He owns a British football club and is an avid art collector—but he is not Roman Abramovich. Rather, he is Chris Ingram, a UK-based businessman who flies under the radar but has been quietly amassing a collection of predominantly Modern British art and sculpture to rival his international peers. Ingram keeps his buying quiet, but unlike many private collectors, he is zealous about showing his art to as many people as possible—and generally outside the acknowledged centres of the art world. “I’m not grand or precious about where my art is shown. I get a buzz when I see people get pleasure from it, anywhere,” he says.
Ingram, a spritely 71, began collecting in 2002, after he sold his media agency to the advertising group WPP for £430m. He now owns around 650 works, two-thirds of which are by Modern British artists, including Elisabeth Frink (a favourite), Keith Vaughn and William Turnbull.
Ingram is low-key but single-minded. “I was happy to give him some initial advice, but he seems to have done it on his own since. I am staggered by what he has achieved,” says Henry Wyndham, the head of Sotheby’s, Europe. Reg Singh, the co-founder of London’s Beaux Arts gallery, which specialises in Modern British art, agrees, saying that Ingram has built his collection by being “very much his own man”.
Most of Ingram’s works are on long-term loan to the Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking, the distinctly suburban town in Surrey where he grew up. (Ingram also owns the town’s non-league football team, which he rescued from bankruptcy in 2002.) The publicly funded Lightbox opened in 2007 and won the Art Fund prize for museums and galleries the following year. “I’m always trying to get people to Woking,” Ingram says, admitting that he has not had much luck, despite repeating the fact that “it’s only 26 minutes by train from [London] Waterloo”.
This year marks the biggest number of loans so far from the Ingram Collection to museums and exhibitions, with more than 150 pieces currently on show in UK institutions. As well as those at the Lightbox, this includes more than 50 drawings by the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore and Stanley Spencer, which form a dedicated exhibition at Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy (until 7 June).
The individual works that are currently on display include Edward Burra’s powerful watercolour Ropes and Lorries (1942-43), which is in the artist’s solo exhibition at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings (until 7 June). Ingram bought the work at Christie’s for a within-estimate £159,200 in 2005. He has also lent Eric Ravilious’s Rye Harbour (1938) to Dulwich Picture Gallery’s show on the artist (until 31 August); he bought the piece at Bonhams for £106,400 (est £15,000-£20,000) in 2005.
Improving access to art
Ingram is passionate about making his collection as accessible as possible. He works with schools, prisons and people with learning difficulties—and takes art into old people’s homes. He has bought works from the Koestler Trust, a non-profit organisation dedicated to prisoners’ art, and from the Big Issues exhibition, an annual show of art by disadvantaged people. This year, Ingram is one of the judges for the Koestler awards.
He also makes his collection available to the Lightbox’s Young Curators course, for 14- to 19-year-olds. Ingram admires, and allies himself with, the instinctive approach of teenagers. “They are fearless. They know nothing about an artist’s value or reputation; they just know what they like,” he says.
Plans are also afoot for a project to help today’s young artists navigate what Ingram calls the “strange and very competitive art market”, although these are still at an early stage.
The value of the works Ingram owns is not lost on him, however, particularly given the growing appetite for sculptors such as Frink, Lynn Chadwick, Jacob Epstein and Eduardo Paolozzi. “Modern British art was particularly underappreciated and undervalued when I started,” he says. “I didn’t know it, but I was buying at the right time.” His collection is estimated to be worth up to £20m.
To the relief of many, he is still buying, and not just within the Modern British field. He is interested in contemporary art; when we meet, he is excited about his recent purchase of Cross Dressing—Cret de la Pedrix (2009), a lightbox by Emma Woffenden in collaboration with Tord Boontje (priced at £6,000), from an exhibition at Sotheby’s in London. Ingram also likes graduate shows, where he buys “rudely quickly” when he sees something he likes. He says that he has never paid more than £20,000 for a piece of contemporary art.
Ingram remains hungry for Modern British works, although he says he generally avoids the “pumped-up art fair prices”. He has bought some monumental pieces in the past year, including a version of Meat Porters (1959) by Ralph Brown; he then lent the work to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, where it was displayed in the courtyard as part of the institution’s 2014 Summer Exhibition. Mostly, however, he prefers lower-key works such as preparatory drawings, singling out those by the British war artist William Roberts. Ingram describes the art market as “daft” to value such drawings and smaller works relatively cheaply.
Ingram’s ability to shut off the art market’s noise has worked to the advantage of the masses. “When he began collecting, he decided that with £1m, he would rather not be the lowest bidder on a Rothko, but instead he could build a very, very good collection of Modern British art,” Singh says. “The Elisabeth Frink exhibition at the Lightbox [in 2013] was as good as, or at least more interesting than, the show that the Royal Academy put on [in 1985] when she was alive,” he says. Ingram is ostensibly oblivious to such praise. “I don’t really care if people like my works or not,” he says, “as long as I do.”