The Tate may have Lottery millions to build a gleaming new gallery at Bankside, but the slow drip of government funding over the decade has left it with pitiful resources for buying art to fill Bankside’s cavernous halls. Which is where Janet de Botton steps in, a white knight in Manolo Blahnik shoes.
Her gift of fifty-six modern British and American works of art, worth £2.3 million, is the Tate’s most important contemporary art gift since Lord McAlpine’s in 1970. Among the highlights are significant works by Andy Warhol, Carl Andre, Gilbert & George and Cindy Sherman, which add depth to the Tate’s own holdings; while works by Roni Horn, Gary Hume, Reinhard Mucha, Lucas Samarras and Nancy Spero are introduced to the permanent collection for the first time. Few of the works, now on show at the Tate in a special exhibition (until 26 April), have been seen in public before.
Mrs de Botton, former wife of Michael Green, chairman of Carlton Communications, and a member of the philanthropic Wolfson family has been buying art since the 1970s. For one of the foremost collectors in the country she is refreshingly candid about the humble origins of her enterprise: “I bought my very first painting—a John Hoyland—as something to furnish a house. There was absolutely no sense of going anywhere, no ambition attached to it. It was the same as buying a bed, only it was slightly more important how it looked.”
Her capacity for acquiring art soon outstripped the capacity of her walls. But rather than let that stop her, she simply organised storage space and continued. One of the most impressive aspects of her collecting was her decision to buy the best art she could, regardless of size: “It was just irritating to me to have something that was good but to know, at the back of my mind, that there was something better, though it might not be housable,” she explains.
Even so, her large home in Chelsea, where she lives with her second husband, the Swiss fund manager and collector Gilbert de Botton, is brim-full of instantly recognisable paintings and sculptures. Her donation represents about a third of her collection, from which she allowed the Tate a generously free choice, only balking at a couple of requests—a Twombly she is particularly fond of; two Chairman Mao Warhols which hang in her study (she offered two others instead); a Tim Rollins she had only just bought (and which she has promised the Tate after her death). “There were lots of things that I lived with, both in my garden and in my home, that I didn’t want to part with. But I did”, she says.
Though she admits to having made the odd mistake over the years, she has had a remarkable success rate—picking up some artists, like Julian Schnabel, when they were still little known. The collection’s bias towards abstract art is very much a reflection of her own enthusiasms: “I’d never take advice. I’m such a monster”, she laughs; and it was certainly never her purpose to buy with the Tate in mind. In fact, she insists that the idea of presenting the works to the Tate hadn’t entered her head, although at one time she considered setting up a gallery of her own.
It was her involvement as a trustee of the Tate, during the planning of Bankside, that prompted the gift: “I wouldn’t have been that interested in giving works to the Tate at Millbank. They just don’t have the space. But here was this building which I found inspirational. I feel that I have a chance to see works that I love, works that were part of my life—of my growing up in a way—in an ideal situation. It seemed like a great idea and so far I haven’t been disappointed.”
o The Tate Gallery has continued its acquisitions expansion programme with the purchase of paintings by Lee Ufan. “From Line” (1977), “From Winds” (1982) and “Correspondence” (1993) are the first works by a Korean artist to enter the collection. Funds have been made available by the Samsung Foundation of Culture, and the works will be on display 7 March to 13 April. The pictures add impetus to the Tate’s strategy of buying works outside of Europe and North America.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Janet de Botton gives it all away'