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The Ray Pahl Collection

• Raymond E. Pahl

Professor Pahl (1935-2011) was elected to the British Academy Fellowship in 2008. He was Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent; he was also an enthusiastic art collector and very kindly bequeathed part of his collection to the British Academy.

Shortly before he died, Professor Pahl wrote a short piece for the British Academy about his collection.

Ray Pahl (right) with Terry Frost

Ray Pahl (right) with Terry Frost

“In the 1970s Old Master Drawings were being sold at Christie's and Sotheby's at really very modest prices, I warmed to the thrill of the chase of attributions, collector's marks and the like. Those were days of win-win situations when one could buy a collection of ten or twenty Old Master Drawings of various quality for just a few hundred pounds. I then set about doing my research in my study at home and, by putting those that I didn't want to keep back in a later auction, I was able to improve the collection.

Come the 1980s, I was being priced out of Old Master Drawings and, when later I moved up Shropshire to a house with a lot of wall space to fill, I turned my attention to modern British art and my strategy of collecting changed.

Landscape with Red Flower, Maurice Cockrill, 1993, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60cm

Landscape with Red Flower, Maurice Cockrill, 1993, oil on canvas, 50 x 60cm

So how did my taste change and develop? There was a huge element of serendipity in this. For many years I had been visiting a dealer in Bournemouth when I went down to visit my parents who'd retired in the area. We had a very good exchange relationship. I very rarely produced any money but for a long time we swapped things that he had in his stock for other drawings that he could put in his regular list that he sent out to clients.

On one occasion I noticed a large collection of large framed drawings by Epstein stacked against the wall and, as he was a rather elderly gentleman and not interested in modern British art, I asked him how they came to be there. It turned out that Lady Epstein had adopted the same tactic as I did and had exchanged her husband's drawings for other items that she preferred. I recognised that this was a great opportunity and parted with a very large number of items in my collection so that in the end I had about twenty five Epstein drawings of top quality and provenance. As a result of this serendipitous series of events I became alerted to the advantage of as it were “buying in bulk”! This meant that individually the items were not expensive and gave many more items to exchange but at a better price. 

Also in the 1980s I was walking along Duke Street, St. James's when I bumped into a dealer with a large box under his arm. “Do you want to see some Gaudier-Brzeskas?” So I followed him into his flat and there was a huge collection which had originally come from Jim Ede but he had just acquired from Colnaghi's. Both of us were pressed for time and since I suspect he had just made a very good deal, he was pretty rough and ready in the way he priced these drawings. I again decided to grit my teeth and invest in more than I could really afford, knowing that in time I would do well.

Composition, Roger Hilton, c1950, Oil on board, 60 x 24cm

These serendipitous events perhaps say something about my instinct as a dealer rather than the development of my taste. However, I never really considered the prices of these items as a way of making 'profit' in the conventional sense - just that they helped me to move on to different areas of art that years previously I could not have afforded to enter. Also, by doing the research on these small collections, I learnt a great deal about the early development of British art in the twentieth century.

At the end of the 1980s I had the very good fortune of meeting two dealers in particular who led me very firmly into British art of the second half of the twentieth century. The first was Irving Grose at the Belgrave Gallery, who introduced me to some of the most stunning work by Terry Frost. Likewise, Agi Katz at the Boundary Gallery introduced me to the wonderful drawings of Joseph Herman: later I came to meet him to discuss his work. At the time I was doing research on the sociology of work and there was a kind of meeting of minds of what we were both seeking to achieve in our respective ways.

Composition, Roger Hilton, c1950, oil on board, 60 x 24cm

Black Sun, Newlyn, Terry Frost, 1982, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 214 x 183cm

Black Sun, Newlyn, Terry Frost, 1982, oil and acrylic on canvas, 214 x 183cm

Another way in which my taste was influenced was by a continuation of my earlier serendipitous phase when I followed up dealers who had made contact with the family estate of artists. Paintings by Cliffe simply jumped out of the wall at me at an Art Fair, although previously I knew nothing of him. Again I bought small collections and weeded these out in order to keep the best. I found it's very difficult to understand how I'm going to feel about a painting unless I've seen many more by the same artist so that I can place them in context. It also helps me to study the artist in more depth whilst I have the full mini collection. Thus it was that I learnt about the artists working with Lord Methuen at Corsham Court and in particular the work of Henry Cliffe, some of which I have bequeathed.

Cleft, Henry Cliffe, 1961, Oil on canvas, 70 x 61cm

Cleft, Henry Cliffe, 1961, oil on canvas, 70 x 61cm 

I hope that the collection will bring pleasure and interest to all who may come to view it when visiting its distinguished surroundings in the British Academy”.

Professor Raymond E. Pahl, FBA, April 2011

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