David Fuller, an American financial market strategist living in Britain has never been afraid to take risks. In forming his collection of Victorian watercolours he has eschewed all financial advice and bought from the heart—the best possible criteria for forming a collection.
Alfred William Hunt, James Thomas Watts and John William North are not household names ,but may well become so when his collection goes on the block at Christie’s on 7 April. For twenty-five years Mr Fuller has hunted out works by these artists who seldom come onto the market together with more familiar names such as Hercules Brabazon Brabazon and Albert Goodwin. This will be the most important collection of British watercolours to be sold since the Christopher Newall Collection in 1979.
Newall was someone who had superb Turners, Girtins and Cozens, as well as his fantastic collection of Hunts. Why was it Hunt in particular who attracted you at the sale?
David Fuller I bought my first Hunt at the Newall sale, and paid £750 for it, which I thought was an absolute fortune. Of course, Turner is the gigantic talent in British watercolours, but the later artists evolved from the earlier masters.
Victorian artists stand on the shoulders of those who went before them; they had better paper, better pigments and techniques, but, above all, it is their use of colour which puts the eighteenth-century masters into the shade. It’s my belief that these artists were far better than their predecessors.
Isn’t part of the problem with collecting Victorian watercolours that there are so many bad ones? Yet you have managed to focus on certain artists and relentlessly track them down.
I started with no knowledge at all and bought my first picture from Gallery George in George Street. It was a G.F. Watts, “Evening in a Lancashire wood”. I paid about £300 for it and never saw another one for years and years.
Then I discovered the auction houses and found they were incredible fun. I would get really nervous before an auction, far more so than over a financial deal. I always set myself a limit and always surpassed it.
I never wanted to collect broadly across the field as some people suggested I should it was more interesting to focus on my favourite artists. Once I got known as a collector, friends and dealers like Chris Beatles began looking things out for me. Chris and I used to compete in the salerooms until one day he came up and introduced himself to me. The supply of works by these artists coming on the market is incredibly thin and I think people have never seen a collection of this quality or quantity before. Chris Beatles found many of the Watts for me. Watts only had one theme: he was a tree man, but he did them so well. The technique is so delicate and the light so beautiful. I think he will be the real surprise of the sale.
Much of the collection was hung in my office in Swallow Street off Piccadilly and people who knew nothing about art would be amazed by the works. I was paying a few hundred pounds for these paintings and thought I had started at the wrong time. Bill Thompson at the Albany Gallery would get out catalogues of things from the 60s which had cost twelve to fifty guineas and I thought, “Help, I’m having to pay several hundred pounds.”
From the mid-70s onwards collecting watercolours became a hobby bordering on an obsession. I can remember paying huge prices and walking out stunned and traumatised, but the same works will go for ten or fifteen times that now. I have never regretted a single purchase, but I do regret all the things I didn’t buy through timidity or lack of money.
Who is your favourite artist?
Hunt, without a doubt. Take “Loch Maree”, for example; Turner would have been proud to paint this. It is drenched with atmosphere, with that streak of sunlight and the rain coming through. His technique is outstanding; you never get that sport of foreground detail in an eighteenth-century watercolour. He used techniques like scratching out. I would love to have stood behind him and watched how he did it.
North is also a remarkable artist. Chris Beatles once said to me, “I’m so bored of having to explain North.” He’s a poet and there is a mysterious element to his work. His trees are extraordinarily alive and the figures are caught in strange, unexplained situations. He was self-taught, which is why his pictures are so interesting and unconventional.
If you are so passionate about these paintings, why are you selling them and moving on?
Over the last five years we have been buying more and more contemporary art, in particular works by Eileen Agar, Andrew Hemingway, the still-life artist, and Zil Hoque, whom I spotted in a Cork Street window. I love discovering new talent and forming a relationship with living artists.
Watercolours have been getting harder and harder to find and I began to tire of the element of competition and having to bid against friends. With contemporary artists you know there will be another work around the corner.
I no longer work in the office where many of the pictures hung and we have run out of room at home. Half the fun of owning the paintings was showing them to people. I remember taking Andrew Wilton from the Tate Gallery round who stayed all day and sketched them all, or discussing them with the author and expert Christopher Newall and sharing insights with him.
These are memories along with many others that I will always treasure. It would be obscene to put these pictures in store and treat them as an investment. I hope there will be young people in their twenties and thirties who will come along and be bowled over as I was, as well as established collectors. A lot of works will be under £5,000 and will be affordable by younger people.