RA Magazine Winter 2012
Issue Number: 117
Inside Story: David Roberts
Sarah Greenberg meets the art collector and property developer whose new gallery in north London draws on over 1,800 works, from Hirst to Richter, in his collection. Photograph by Bill Burlington
You’ve built a new gallery to show your contemporary art collection. Why? I think collecting art becomes an obsession. As the collection grew, it filled the house, the office, the warehouse. And it’s a shame not to be able to show the work. We had another gallery but it was too small so I eventually found this space, which was an old furniture factory in Camden. It gives us greater scale and allows my Director, Vincent Honoré, to put on ambitious shows.
Have you always wanted to be a collector? I’ve always been interested in design, graphics and art. My family worked in the shipyards of Glasgow. I got a bursary to a grammar school and the intention was that I would become a naval architect. But after a year I realized I was bored so I gave it up and started in the property business.
Did you look at art when you were growing up? No. But in my late teens the Burrell Collection opened in Glasgow – that had a big impact because I was amazed that one man could accumulate so many diverse things – Rodin sculptures, Courbet and Degas paintings, – and it has such a personal feel.
David Roberts stands alongside 'RIG: Untitled: Coils', 2011, by Phyllida Barlow RA, at the David Roberts Art Foundation. Photo © Bill Burlington
Your art epiphany? Probably when I bought my first painting around 1992. I was on holiday with my kids in Brittany and a gallery there had a show of a Spanish painter, Manuel Otero – he wasn’t famous, but it was the first time I’d bought an original piece of art. It started the journey off. I used to be terrified of going to places like museums and galleries because it wasn’t my background and I never felt as if I belonged. I think for a lot of people it’s still an intimidating world, even though people are far more aware of art than they used to be.
Why did you choose to collect contemporary art? To meet artists – there is something wonderful about admiring someone’s work and then getting to know them. When you talk to, say, Anthony Caro RA about when he worked for Henry Moore, you’re building your own archive of knowledge about art.
You have a strong collection of work by Phyllida Barlow RA. I met Phyllida when she had a show at Roche Court – she told me about her work and helped me understand it. She’s a walking encyclopedia – she’s taught so many artists and she has great opinions on their work.
Who would you like to paint you? Auerbach or Kossoff – I wouldn’t want it to be obvious it was me.
If you could be a figure in a famous work of art, who would it be? I would be in the corner of some Renaissance painting, perhaps somebody serving food at the Last Supper.
What is your greatest fear? That the business I’ve built up would disappear – apart from anything else, I wouldn’t be able to buy art.
What do you do to relax? Fly-fishing – I’ve been tying my own flies since I was about ten years old.
What keeps you awake at night? I worry about my children – with six of them, there’s always something going on.
Your favourite RA shows? The Summer Exhibition. Where else can you see a print of a dog that’s sold 27 copies and an enormous Anselm Kiefer? I also loved ‘Anish Kapoor’.
Where is the best place to look at art? Two museums by David Chipperfield RA: the Hepworth Wakefield, with its series of interconnecting galleries, and the restored Neue Museum in Berlin. This is his masterpiece – he has got the balance right between knowing when to refurbish parts to their former glory and leaving other areas in their destroyed state.
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