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Interview with collector David Lewis: “It’s fun to watch people enjoy our paintings”

After 40 years of silence, Lewis talks publicly on the eve of his major loan exhibition

David Lewis is the private figure behind a major new public exhibition, “A Collector’s Eye: Cranach to Pissarro”, which starts this month at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (18 February-15 May). Curator Xanthe Brooke selected 64 works from the collection of over 400 old masters, 19th-century and impressionist paintings, which Lewis has assembled for his family over a 40-year period with the help of his advisor Richard Herner, a former director of Colnaghi. Lewis called it the Schorr collection after his wife’s family name, and it is one of the largest private collections to be created in Britain since the second world war. The exhibition catalogue is a distillation of Christopher Wright’s two-volume catalogue, which will be published in the late Autumn.

Born in 1939 to a London family who later had a business supplying materials to shoe menders, Lewis studied at the College of Estate Management and the London School of Economics—and qualified as a chartered surveyor in 1961. He formed his own firm of chartered surveyors in 1964, and went on to hold positions in several public investment companies until 2001. In 1999 he co-founded, with Anne Webber, the Commission for Looted Art in Europe, a non-profit body, which he now co-chairs with Webber.

Ever since Lewis started collecting seriously in the early 1970s, he has loaned works to public galleries for both long term and temporary exhibitions—always with the proviso that he remain anonymous. Current long-term loans include works of art at the National Portrait Gallery, London, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Bowes Museum, County Durham, the Palace of Westminster and several London properties managed by English Heritage.

The Art Newspaper: Why have you decided to reveal your identity now?

David Lewis: I knew that when the Walker Gallery had the exhibition there would inevitably be publicity. I always wanted to have the collection researched properly, but Richard Herner and I never had time because we were always onto the next thing. After Christopher Wright started work on the catalogue in 2002, he and a few others said that the collection was of sufficient quality to be of wider interest. I could have kept the catalogue private, but I’m proud of the collection and Christopher’s catalogue.

How did your collection start?

DL: In the late 1960s we bought the house that we still live in, and wanted to enhance it. My wife bought a few modestly priced paintings by contemporary French artists, such as Roland Oudot, Yves Brayer, Bernard Gantner, which we still have. They were catalysts for my intellectual curiosity, which had previously gone into education and learning my trade.

What happened next?

DL: We were befriended by some excellent dealers in the early 1970s, and started to buy 20th-century English paintings from people like Andras Kalman. We bought works by Lowry, Ben Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens and Graham Sutherland. I liked Bacon’s work and my wife liked Freud, but each disliked the other so we compromised by having neither, despite the fact that they were then affordable! We have over 60 British old master and 19th-century paintings but none of them are in the Walker show because it already has an outstanding selection of British paintings on permanent display.

How did you make the move to French impressionists?

DL: A business colleague introduced us to Nicholas Tooth and Tim Bathurst of Arthur Tooth & Sons around 1971. We were still buying 20th-century British works but had also become very attracted to graphic works—woodcuts and lithographic prints. For a decade we bought mainly late-19th- to mid-20th-century works, especially early prints by Munch and late-19th-century French lithographs. Pissarro was brilliant, experimenting the whole time, and Manet and Bonnard did wonderful things. This naturally led to paintings—I think the first major purchase was Sisley’s Autour de la Forêt, 1889, from Tooth’s.

When did you start to buy old masters?

DL: Everything happened simultaneously. My love of prints was the connection again—we purchased prints by Goya, Rembrandt, Dürer. They refined my taste. I met Richard Herner at Colnaghi and we got on. My mood was getting darker and I found myself buying old master paintings. The first was a wonderful Rubens sketch for the Banqueting House, the only one in private hands, which we bought in 1972. We lent it to the Fitzwilliam, but in the late 1970s I needed to rearrange family affairs. I sold it to Mr Mellon, so it’s now at Yale. It’s one of the few things I’ve sold. By the mid-1970s my taste had crystallised and we didn’t buy any more English [late 19th-/early 20th-century] works, except for Sickert’s La Parisienne, 1924, later on. Under Richard’s guidance we initially acquired works by Tintoretto, Guido Reni, Veronese. He became a close friend and for over 30 years we have worked intimately together. I think all collections, with few exceptions, have the guidance of an expert. With his knowledge and market know-how, my developing eye and such economic power that I may have had, we built up the collection, usually buying at auction when prices were low.

The collection is dominated by 16th- and 17th-century religious works and portraits, many of them Northern European. You don’t have many paintings that are pretty or decorative.

DL: I like things that make me think. There’s nothing wrong with pretty works, but I’m attracted to things—and people—that challenge me intellectually. I have a Jean-Baptiste Pater that’s not in the Walker exhibition, and there are some impressionist works on show that are very aesthetically pleasing, but yes, my taste is rather dark. I like portraits—a good portrait is like a good biography—but the emphasis is on darker works, and I prefer darker music and literature.

Why do you think you’re drawn to these?

DL: I don’t know; that’s for someone to decide if they write my obituary. I’ve had my sorrows but I bought many of these works before those events happened [his eldest daughter died in 1991, aged 27].

So what pleases you about works that make you think?

DL: It stimulates the mind. Artistic output is all part of the landscape of the time. What interests me is the history of human activity. Works of art reflect the time—religious images of the 15th, 16th and early-17th century reflected the power of the church, which dominated so much of life. Later 17th-century Dutch paintings escaped from the rigidities of the pre-iconoclastic period [before 1566] and they started to paint fun subjects. That’s wonderful, but you will not see in our collection a lot of Van Goyens or Ruisdaels—not because I don’t think they’re beautiful but because they never particularly appealed to me.

The collector Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827) used to take his favourite painting with him when he travelled, Claude’s Landscape with Hagar and the Angel, 1646. What would be your equivalent?

DL: It really depends on what mood I’m in, but I’ve always found Jan van Hemessen’s Christ as the Man of Sorrows, around 1540, terrifically moving. It is a glorious painting of sorrow that I admire intensely. For years it was in my office and I looked at it daily. It satisfies my aesthetic taste; intellectually it’s extraordinarily interesting because of the role religion played in those times; and emotionally it just knocks me back.

Are you still actively buying?

DL: We’ve just about stopped. I’ll be 72 in May. The collection needed to be consolidated and that’s what the catalogue will achieve—it would never have been finished if I’d kept on buying. That’s not to say that I would never start again in a small way in the future.

What was your last great purchase?

DL: Five or six years ago Richard and I saw El Greco’s Coronation of the Virgin, 1592, in an obscure secondary sale in London. Catalogued as an 18th-century copy, it was filthy. When it was cleaned we found this view of Toledo, and, although it was partly a studio work, the saints below were by the master’s hand. One of our most exciting finds was Joos van Winghe’s, Night Masquerades, around 1590 [not in the Walker show], a banqueting scene that was known only from a drawing. It was at auction in Amsterdam in the mid-1990s, catalogued as Circle of Hans von Aachen. Everyone thought the painting had been destroyed but it must have been taken to Sweden after the Sack of Prague [1648].

Have you ever bought for investment?

DL: Never. I’ve always wanted the collection to remain intact for personal and public pleasure and enlightenment. Most of it is held in trusts for my children and grandchildren in order to seek continuity and the involvement of my family beyond my time to promote this philosophy.

So what has driven you to this level of acquisition?

DL: I’m quite acquisitive by nature and I enjoy it. I used to collect books as a small boy—Biggles, Just William. I always kept my books carefully in a row in the cupboard. I like lists and schedules—that’s probably why I’m enjoying the creation of the catalogue. It’s not the value of the works that gives me pleasure—they change all the time—but intellectual satisfaction.

Is that why you share your works of art through public exhibitions?

DL: Yes, I enjoy having things on public view in the hope that we fill a gap or add something. It’s fun to stand in the corner of a room in a museum and watch people enjoying our paintings. I know it sounds a bit twee but I genuinely enjoy it. I’m not so up in the sky to say values are irrelevant because you have to be able to afford things otherwise you cannot buy them at all.

Has the idea of a private foundation ever crossed your mind, going along the route followed by a number of contemporary art collectors?

DL: I’ve discussed it with my children because a lot is in trust for them and the grandchildren. It’s in the hands of the next two generations. Don’t forget that the creation of foundations is often driven by tax considerations.

Have you ever bought contemporary work, other than when you first bought in the late 1960s?

DL: No—not because I don’t think some things are wonderful. My taste just developed for older and older things.

In 2008 the Sunday Times Rich List calculated your worth as being £65m without the collection. Is that true?

DL: I consider things like that to be a gross intrusion, and I’ve no idea how they work it out. I didn’t give them the information.

Do you know the value of your collection?

DL: No, but I will concede that it would be worth several tens of millions [sterling]. I’ve never worked out how much I spent on it either. Works of art only make money if you sell them, which I have rarely done. Remember that the values are fluid: it depends on the circumstances in which you are making a valuation—something could cost £100,000 to replace if lost, but sell for £15,000 on a bad day. It’s meaningless.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“It’s fun to watch people enjoy our paintings”'