“I am emotional in my response to art and if the work reflects something about my inner self, then I will definitely be drawn to it.”
After an international career in banking Anna Lapshina settled in London and plunged herself into the contemporary art world—amassing a stunning collection. Now living in a John Nash designed terraced house in Regent’s Park, she has come a long way from her roots growing up in a cold Siberian town.
FAM: Hi Anna, what initially inspired your interest in collecting contemporary art?
Anna Lapshina: The first works I bought were at auction, Post-Impressionist works by Léger that I had stumbled across at Sotheby’s. After living with them in the house for a while I realized I was a bit embarrassed with my rather straightforward choice. I felt like I lacked knowledge about art and so decided to learn more. The aesthetic pleasure of looking at and living with art was important to me already and so I decided to go back to school and study art history at Sotheby’s and Christie’s institutes. When I was studying contemporary art I realized I was particularly drawn to the idea of assembling art works and getting to know artists personally.
Who were the first artists that you started to visit and why did you choose those particular artists?
One of the first was the young artist Margo Trushina. She is Russian and was studying at Chelsea College of Art at the time. I met her through the Russian scene in London. I bought one of my first pieces of contemporary art from her graduation show. Artists know each other, they’re friends with each other and little by little I got introduced to more young artists in London.
Do you visit graduation shows?
Absolutely, St. Martins, Chelsea, Goldsmiths, Royal Academy and others. I always feel inspired by these shows. I’m quite impulsive and if I have a sensation then I tend to want to own the work. I never think about curating my collection, I am emotional in my response to art and if I feel intrigued, if the work reflects something about my inner self (laughs), then I will definitely be drawn to it.
Could you give an example of a work you have in the house that you connect to on an emotional level?
One of my favorites is the Dutch artist Maaike Schoorel, who is constantly experimenting with the medium of oil painting. She forces me to stop and look for long periods of time, to think, to contemplate. And I really struggle to find time for that in my hectic life. I think we all do.
Do you feel that the artworks change in your perception when you live with them and see them every day?
Totally. Good art evolves around us all the time, it reflects our changing lives and experiences. Sometimes, maybe because I’ve discovered something new about the artist, their work can invade our living space with new force, and we could feel their very presence and existence. My husband, for example, doesn’t want to have any representational, figurative works in the bedroom, because it’s such a private space.
Did the presence of kids change the way you choose or hang the works at home?
Yes, I had to hang them higher! (laughs), and sometimes move them. For example, my husband’s study downstairs became the kids’ playroom. We used to have a wonderful photographic work by Oleg Kulik hanging there but we removed it as I noticed I was taking pictures of my kids between the legs of a naked woman.
I noticed the work has moved to another room. So it's not been banned from the house?
I actually bought this work from a friend who told me that she no longer wanted to have it in the house because of her growing young daughter. I remember thinking how ridiculous. But there you go—I too have become more conservative! There are some works I considered but didn't buy for a similar reason. I recently bought some works by Marlene Dumas, I bought only two of three as the third work was very daring with a naked woman bending down and looking back provocatively at the viewer. My husband thought it was too explicit and I conceded. I really regret not buying it though. It was exquisite.
The house is warm and stylish with a great orchestration of objects and art works and also the way you introduce the tones that come in from the park and the English skies. Did you pay a lot of attention to the history of the building or is this more your own style?
I had an incredible dichotomy in the visual influences of my childhood. I grew up in a small and cold Siberian town, this was back in the Soviet times. It was a very new town, only 25 years old. Now it feels like it was on a different planet. It wasn’t even like Russia the way we would imagine it now. I did not know it then, but looking back I realise the life was very ascetic. I was making dinner for my parents from when I was seven, usually tinned fish and mashed potatoes. I don’t remember often having pudding. The architecture there was extremely utilitarian, a purpose built town to house oil industry workers.
The way the central economy worked, after graduating you were distributed to different towns and given a list of different jobs you could go for. My parents were working with geophysics to calculate where the oil was located and how to drill it. My parents loved their work and would often work late into the night.
Meanwhile, my grandparents on my mother’s side were living in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), so every summer I spent long holidays with them. I think my grandparents felt I lacked culture growing up in Siberia so they dragged me around the Hermitage and the many Baroque Palaces surrounding St. Petersburg. There were Caravaggios, Flemish paintings, works from the Renaissance, but no contemporary art of course.
This beautiful cup that you’ve served me my coffee in, is this from your grandmother?
These cups were made in the St. Petersburg Imperial Porcelain factory. A few are hand-painted by the famous Russian artist Mihail Chemiakine. This is a selection from Russian ballets, you have the Swan Lake cup and I’m drinking from The Nutcracker. Fittingly since it’s almost Christmas.
So back to the influences of the house, it’s a Nash Terrace, a quintessential London location. Has this had a role in your collecting and design?
I have to say Russians love grand architecture! Possibly because we, I mean the Soviet people, feel that this was taken away from us, it makes us kind of nostalgic for it—St. Petersburg was actually modelled on Western Cities by Peter the Great.
Nash was a great architect but there are issues with these houses. The relationship between the windows and doors is at odds with the height of the rooms as they were mostly designed for the exterior appearance. He planned the terraces for the courtiers of the future royal palace (the location of which was eventually changed to Buckingham Palace), so he was concerned about the terraces appearing completely straight, despite the houses being built on a hill.
So your house was just scenery?
Exactly! I’m very familiar with these buildings because I ran the gallery, Salon Vert, in a similar buidling but a little further south in the park. That building was intact, whereas this house was bombed during World War II and so only the façade is original. When we bought the house the reconstruction from the 60s was very simplified. We collaborated with the Crown Estate architects and did a lot of research to put as much of the original features and proportions back into the house as we could. We rebuilt the staircase and bannisters and the shutters too.
Well it’s worked incredibly well. You mentioned that Salon Vert gallery was located in a terraced house beside the Prince’s Trust. How did you get involved with the project?
The gallery was a decision that I never regretted but it was probably rather naive of me to think that I could pull it off on my own. I am a freedom lover and after studying I had a short stint at Haunch of Venison, which did not work out for me that well. I started with a basic job filing art library books (laughs). You see art was sort of my second career, I studied Economics and Maths as my first education in England before working in banking in New York and London. So going back to the basics like that was difficult. It was fine but incredibly boring. I struggled to break through and get more exposure to the creative side of it.
Anyway, I had already had this house and it was almost empty, undecorated and rather run down. I was living there with my little daughter and we used only a few rooms for ourselves so I felt it would be a great space to try curating exhibitions. I wasn’t really thinking about dealing and selling. In hindsight, I realize I was incredibly lucky that I managed to last a few years. I think that a big part of that was thanks to the artists I was privileged to work with—they often co-curated the shows with me. And I was lucky to meet some good collectors who would trust their own judgment and did not require the name of a big dealer behind an artwork to own it. They would come in and say “I like it, it resonates with me, I’ll have that.” I curated quite a few shows at Salon Vert and it was the best time of my life.
The space was difficult as it’s not a white cube, we had to work with all the Regency cornices and features like fire places and curved rooms. We had a lot of site-specific installations and wall paintings. One night we had to hire twelve assistants because we were so late for the deadline to paint Sinta Tantra’s huge mural on curved walls.
Well in this house you are no longer just sharing with your daughter but with quite a few more people!
I live here with my Italian husband and three children. It’s lovely and lively, but only my daughter asks questions about the art. My two-year old son Mark once pointed at a nude painting by Marlene Dumas and said “Mummy”. I realized maybe he was hanging around my bathroom a little too often (laughs)! My space has shrunk of course, the top floor and the bottom floor are now given over to the children and I am also aware that they will destroy the place by the time they grow up.
Have you done any events in the new house or do you have any plans?
I have had a few informal lunches for women in the arts, networking get-togethers for like-minded people. I am running out of wall space really, so I am keen to consider commissions, such as getting Lothar Götz to paint the walls of the staircase. And I would like to do something with the windows. James Ireland made a wonderful piece of a vinyl sunset for a collector and I would absolutely love to do something like that with him in my house.
Can I ask you about your artists books? There are some beautiful books here.
I think this is a bit of a trend now for contemporary artists to make books that are artworks in their own right. One of my favorite books is by London-based German artist Liane Lang which is in fact a limited edition with a stunning sculptural bronze cover. There is very little text and one goes through images of vandalized Soviet statues, each page being an artwork in its own right inside a larger whole of the book. Of course, this work resonates with my own past and how my country was changing after the collapse of the Berlin wall.
What was the first contemporary artwork you bought?
As far as I recall, the very first work of contemporary art I bought was this small edition taxidermy work by Polly Morgan. I encountered her partner Mat Collishaw at Haunch of Venison and somehow was introduced to her in her studio. There was a large dog that was alive but apart from that the studio was filled with dead animals—snakes, birds, and rabbits. The work I have is called Still Birth and many people find it quite unsettling. I on the other hand, love the darker side of it. I think Polly chooses not to be represented by a gallery, although many female artists find it hard to come by gallery representation. I suspect that some galleries infringe on the work and personal lives of female artists—I hear some go so far as to put pressure on women not to have children as this could jeopardize their creative work.
Do you think female artists are less represented out of choice?
I think galleries don’t see female artists as being as good an investment as male artists. Some artists benefit from not being represented, but a good gallery can still raise the profile and provide opportunities. Of course, there are some incredible and highly recognized female artists out there, and I am so happy to see their number increasing. But one needs to look at the collector base and this is still very much male dominated. Male artists are much more expensive and collectors, who see art as an investment, which I do not, might see them as a safer bet. Female artists are starting to look like good investments though because they are so undervalued and underpriced and because a lot of great work is done by philanthropists and selected collectors, such as Valeria Napoleone, to support specifically female artists. So change is definitely happening.
Before we finish name one of your favorite works in your collection?
The baby in Julian Opie’s Dino Crawling is actually a multiple and I really like this piece. It is funny and represents the reality of my life at the moment!
Interview by Duncan Ballantyne-Way — Senior Editor