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Andrew Lloyd Webber as collector: A Henry Tate for the 21st century?

The man behind hit musicals such as “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” has been buying Victorian art assiduously for the last 40 years. This month his extraordinary collection goes on public view at the Royal Academy

"Collecting art is like a drug. It is both intensely pleasurable and highly addictive,” says Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary at the Royal Academy, the London gallery which this month plays host to the paintings, drawings, and works of art purchased over the last 40 years by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Britain’s most successful contemporary composer. “There are very few collectors as addicted as Andrew,” says Mr Rosenthal, “He really does love his art. I’m convinced he writes music just so he can subsidise his collecting.”

While it is widely known that Lord Lloyd-Webber has been buying art and, in particular, the work of the pre-Raphaelites for several years, his collection has never been on public view and its scale has never been fully appreciated. “People will be astounded by this exhibition,” says Christopher Wood, one of London’s leading dealers in Victorian art. “It is every bit as good as the collections in Tate, and in the Birmingham and Manchester museums.”

On view are some 200 works, including paintings, drawings, watercolours, works of decorative art, furniture and tapestries, representing around 75% of the composer’s collection, as selected by Mr Rosenthal and Lord Lloyd-Webber himself. An entire gallery is devoted to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and one to his follower Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, said to be the composer’s favourite artist. Some 50 works by Burne-Jones will be on display including 13 paintings and a complete set of the Holy Grail tapestries executed by the workshop of William Morris & Co., one of only three ever made. The show continues with major paintings by other pre-Raphaelites such as William Holman Hunt and Sir John Everett Millais and goes on to survey the work of later artists influenced by the movement, such as John William Waterhouse and Atkinson Grimshaw. There are examples of Victorian landscapes, scenes from contemporary life and fairy paintings, most notable among this last group is Richard Dadd’s “Contradiction: Oberon and Titania”, one of the artist’s finest works. “It is a collection with remarkable coherence,” says Simon Taylor, formerly of Sotheby’s. “There are very few duds there because Andrew knows more about these artists and their work than most dealers and curators.”

If Andrew Lloyd Webber knows his artists it is because he has spent a lifetime in love with their work. His interest in the pre-Raphaelites stretches back to the early 60s when he was still a schoolboy. “At that time it was deeply unfashionable to like them, which gave them added spice,” he later recalled. His first purchase is said to have been a drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti bought for £12. When he was 15 he saw Leighton’s “Flaming June” on sale for £50 in a London gallery. He nearly bought the painting but instead spent the money on an antiquarian book. “Flaming June” was eventually sold to Puerto Rico’s Ponce Museum where the composer has since travelled to see it. Now it is worth several million pounds.

Lord Lloyd-Webber’s success as a composer came early—he gave up a place at Oxford to write his first musical with lyricist Tim Rice, “Joseph and the amazing technicolor dreamcoat”. He was 20. Over the years, a string of blockbusters followed: “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Evita”, “Cats”, “Starlight Express”, and “The Phantom of the Opera”, among others. His personal wealth is now estimated to be around £400 million, including ownership of the Really Useful Group, the company he set up to produce his work and that of other composers.

Despite his early acquisitions, it was not until the mid-80s that Lord Lloyd-Webber began to spend serious money on art. These purchases were handled by furniture dealer David Crewe-Read, but a disagreement over the purchase of a Leighton sculpture led to an acrimonious split between the two. David Mason, chairman of the St James’s gallery MacConnal-Mason, then took over. He was an old friend of Lord Lloyd-Webber’s third wife Madeleine Gurdon, who had introduced him to the composer.

David Mason’s first purchase for Lord Lloyd-Webber was John Everett Millais’s “Chill October” in 1991. A turning point came soon after when the American oil millionaire and collector Fred Koch sold his collection of Victorian paintings over several months. “Very few of the great paintings in that collection got past Andrew,” says one dealer. Lord Lloyd-Webber’s purchases from the Koch Collection include Tissot’s “Le banc de jardin” for $5.3 million, a new record for the artist. It was around this time that Lord Lloyd-Webber’s collecting shifted up several gears. Despite his musical commitments, he frequently visited museums, galleries and private collectors. “No matter how busy he was, he always had time to go see a painting,” says one source. His interest in the pre-Raphaelites was extended to include other Victorian artists and his collection now has examples by virtually every major artist of the period.

Most recently Lord Lloyd-Webber has started to buy paintings by Stanley Spencer and Alfred Munnings and, over the years, he has also purchased remarkable one-offs such as Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of the Prince of Wales; Canaletto’s “Old Horse Guards from St James’s Park” bought for just over £10 million in 1992 after the Tate failed to raise the money to stop the work being exported abroad following its sale to a buyer overseas. The Canaletto, along with Sir William Waterhouse’s “St Cecilia”, bought for £6.6 million in 2000, setting a new auction record for a Victorian painting, and Picasso’s blue-period portrait of his fellow artist Angel Fernandez de Soto, bought for $26.5 million in 1995, belong to a foundation set up by the composer in 1992 to buy major paintings and lend them for public exhibition.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s collecting is described by those who know him as both focused and obsessive. “He develops an interest in a particular artist and, the next thing you know, he’s got 10 major works by him.” A case in point is William De Morgan, the designer, potter and novelist associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. In 1991 Sotheby’s secured a group of ceramics by De Morgan which had been assembled by an American, William E. Wiltshire, over 10 years. Mr Wiltshire had been forced to sell them following a messy divorce. “There was strong interest in this sale,” says an auction house specialist who was there on the day. “I bid for several items, but I was outbid on all of them. It soon became clear that every winning bid was coming from the same two phones at the back of the room and from four people at the sale room. They were all bidding for Andrew Lloyd Webber. He bought every single lot. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Over 60 of these De Morgan ceramics are on view at the Royal Academy.

The composer’s passion for British art goes hand in hand with an appreciation for Britain’s historic buildings and its genesis is just as early: at the age of 13 he wrote to the then Ministry of Works to complain about the disrepair of castles he had visited on the Welsh border. As well as restoring the Palace Theatre in London (see box), Lord Lloyd-Webber set up the Open Churches Trust in 1994 to secure public access to churches that were being kept locked for fear of theft and vandalism. In the last 10 years the organisation has helped reopen hundreds of them and some synagogues as well.

Lord Lloyd-Webber is known to be considering options for putting his collection on permanent, public view. A 1995 plan to build a gallery on the South Bank as part of a new £50 million arts complex designed by Sir Richard Rogers and entirely funded by the Really Useful Group never got off the ground. “In the long run, I think he would like to open Sydmonton to the public as a museum,” says Mr Rosenthal, “But not for a few years yet. It is his home, after all, and he’s only 55.”

o For details of the exhibition, see What’s On, p.12

Andrew Lloyd Webber in his Hampshire home, Sydmonton, in front of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “A vision of Fiammetta”, one of only a handful of paintings by the artist in private hands. The story of how Lord Lloyd-Webber bought the picture, told in Michael Coveney’s The Andrew Lloyd Webber story, exemplifies the composer’s determination to seek out works of art for his collection. Leafing through an old auction house catalogue about 10 years ago, Lloyd Webber noted that “A vision of Fiammetta” had been sold in 1965 for just under £4,000. David Mason, the London dealer who acts on the composer’s behalf, researched the sale and tracked the painting down to a Mr Rust in Washington, DC. Mr Mason wrote to him expressing an interest in seeing the picture. The letter came back a few weeks later with one sentence written on the back of the envelope: “What’s your best offer?” Mr Mason jumped on a Concorde, found Mr Rust’s house, and then made a generous offer for the painting in person. Mr Rust replied that the capital gains tax on the picture would be enormous. The London dealer immediately made a counter-offer: not only would his client foot the tax bill, he would also pay in sterling the same figure Mr Rust was asking for in dollars. Still, Mr Rust refused. Undeterred, Mr Mason returned to London and arranged for his client to speak to the American on the phone. Then Mr Mason made another, higher offer. Mr Rust agreed. The London dealer secured a draft for several million pounds (the exact sum has never been disclosed), jumped back on a Concorde, drove to Mr Rust’s house, parked a truck with four porters round the corner, entered and placed the draft and a contract on the table, only to be told that the deal was off: Mr Rust had changed his mind. After five hours of discussions and after Mr Mason had promised to have the painting and its frame reproduced by the expert copyist, Barrington Bramley, he left with “A vision of Fiammetta”. When Mr Mason landed at Heathrow, he drove straight to Sydmonton and unpacked the picture for the composer who took one look and burst into tears. The painting is leaving Sydmonton for the first time to go on show at the Royal Academy

When Andrew Lloyd Webber bought the Palace Theatre in London for £1.3 million in 1983, the exterior of the building was crumbling to pieces. The Palace originally opened in 1891 as the Royal English Opera House and had once been a prime example of High Victorian architecture, but “by the time Andrew bought it, most of the cornices had been removed because chunks kept falling to the ground,” says architect John Muir of Jacques Muir & Partners, the firm that the composer brought in to restore the Palace. “We overhauled the entire exterior,” says Muir. “We removed all the advertising that was covering the theatre and all the extraneous metalwork which was poorly fixed. Then we restored and carefully reconstructed the decaying terracotta facework and stabilised all the friezes.” When the restoration was complete, lighting designers were brought in to illuminate the façade. “That had an amazing effect,” recalls Mr Muir, “Everyone else in the square decided to redesign their lighting too, so Cambridge Circus was completely transformed.” The two-year project received a £386,141 grant from English Heritage but Lord Loyd-Webber is said to have spent over £1 million of his own money on the scheme. “Usually people spend that kind of money on private homes,” says Ian Dungavell, director of the Victorian Society, “Andrew spent it on a public building, at tremendous cost to himself and with no prospect of any kind of financial return.” Following his January 2000 purchase of the Stoll Moss Theatre Group for £87.5 million, the composer now owns 13 theatres in London in partnership with NatWest Equity Partners