“I like the fact that with art you can live in an environment that is different from the manufactured world or the natural world.”
Collectors Victoria Thomas and Darryl de Prez, based in Southeast London, show us around their fantastically eclectic private art collection. Although both are currently working in the medical sector, they recount to us their experiences of studying and working in the art world, and emphasize the magic of sticking by a specific artist’s trajectory.
FAM: Thank you for having me round. My first question is a basic one, when, where and why did you get into collecting art?
Darryl: I grew up surrounded by things my parents collected, and that included art as well. Lots of antiques, furniture, porcelain, silver, Japanese and Chinese antiquities… Everything you can imagine, they just bought a lot and hoarded it. I used to collect items together and set up little displays just with what I found in the house.
You curated your parent’s collection!
Darryl: Yes! I suppose I started collecting myself though when I worked at the Royal Academy.
Victoria: Yes, that was in 2007. We bought the first work from the Royal Academy Schools. We bought a Matthew Draper and a Suzanne Moxhay both of which are actually upstairs.
Darryl: The Schools are the heart of the Royal Academy for me. That was the first time I bought work from living artists and got to visit them in the studio. We have been buying ever since. We used to just both buy things and then we became a bit more formalized. We decided to come up with a system of creating a separate account, pooling money into it and making joint decisions about which works to buy. Well, sort of joint decisions…
Victoria: There is always a leading partner... Darryl has more confidence in his decision making more generally. I’m much more cautious. It’s not that I don’t think with my heart a lot but I just think about the practical implications. Although it is very rare that we disagree on something.
Do you still buy from degree shows?
Darryl: Not much, we mostly buy from galleries and exhibitions. Still though, we tend to buy young artists, and from young gallerists.
What was the starting inspiration for you to buy art?
Darryl: I was working in development and fundraising at the RA, and every excuse I could find I would go to the RA Schools and degree shows and talk to the artists studying there, get to know their work—Eliza Bonham Carter and Maurice Cockrill were there at the time. I left quite a long time ago and have since worked at the Serpentine Gallery and the Whitechapel Gallery. At the moment, I am at the Royal College of Physicians. I’ve worked in various medical and overseas development organisations as well as the Arts so it’s a real mix.
How do you choose the works you buy?
Victoria: I don’t have the collecting bug like Darryl but occasionally I will have a visceral reaction to a work, like Suzanne Moxhay’s forest picture that is upstairs. I just think of how wonderful it would be to have a specific piece in the house.
Victoria, do you also have a background in the arts?
Victoria: Well, we met at the Courtauld Institute, because my first degree was in Art History but I have always worked in medical charities and I am currently working for the NHS. Our offices are based in the British Council Building just off Trafalgar Square, and as their tenants they allowed us to go into their collection and choose works to put up on the walls. They mostly have mid-century British artists like Graham Sutherland and Craigie Aitchison, but it was a really fantastic opportunity. They’re responsible for the Venice Biennale too, so they have a work by each artist that has ever represented Britain.
Is there a piece in the house that was controversial with either of you or your family?
Darryl: My father doesn’t like anything. He’s very traditional and doesn’t get contemporary art. When Tate Liverpool first opened he and I went to visit it—Michael Craig Martin’s water glass oak tree was on show, and he absolutely hated it. To this day, he still talks about this work and how much he hates it, and I say to him “But you’re still talking about it thirty years later, how many works of art can you remember over that period of time? It left a lasting impression!”. My mother likes anything, she’s very open about contemporary art, and there are one or two things I’ve bought that Victoria has taken time to come to terms with.
Victoria: That’s fine though because sometimes things do have to grow on you. In terms of what my mother thinks, well she says she likes most of what we have, she never says what she doesn’t like.
Darryl: Sometimes I wonder how people see things in the house. Somebody once thought that thing there (points at a box) was an artwork but it’s not, it’s a microwave we haven’t installed yet. You forget how other people might see things…
Do you rehang ever?
Victoria: We don’t take everything down and start again but we often change elements. Some things can only fit in one place in the house. Sometimes we just rearrange all the furniture and then we need to re-arrange the art.
So soon you may need a bigger house.
Darryl: That’s why we have been buying a lot of video art, although you can’t really put those works on show very easily. Some works have to be projected or suspended from the ceiling. It’s comparatively cheap to buy video, but collectors are still very wary of it as a medium. We have sometimes bought video works and not even tested them to check that they worked.
Have you made plans of what you will do with your collection eventually?
Darryl: I would like it to go to a regional institution. I wouldn’t want it to go to a big institution where it would just disappear in storage but for it to go to a place that would really value and appreciate the works.
Victoria: I am from the regions so I feel strongly about supporting regional institutions. I think they have a really important role to play.
You’ve bought art that you love. But was there any consideration that perhaps one artist was more likely to make it big than another when you were buying?
Darryl: No, we never really think of that. I find it is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it’s really nice of course for an artist to succeed but then you get priced out of their work which is a pity because you want to be buying works from artists over a longer period. The nice thing about buying work from an artist early on is that you can have a real impact on the artist’s trajectory.
Have you ever been tempted to sell anything you’ve bought?
Darryl: I don’t have a particular objection to people selling works from their collection as this can make it possible to buy work from the next generation of artists. But at the moment I am enjoying everything too much and I can’t quite see myself parting with anything. We haven’t bought as investments. I always have to know the artist’s broader practice and find it interesting and valuable. I need to know where they are coming from and how the work is going to develop—what their thoughts are, what’s behind it. That’s why I find it hard to part with works, and it’s also why I find art fairs very tricky. We go to a lot of art fairs and we find new artists there but we don’t tend to buy there. We have to think about budget too and we prefer to see an artist’s gallery exhibition before we buy a work. Fairs are not a good place to see art, a million artists all together and no context.
Victoria: One great thing about going to art fairs though is the opportunity to visit private collections in other countries. For example, to see what people in Rotterdam or Brussels or Turin are collecting—it’s totally different to what people collect here, and that’s really inspirational.
What media do you focus on?
Darryl: We have everything except sound! Even though I love sound art and it would be great for storage! We started with painting but we really broadened out. In terms of subject matter, the work tends to have some sort of conceptual content. It tends to relate to the wider world or art historical references, we are less interested in materiality and process, that is the thrust of our collection. It’s not what’s been happening recently in the art world, but we look for artists that look outside at the world.
Victoria: It’s interesting when politics and the real world have charged into the artist’s work.
If you had your sudden lottery win, what would be the first few works that you would run and buy?
Victoria: We recently started emailing lists to each other with a group of friends and it became a bit of blue-sky thinking about which artists we were all interested in. Having restrictions isn’t a bad thing as it makes you focus, but if money were no object…
Darryl: I am currently obsessed with Van Dyke, Arthur Jafa, Rachel Maclean…
Victoria: I love the work of Claire Tabouret, a French artist, but her work is orders of magnitude outside our price range unfortunately.
Is any of your work in storage?
Darryl: No! Everything we have is in the house, though not all on the wall. I often think of sending things to my parents, who have much more space than we do. They have an amazing building where carriages were mended in the 18th century, which I wanted to turn into a gallery but they converted into a holiday home—pity!
So a slightly difficult final question for you: If you had to explain what art’s function or role could be in people’s lives or society at large, how would you go about it?
Darryl: I like the fact that art can change your environment and that you can live in an environment that is different from the manufactured world or the natural world. Art doesn’t exist before somebody makes it, so you are seeing a world that is created by somebody, it’s an experience entirely new and different that wouldn’t exist any other way. I often wonder whether art has a broader political influence. It has in terms of the art of the past, the avant-garde, but today I’m not so sure, it has become a very different thing. For me it’s about being with something that didn’t previously exist. It’s very selfish but it’s about my own experience of the world.
Victoria: It’s also about seeing the world through someone else’s lenses, that our perceptions about the world are so different and then you see something that suddenly resonates. It’s like when you all laugh at the same joke. I see what you see. You’ve allowed me to see something in a new way. I love the fact that you can walk into a gallery and burst into tears because the experience is so overwhelming.
Darryl: Yes, it’s about the perfection of a moment. You can have it in music or theater and with art as well. Or dance. The moment is so right and what you’re seeing is...
Victoria: ...transcendent in a way. It sounds corny but it’s something else, more than the sum of its parts. The idea that you can short circuit the brain to emotions. And I wonder whether art still has a political purpose and I hope that it does. It’s a lens but also a mirror.
FAM: Many thanks to both of you for this insight into your collection and into your ideas!
Interview by Käthe Kroma