“As a new collector you are supposed to spend time, school your eye, look for years and not just jump straight in. But I did just that, I jumped straight in.”
Collector of contemporary art, Karen Ziegler Smith, shows us around her stunning home, nestled up in Hampstead—a part of London famous for its artistic associations. She recounts her stories of studying oriental ceramics, working for Bonhams auction house, and living next door to the artists Janet and Patrick Caulfield. For a brief moment, we truly revel in her diverse collection and admire her eye for contemporary design.
FAM: Thanks for having me in your amazing house Karen. It seems very unusual.
Karen Ziegler Smith: Yes, it has had a very colorful history. It was built in the 1790’s as a studio, gallery and home for the painter George Romney. Romney didn’t spend very long here as his commissions dried up. He had overspent on the house, became very unwell and moved back to his wife and original home in Kendal.
Is it largely unchanged as we see it today?
No, it has changed a great deal even though it is Grade 1 listed. We have actually reversed some of the post-war changes. Our architects, 6a worked closely with English Heritage, as well as our listed building consultant Peter Riddington at Donald Insall Associates, who worked on the reconstruction of Windsor Castle after the fire. As you will see upstairs, the master bedroom was Romney’s old studio. When we bought the house there were four bedrooms in this space and a staircase. We removed this and restored the space back to Romney’s design, which included opening up a boarded 18th century south facing window. In 1804 the house was extended and functioned as The Hampstead Assembly Rooms for most of the 19th century. The main hall and balcony are still visible upstairs, but we inserted two curved walls (which can be reversed) to create bedrooms for our two daughters.
Major changes to the house were made by Clough William Ellis, the architect who built Portmerion in Wales, and lived here in the 1920s and 30s. You may have noticed the Italianate vase and scalloped internal staircase in the portico at the entrance next to Caroline Achaintre’s ceramic—that’s one of his alterations.
Have you found collecting contemporary art more difficult in such a historic building?
No, not really. Of course not everything works and I have sometimes got it wrong. But the building is all about change and evolution whilst respecting and being sensitive to the original architecture, so it feels the perfect place to display contemporary work. Also the history of Hampstead is one of artistic presence. Romney was the first major artist to move to Hampstead. I like the fact that the house was built for and by an artist to work in and display his work, and now the house is filled with contemporary artists. It feels like a continuous trajectory.
How did you begin collecting?
The first piece of work I ever bought was a Lucie Rie. I was working at Bonhams, after graduating in art history. I was earning £7000 a year, cataloguing and valuing the oriental art in Knightsbridge. I was living at home and my mother gave me £1500 that she had saved for me and forgotten about. I am not the best with money, and it is very difficult working amongst amazing objects all day long and not wanting to own some of them, so I went and spent the whole amount on not-the-sexiest Lucie Rie work. It’s a small pitted volcanic glaze vase. I still have it today though it didn’t hold its value for long. A shelf fell off the wall once taking the Lucie Rie with it. Luckily the carpet broke its fall and it didn’t break. Now her work is very much admired again. Theaster Gates said Lucie Rie and his father are the biggest influences on his art—just a shame it isn’t one of those amazing footed bowls with a dripping manganese glaze on its rim. I’ve owned it for thirty years.
I don’t buy studio ceramics anymore, except for a Hans Coper composite form vase of a similar date to the Lucie Rie. He learnt his craft in the studio of Lucie and they worked closely about ten years ago. This particular one had a tiny chip in the base of the foot which made it much more affordable. It’s in the Fornasetti Trumeau bought from Themes and Variations alongside the Lucie Rie. There is also a small Rebecca Warren bronze edition bought from Counter Editions. I generally prefer artists working with clay as a medium like Jonathan Baldock, Emma Hart, or Jesse Wine rather than studio ceramics these days.
I studied Art History but I snuck in via the back door. In those days studying Art History at UCL was incredibly prestigious and you had to have a string of A grades to get in. There were not many Karen’s from large London comprehensives. I discovered there was a new BA History of Art of Asia, Africa and Europe taught jointly between the Art and Archaeology department at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) and the History of Art department at UCL. It was a very different way of looking at things. I was taught by some of the world’s leading experts in Asian and African art history and archaeology at SOAS including Dr Geza Fehervari (Islamic Ceramics) John Picton (African Textiles) and Professor Roderick Whitfield (Chinese Art). I was introduced to the Percival David collection and early Chinese ceramics. It was a really good degree whilst also studying western art at UCL. After that I worked at Bonham’s for three or four years, and then worked for a dealer on Kensington Church Street.
How did your art collecting progress after these early days?
Well, it didn’t progress for a long time. I could kick myself for how long it took me to look at contemporary art. I was well versed until the Seventies, but it wasn’t really until ten, fifteen years ago that I started becoming more engaged with the contemporary scene. It also helped that there was that explosion in the art world in the early 2000s, with Frieze art fair and the opening of the Tate Modern. I took myself on a journey of discovery of the contemporary art scene which continues to this day, albeit more and more obsessively.
Our first flat after we married was in Belsize Square, next door to Patrick Caulfield and his partner Janet Nathan, later Janet Caulfield. Hampstead has a long history of the presence of artists. Sadly, the Rent Act of 1957 started to price tenants out of Hampstead as landlords were allowed to increase rents and end tenancies. This has continued ever since. Regardless, there is actually a print by Patrick downstairs that he gave my husband as a thank you for something. It’s called “Freuds Smoke” and it was made to support the work of the Freud Museum. It was a lot of fun living next to them. They were lovely people.
How did you get back into collecting?
As a new collector you are supposed to spend time, school your eye, look for years and not just jump straight in. But I did just that, I jumped straight in. I bought a piece which is in our hallway by Sebastiaan Bremer, a photograph overlaid with painting. We bought it from Hales Gallery, and in retrospect probably overpaid but Paul Hedge was very persuasive. I loved what he was doing with his work at that time— although I would have preferred one of his early under water works. His work is very nostalgic. That was our first big purchase about ten years ago, though we did own a few things from before that time.
Twenty years ago the TI Group was sold to Smith Industries. They had built up a collection of work by graduates from the Royal College of Art. They were all auctioned at Sotheby’s. My husband bid on a number of lots including the wrong lot. He was meant to bid on the Hurvin Anderson but bid on the next lot instead—a large abstract aubergine painting which we enjoyed for a few years before selling it in our local newspaper for £150.
We bought a series of early drip paintings by Chantal Joffe which I love. They’re in the TV room. She doesn’t do anything like it now. I asked her about them once and she said if you look at them carefully you find they contain suggestions of child pornographic imagery. I did... and they do!
We also bought an Italian artist who used to show with Marlborough Contemporary, Daniela Gullota. I’m not sure what she’s doing now. The final work we bought from that sale was a drawing by Eileen Cooper, which is now in my daughter’s bedroom. It’s a couple in a naked embrace. We took it down from the living area because people kept asking if it was me and my husband…
So would you say you largely collect with your gut? Things that appeal for a personal reason?
I do but it is hard not to be influenced by people who have strong views—by the opinions of critics and gallerists—and stay firm in the belief that something is interesting and good.
I love contemporary design as well as contemporary art. This work here is by Studio Drift, made with harvested freeze dried individual dandelion heads, applied to LED lights and circuits from Carpenters Workshop Gallery. There are so many artists they work with who I think are incredible including Nacho Carbonell, Random International, Wonmin Park, Ingrid Donat and Vincent Dubourg. The light above the dining table is by Lindsay Adelman. The work on the shelf of the curved wall is a commission by Edmund De Waal called “The Painter and His Kitchen”, 2012, comprising of 47 thrown porcelain dishes and vessels with gilding. He was pleased to make an intervention for this house because he grew up in a house with a George Romney painting.
Our puppies’ favourite painting is in the bedroom, they wouldn’t stop licking it. We couldn’t quite figure out why, until the artist Antonia Showering said it must have been the rabbit skin glue. My husband is less keen on the stained glass work by Augustas Serapinas, “11pm in Matukai”, 2018, but I am very excited about his work. This work relates to a series he did about traditional wooden sheds that are slowly disappearing across Lithuania. He bought a number of these abandoned sheds. Our work consists of one of the original wooden window frames, and has a stained-glass window painted by a local painter within it. He has drawn the very scene that the former occupant of the house could view from it, before the building and its sight were demolished.
It is meaningful on another level as my own family lived in such traditional wooden dwellings in small villages historically in Lithuania. My mother’s grandfather, uncle, aunt and first cousin were killed in Lithuania in 1941 by the German Einsatzgruppen death squads and local collaborators. The Jewish community of 200,000 were almost entirely wiped out. Serapinas has been chosen by Ralph Rugoff, the curator of the 58th Venice Biennale 2019. He is the youngest artist (born in 1990) and is represented by Emalin gallery. This record player sculpture is by Nigel Cooke. He isn’t actually known for his sculpture, but I bought it very cheaply and am rather fond of it.
I had also been looking at Rose Wylie for a few years. We recently bought one from her latest show at David Zwirner in London. This one was my husband’s favorite and thankfully it was not too large.
We have a number of editions by artists we could otherwise not afford and I get a lot of pleasure from these. We have works by Rebecca Warren, Enrico David, and a Kara Walker edition, which we bought to support the Camden Arts Centre. This work currently sits on a Fornasetti chest of drawers in our hallway. We have another very strong work, an edition by Jannis Kounellis, bought from Almine Rech.
We have supported the Camden Art Centre for years. It’s a great way of meeting artists and fellow supporters who have similar interests to me. It is where we met the artist Emma Hart actually. She was heavily pregnant and had just opened her show there, and we just hit it off straight away. This work is about social embarrassment, a spilt glass of wine, a ring of sweat. I originally saw this work in the Folkstone Triennial. We have several other works from her including a ceramic satellite dish from the Sunday Painter gallery which is currently on loan to MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, which has just reopened after a large renovation and expansion with the exhibition “The Lie of the Land”.
These two large paintings are by Jeremy Moon who died tragically young in a motorcycle accident in 1973. Several of his works are in the collection of the Tate and the estate has recently been taken on by Luhring Augustine. This Caulfield painting, “Patio”, 1988 here was originally owned by Howard Hodgkin and sold in the Howard Hodgkin Portrait of an Artist Sale in October 2017. His wife had a lot of these flowers in the garden. The small oval format is very unusual and he only ever painted two works on this shape of canvas. Camille Henrot’s bronze “Head of a Fish”, 2014, was an edition from her show “The Pale Fox”. I’ve travelled to see several of her shows, including a survey show at the Palais de Tokyo in 2018. I am a big fan of hers, ever since seeing her work “Grosse Fatigue” in the Venice Biennale in 2013.
Did you have an artistic family back ground?
Not particularly but my house was full of books. We also visited exhibitions and went to the theatre. My father’s uncle, Archibald Ziegler born in 1900 was an artist. He came from a very deprived background in the east of London and was an orphan by the age of 9 years old. He later was able to obtain a full scholarship under Sir William Rothenstein at the Royal College of Art in 1928. I curated a small exhibition of his works at a local museum, Burgh House. Frank Auerbach who Ziegler had been kind to when he first came to the UK kindly gave me a nice quote for the exhibition. His breakthrough was when he was commissioned to paint the murals for Toynbee Hall in 1932 which were only recently rediscovered during renovation work. He had a solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1935. He made a big impression on me when I was a very young child. He died in 1973. I think it’s one of the reasons I became so fascinated by art.
In the basement I have Stephen Walter’s map of London, “The Island”. The area I grew up in North London he calls Dull To The Point Of Being Depressing which I think is very funny, though in fact I have very fond memories of my childhood in Wembley Park. You could hear the crowds cheering on match days as we were close to Wembley Stadium, and we watched the pope in his pope mobile passing by in the street in 1982 during his visit to the UK.
Where we are standing here used to be a courtyard. Clough William-Ellis converted it to a staircase in the 1930s and we extended it to connect all the floors with a new roof tower when we renovated the house. The circulation was really problematic before as there were two sets of staircases which recent previous owners had added. The house was a bit like an Escher painting, nothing made sense, but now it does. The basement is new. It’s a sort of yoga, table football, TV space and of course there is room to hang art. We’ve got a work by Artists Anonymous and also David La Chappelle’s, “Seismic Shift”, 2012, which imagines the aftermath of an earthquake at LACMA, with work by Koons, Hirst and Murakami floating around in the ruined spaces.
We have a work by Emma Cousin’s down here too called Jenga—its rather naughty. I also recently bought this plan chest, which is a wonderful thing. It contains many unframed works including many editions and prints by artists like Betty Woodman, David Shrigley, Helen Marten, Ed Atkins, and Athena Papadopoulos. On the top floor we opened up the ceilings to the rafters. The guest bedroom is one of my favorite rooms in the house. I have placed a copy of The Holy Bible by Bloomberg and Chanerin on the bedside table. Should anyone open it up for some night time reading, they might have a big surprise.
What is the future for your collection?
I haven’t given too much thought to the future. I will always continue to follow the artists I love and to discover new artists, it’s a passion and the more you know the better it gets.