporary British art I had the opportunity to see exhibitions of work which would allow me to form a better idea of what an artist was like, and whether I liked their work in general or just a particular kind of work. In those days British art was very reasonably priced – I knew I was never likely to afford a Matisse or a Picasso or Cézanne, so I was consciously looking at art that we might afford. Eventually, when we had a little bit of money, I was able to buy something, and I bought a small L.S. Lowry. Why I chose Lowry I don’t quite know, because although I admire him he is not my favourite artist – but then for me, buying art has always been a coup de coeur.’ Mrs Stoutzker’s second purchase was a Ben Nicholson. It was at Marlborough Fine Art that she discovered Francis Bacon. ‘His work completely bowled me over. Although I knew nothing about him, I realised that here was a man who had taken art another step further, and that this was what artists should try to do.
The extraordinary thing was that I found beauty in Bacon where most of the people I knew could only see horror. I found beauty in his harmonies; I found he was an extra-ordinary colourist, hugely expressive and, like Picasso, emotional in the way that he painted what he wanted to portray. We bought our first Bacon very early on, in the early 1960s, and he was the only artist we bought in any depth – with other artists we acquired just one or two.’
Fresh off Bacon’s easel in 1967 was a small portrait of George Dyer, a dazzlingly exuberant, emotive and yet intimate study of the troubled man who was the love of Bacon’s life and the catalyst for many of his greatest paintings. Out of the apparent chaos of luscious, bravura brushwork, set against a brilliant emerald green ground, the artist depicted more than a likeness. There are few works to equal it in Bacon’s oeuvre; moreover, the study is a rare lifetime portrait of Dyer, who committed suicide just four years later.
‘I really loved that painting,’ Mrs Stoutzker admits wistfully, ‘but sadly it was one that we parted with.’
At the time Mrs Stoutzker was also looking at Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, R.B. Kitaj, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff, Peter Blake and David Hockney. ‘I was fascinated by the way in which artists saw and then transformed reality,’ she recalls. ‘We bought a Hockney of a Californian building [Fig. 4] at about the same time as the portrait of George Dyer, and I found it fascinating that these two artists were working at the same time and yet both producing, along such different lines, work that was highly original. Hockney took a solid, massive building and turned it into a grid of colour and then in front of it put a row of trees. I think that is why I like figurative art: I like to see the eye and thumb of the artist at work. I don’t really care for abstract paintings – with the exception of Mark Rothko – because I just don’t respond to them in the same way: most of them leave me totally cold.
‘Back in the 1960s it was no different from today in so far as galleries had their important or favourite collectors, and it was difficult to buy from them as their shows were often sold out before they opened. I knew which works I wanted to buy – for me it was always a question of not which artist I wanted to buy, but which painting or sculpture I wanted – but I was only very, very rarely able to buy them, therefore I ended up buying largely on the secondary market.’
When I venture that she must since have become a favoured client to at least some gallerists, she laughs and admits that there are those that now offer her works or reserve pieces that might interest her. ‘I think this is because they know I am not in the least interested in rising prices and have no intention of selling,’ she explains. ‘I am glad for the artists, but I find it highly upsetting that prices just keep on spiralling up. I always bought works by artists before they became famous, and so that has meant I can no longer [afford to] buy their work.’ She also admits to having missed out on being offered a lot of wonderful things because she has always refused to buy something that was just not good enough.
While Lucian Freud had long been an artist who interested Mrs Stoutzker, she only began buying his work fairly late on, in the late 1980s. ‘There was a middle period in Freud’s life when I did not like his work at all, where he fragmented the light on his sitters, like cloisonné. After he painted his homage to Watteau, more or less at the time that Bacon died, he seemed to liberate himself, becoming more prolific and painting much larger works with freer brushwork.’ Part of the Stoutzkers’ gift is ‘one of the most exquisite Freuds’, Girl in a Striped Nightdress, or Celia (1983–85; Fig. 2), a portrait of the artist Celia Paul, who was then pregnant with Freud’s child. ‘I think that it is one of the most affectionate and tender portraits he painted,’ Mrs Stoutzker murmurs, tracing her finger above the line of Celia’s wrist as she stands before the work. Here, too, is Sir Jacob Epstein’s 1947 bronze bust of Freud (Fig. 6), who was at the time married to Epstein’s daughter Kitty.
In the mid ’70s came a hiatus in Mrs Stoutzker’s art collecting. ‘I stopped looking at art because we could not afford to buy any more. When I started looking again, in the late ’80s, a revolution had occurred and art had changed a lot – I could not find my way through this new art at all. But I persevered and eventually I did find that I could still find work that attracted me. That is when I started buying Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, George Shaw and Hurvin Anderson as well as Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread – also Chantal Joffe and Raqib Shaw. As you can see, it was always artists who were interesting and, to a certain extent, beautiful. I was never drawn to conceptual art because that is not what I seek in art. I want a shiver down my spine, to experience pleasure flooding all over me, to find joy and complete absorption. I don’t want to have to analyse why an artist has produced a work of art that appeals to the intellect but not to the senses – I would rather read about someone’s ideas than look at them.’
She recalls being totally seduced by Doig’s work when she first saw it at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1999. The first work she acquired from the artist was a commission: ‘I like very much to commission artists whom I admire but who have yet to make it to the top, and he painted a picture that I simply love. I think it is extremely arrogant to tell an artist what to do so, I just told him the sort of size I wanted, and he came to the house and walked around.’ So delighted was Mrs Stoutzker that she contacted Doig’s dealer, Victoria Miro, seeking a second work. ‘His next show was not very big, perhaps with seven or eight paintings. The one I really wanted was already sold, and every other one had been reserved by a museum. Victoria asked me which one of these I liked best and said that if the museum did not take it, then I could have it. It seems appropriate that it should end up at Tate (Fig. 3).’ She continues: ‘Another artist I admire enormously is George Shaw. I had read a review of his show and it struck me that he might be interesting, so I took a car out to the gallery. He uses an enamel paint that is incredibly difficult to work with and yet achieves an amazing, amazing effect.
However, there was nothing in the show that I particularly wanted, so, again, I commissioned him. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2011 but did not win it, so I particularly wanted one of our Shaws to go to Tate.’ Consequently, part of the Stoutzkers’ gift is Ash Wednesday, 8.30am (2004–05), one of Shaw’s strangely familiar yet disquieting – and hauntingly beautiful – evocations of the Coventry of his childhood (Fig. 7).
She has also commissioned Doig’s pupil Hurvin Anderson (represented in the gift), Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal, discovering the latter’s exquisite ceramics – ‘nothing to do with paint on canvas, but I totally fell in love with his work’ – at Art Basel long before he found fame with his remarkable book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). Other works in the gift, by Rachel Whiteread and Conrad Shawcross (‘one of the first things that he did’), likewise have nothing to do with paint and canvas. It is testament to the discipline of Mrs Stoutzker’s eye – she has never sought anyone else’s advice – that such varied pieces fit so harmoniously together.
She cites her husband as the driving force behind the gift: ‘Ian particularly felt we should make this gift to Tate because, firstly, he knew that it would give me pleasure but also because the British, unlike the Americans, are not very good at gifting things to museums. Ian is very conscious of the fact that he succeeded in this country from very modest beginnings and has always wanted to give something back. He co-founded his music charity, Live Music Now [a national scheme that arranges for young music graduates to perform and lead workshops for the disadvantaged], with Yehudi Menuhin over 30 years ago and has been consistently contributing to musical causes ever since, most recently giving a concert hall for the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, named for his mother, Dora. ‘As music is his passion, art is mine.
To my mind, every single work in the gift is marvellous in its own way and by an artist who is very, very good, if not great. I wanted [the gift] to reflect the spirit of the collection, so there are not only well-established artists but also less well-known contemporary artists, as I would like people to look at them too. We hope this gift will encourage other [collectors] to do the same, since every museum now finds it difficult to buy art on the open market. ‘In our marriage, I was the one who chose the paintings,’ Mrs Stoutzker continues. ‘I could never have done it without Ian’s support, and he was extraordinarily supportive at a time when we had very little money – I suppose I was the engine and he was the fuel! But Ian had an input, too, given that there were some things that he did not like and which, in the end, I could not keep. The gift was something we both felt we wanted to do.
‘I never tire of coming into a room and looking at the works of art around me – they never “die” on me – but I realise that you only live with your possessions for your lifetime. I have often found refuge in museums at times of sadness or stress, because in front of great art I find that everything else disappears. Art is the only thing that has the power to do that, to absorb me totally, and I thought that if this happens to me then it could happen to other people too. Very few people have the privilege to own wonderful works of art; if any of the works that we have very carefully selected can give someone else peace and serenity or touch their heart, then I will be very happy.’ As she says this, I wonder whether her thoughts are not back in the gloom of the Prado, with Velásquez.
Susan Moore is associate editor of Apollo.
The gifted works will go on special display, dates are to be announced by Tate.
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