Background to Andrew’s Collection
‘I will not have Victorian junk in my flat.’ Thus uttered my grandmother in response to my request to borrow £50 to buy Frederic, Lord Leighton’s Flaming June from a Fulham Road shop in the early 1960s.
Her refusal was irritating. I had just bought a set of beautifully illustrated tomes by Dugdale about English monasteries entitled Monasticon Anglicanum with the proceeds of selling a best-forgotten tune to a music publisher, and the chances of repeating such a sale were slim. Granny had been tolerant about allowing the huge set of books into her flat but was emphatically not prepared to finance the purchase of a large, dirty and unframed canvas that a West London dealer had described to an art-obsessed schoolboy as the work of a former President of the Royal Academy.
Today Flaming June hangs in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, having been confirmed as the real thing by the great pioneer dealer in Victorian art Jeremy Maas. But much as I frequently still curse my grandmother for denying me the chance to buy a painting that is today billed as ‘the Mona Lisa of the southern hemisphere’, I can’t really blame her. How could she have been expected to take Flaming June seriously? Born in 1898, she had seen the young men of her generation decimated in the First World War and had lived through another. Leighton’s sensuous image must have seemed appallingly irrelevant to her.
Granny was something of a rebel, albeit with a strange cause. She claimed to be a founder of one of life’s greater contradictions, the short-lived Christian Communist Party. To her, even more than to some of her contemporaries, Victorian art and architecture represented the apotheosis of a set of values she detested. Tractarian architecture was the world of bells, smells and mumbo jumbo. She was all for Dr Leslie Weatherhead and the free church. She idolised Viscount Stansgate, who was eventually to reinvent himself as Tony Benn. It must have been deeply distressing that her grandson should wax passionate about the artistic fruits of the Victorian era.
Most of her generation distrusted Victorian art, even going so far as to nickname Waterhouse’s masterpiece The Lady of Shalott ‘After the May Ball’. The consequence was that in my grandmothers lifetime his paintings could scarcely be given away. There is a famous story that a certain Alma-Tadema painting was found chucked in a builder’s skip. Its owner had kept the frame, thinking it more valuable. In the early 1960s it seemed to me that only the ‘sentimental schlocky musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein’ (as my school music-master described them) were considered by the politically correct tastemakers of the day to be of such dire artistic merit.
Needless to say, I loved both Rodgers and Hammerstein and Victoriana. Of course, I was partly egged on by the vehemence of my peers’ abuse of my various causes célèbres, for in truth my interests in music, art and architecture were far broader. But youthful causes célèbres are passions that never truly leave you. As I began to have the good fortune to succeed in musical theatre, I inevitably wanted to form an art collection. The area of art that I knew something about was Victorian and, importantly for me, it was affordable. If I had wanted to spread my collector’s wings wider it would have been difficult in the early 1970s the Marlborough Gallery offered me Francis Bacon’s Van Gogh in a Landscape for about fifteen times what a well-known colleague of mine had paid another West End dealer for a superb Waterhouse.
A few years ago I decided that I had almost ‘done’ the Victorians. My collecting today has taken me into fields as diverse as 20th-century American and Second World War Jewish art. These are for another exhibition, but I have been lucky enough recently to be able to add three wonderful Victorian pictures to the collection. My Victorian heart still beats.
It is a joy for me to be able to share the fruits of my years as a collector so far. But as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner said on finishing the final volume of his monumental series The Buildings of England, ‘It is, dear reader, the second edition that counts.’
I hope that after my death my family will be able to find a way to exhibit the best of my collection on a more permanent basis. It is unlikely, however, that it will ever be seen in a setting as stunning as the lofty galleries of the Royal Academy.
Andrew Lloyd Webber, 2003
Reproduced by kind permission of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Originally published in “Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters – The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection” (C) 2003 Royal Academy of Arts, London.