Apollo Interview with Chris Ingram


A selection of Chris Ingram’s collection of modern British art is on display at the Lightbox, a museum and gallery in his home town of Woking, Surrey. He talks to Apollo about his passion for collecting the ‘dark’ and ‘challenging’, and the importance of community.
Florence Waters, Friday, 21st December 2012

When not on display, much of one of the largest private collections of publicly accessible modern British art in the UK is kept in a secure unit, tucked behind the public bathrooms at the Lightbox in Woking. Inside, climbing around on a scaffold holding the works, is the collector and benefactor of the museum himself. Chris Ingram’s hands hover over a Henry Moore charcoal, a Frank Auerbach landscape and an early Bridget Riley oil. He eventually dismounts with a 1932 pencil drawing by William Roberts (1895-1980), The Ballet Dancer (Fig. 5). It portrays not a classically elegant tutu-clad beauty, but one of Roberts’ tubular men lunging with simian litheness towards a pit containing a crowd of revellers, who shout, cheer, clap and pout at the figure on stage.

chris-ingramMr Ingram’s eyes and fingers follow the rhythms of their limbs. ‘It’s fascinating how he works out these complex compositions,’ he states. Roberts, one of the key Vorticists, and later a painter and chronicler of contemporary British life, is among the best represented artists in the collector’s catalogue of more than 100 20th-century artists.

The scene Mr Ingram holds in his hands is representative of the subversive mood of many of the pieces in his collection, which contains virtually nothing of conventional beauty. In fact, he consistently refers to the art of the 1940s and 1950s, Britain’s angst-ridden post-war period, where his collection is strongest, as ‘dark’ and ‘challenging’. Yet via the loan of this collection to his local gallery, as well as short-term loans to exhibitions around the country, Mr Ingram has saddled himself with the personal mission of making this period not just accessible to a wider public, but more engaging for his local community. ‘I want to make people aware of how good modern British art is [and] also encourage people to be less scared of art. No-body is afraid to have opinions about music, so why art? I still haven’t cracked that yet,’ he says, as if searching for the missing link in an equation.

Mr Ingram left grammar school in Woking aged 16. Starting as a messenger boy, he worked his way up in an advertising agency before starting his own media agency, Chris Ingram Associates, which made his fortune when he sold it in 2001. His priorities then were to save his football club, Woking FC, which he now owns – and to indulge what has since become an obsessive hobby: collecting.

He talks about his discovery of art as if it were a cultish conversion. He says he was a ‘complete oik’ when, working as a junior at an advertising firm in the 1960s, he was invited to (what was then) Leningrad on a work trip. ‘It was bleak. I went into a shop in my – well, denim suit in those days – and they tried to buy the clothes off my back. One evening we were told by our tour guide that we were going to the Hermitage. I hadn’t a clue what that was. We got inside this room full of the most amazing Impressionist paintings and that was it.’ He was hooked. ‘When I started my own company I had the good fortune to go to all these countries, attend a meeting and then dash off to the galleries before catching a flight home.’

By 2002, when Mr Ingram had sold his company and bought Woking FC, his rapidly expanding art collection was causing problems. He had an abundance of British art, much of which his wife found ‘miserable’, so the collection was simultaneously growing and rotting in storage. Around the same time, the local council was planning a new gallery, and when they turned to Mr Ingram looking for a financial donation, they got a far better offer – a collection. Opened in 2007, the Lightbox is a three-storey aluminium and timber-frame structure that turns its back on Woking town and looks out through wall-sized windows onto the canal and countryside beyond. The year after it opened it won the Art Fund Prize.

On entering, before you even approach the reception, you pass through a sculpture gallery. Mr Ingram, who enjoys playing a role in the life of the gallery, takes me to Atalanta (Fig. 4), a 1938 bronze by one of Henry Moore’s tutors, Leon Underwood (1890-1975). Combining sensuous femininity and militaristic might, it depicts the athletic goddess and huntswoman throwing her large, sinuous limbs forward. In her hands are the apples from a Greek legend about her race with her suitor, Hippomenes. As we pass it, Mr Ingram recounts the myth, and tells me that he once described it to a visiting school group and watched them act out their own interpretation of Atalanta. As he talks, a mob of youngsters pass between the plinths. For a moment, the gallery is transformed. It’s not quite the atmosphere of a football stadium, but there’s life enough to call to mind the boisterous engagement with high culture of Roberts’ drawing of the ballet.

Needless to say, Mr Ingram loathes preciousness. Despite his familiarity with the London auction houses, he still talks about them as alienating places. It took him a long time to begin buying art at auction. ‘I liked going to viewings because of the amazing stuff they had but I was deterred by a feeling of elitism.’ It all changed one autumn day in the 1990s when he was browsing at Sotheby’s during a lunch break. ‘I was looking at some British work and I thought it was very good. I couldn’t understand the prices in relation to the others. I approached a specialist and said: “Can you tell me why the prices are so low?” He said: “It’s called modern British art. You’re right – the prices are low, because it’s sort of unfashionable. You could build a nice collection on about one and a half million pounds at the moment.” That was it. I bought two, and never looked back.’

Given that his goal was ‘a world-class collection’, Mr Ingram set his budget (and his time frame; he’s only been seriously collecting for a decade) staggeringly low. Ignoring art market trends and trusting his tastes has often worked in his favour. His instinctive liking for someone like William Roberts is a good example. For the best part of his career, following his early associations with the Vorticists, Roberts was regarded as something of an eccentric outsider, an unadventurous social chronicler, and has been for a while since then. ‘A couple of years ago I could buy his large paintings for £30,000-£40,000. He is a bit more fashionable now,’ says Mr Ingram in his typically understated way. Last November, Roberts’ work was showcased in a special display at Tate Britain; in May 2012, The Chess Players, a painting of around 1929, fetched a record £1.2m, more than double pre-sale estimates, at Sotheby’s London.

Mr Ingram enjoys playing the ‘imper-fections of the art market’, and has never considered gunning for the market giants such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon. But he has rooted out some exemplary pieces from the period, in demand from exhibitors and curators. He generously loaned 16 pieces, among them works by Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi and Edward Burra, to the Royal College of Art’s 175-year-anniversary show ‘The Perfect Place to Grow’ (16 November 2012-3 January). Robert Upstone, director of modern British art at the Fine Art Society, was one of the exhibition curators. ‘It is a wonderful collection and has been put together with an eye for quality,’ he says. ‘We borrowed two Geoffrey Clarke [b. 1924] pieces for this show, and they are among the most exciting examples of his work I’ve seen.’

Mr Upstone got to know Mr Ingram three years ago when, working at Tate Britain as a curator of modern British art, he was involved in loaning Tate’s Sickerts to the Lightbox (‘The Art of Walter Sickert’; 2010). ‘There isn’t anything else like the Lightbox for modern British art. It’s probably the most extraordinary privat- ely funded art project in the country,’ says Mr Upstone.

Among other works on loan when I visit is a Barbara Hepworth (1903-75) – and it’s one of Mr Ingram’s favourites. Fenestration (The Microscope), a 1948 pencil and oil study of a surgeon at work on an ear (Fig. 3), forms part of a thematic study of hospital drawings by the British sculptor at the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire (27 October 2012-3 February). ‘I’m fascinated by the way sculptors draw,’ Mr Ingrams says. ‘It’s absolutely threedimensional, isn’t it? It’s weird.’ He pauses, and then adds, not without feeling: ‘I miss it. They told me the drawing must tour three other galleries around the country and I realised that meant it had to be away for another year. No. That’s not on. I told them I’ll lend something else instead.’

It is gratifying to hear that for all the travelling and sharing it must do, the Ingram collection still has a private life. It’s a rather eccentric one too. Mr Ingram rotates pieces across the world, shuffling the works between his bases in the UK and America. A loosely sketched portrait by David Hockney (b. 1937) of his lover, Maurice (1977), unbuttoned and lounging on a window sill, hangs in his New York apartment. In his living room, there is a fantastic pair of futuristic 1940s paintings by the little-known surrealist John Armstrong (1893-1978). Most important of all, though, is the spot reserved at the other end of his dining-room table at his London flat.

When his wife is not there, Mr Ingram shares his meals with Jacob Epstein’s (1880-1959) Italian Peasant Woman (Fig. 7). This 1907 bronze portrait is the earliest work in his collection, and carries a degree of caricature, which shows the early influence of Expression-ism in Britain. The fleshy folds in the face show off both the cool severity and yielding softness of the bronze; a truth to material that would go on to form the basis of the practice of sculptors such as Moore and Hepworth. ‘She’s seen it all,’ says Mr Ingram. ‘She’s house keeper. She’s omert. I know she’s not going to tell anybody about whatever I’ve done. I go through this whole mafia thing when I look at her.’

There are few works of art in this collection that aren’t by some definition frightening. Even the works that he terms ‘beautiful’ are tinged with melancholy. A Cornish landscape by Laura Knight (1877-1970) depicts a perilously icy and still sea in muted greys, washing to an unseen shore behind some black shadowy rocks, unusually brooding for the artist. Ingram’s collection of work by the neo-Romantics is probably unparalleled. Among them were troubled figures such as John Minton and Keith Vaughan (see book review, pp. 90-91), both of whom committed suicide. There are examples of the work of fellow neo-Romantic John Craxton (1922-2009), whose 1945 Reaper in a Welsh Landscape (Fig. 6) shows how British landscape artists had absorbed the influence of the Post-Impressionists, and used it in the creation of a strange, disorienting pictorial language. ‘However faithful our British artists were to Nature, Nature was now to be feared as much as to be loved,’ wrote Herbert Read of the post-war artists in his 1964 edition of Contemporary British Art.

Ingram’s humour, too, is as black as Graham Sutherland’s wartime visions of tin mines (which count among the collector’s recent acquisitions). He owns two mischie-vously obscene drawings by John Bratby (1928-92) of the artist’s wife, stripped of any demure longing like a burlesque Otto Dix nude. ‘I just think they’re so shocking, so wonderfully hilarious. Imagine saying, “Hello, look at these pictures I drew of my wife!’’’ It comes as no surprise to learn that Mr Ingram is fanatical about German Expressionism.

A man of iron will, Mr Ingram often pooh-poohs the recommendations of his advisers. ‘I buy stuff I want to look at again and again,’ he says. It’s clear that the Ingram collection’s success hinges largely on the fact that it is inseparable from the man himself. There is a quality about this period that appeals directly to his sensibility. He takes me to see Peter Howson’s (b. 1958) Resurrection (1999), a hellish vision of muscle and earth that was painted by Howson as he recovered from alcoholism and converted to Christianity. He doesn’t think that the people of Woking will share his love of this one, but he wants them to be challenged – and he hopes that some people, at least, will understand the appeal. ‘Sometimes it seems to me that people really need to suffer in order to identify with these things,’ he says with sadness, but quickly sweeps the comment away and moves on.

Much of the art of the last century was made in response to social change and upheaval, and was often commissioned with public contemplation in mind. Mr Ingram enjoys seeing his art in non-gallery spaces too. One of the places he likes to loan works to is Guildford Cathedral, begun in 1936 to a design by Edward Maufe (1883-1974) and completed in 1961. Tristram Hillier’s (1905-83) Crucifixion (Fig. 2) of 1954 provided a challenging narrative for service-goers. ‘It shows people upset, while others turn their back on it. In the foreground are fag packets and saws and hammers. It is an interesting comment on a seismic shift in the public’s attitude to religion at the time.’

Mr Ingram also actively looks for inspiration from visits around the country. ‘I fell in love with Elisabeth Frink’s (1930-93; Fig. 8) bronze Walking Madonna outside Salisbury Cathedral. There were only three of them cast, so when she came up for auction I went berserk.’ Mr Ingram bid for the piece on the phone, and lost it at an underbid so high that it broke a world record. He vowed never to bid again. ‘I always agree a limit with my curator first, and then she does the bidding, to stop me from going too mad.’

The third Walking Madonna luckily came up for auction two years later. Mr Ingram won, and loaned it to Guildford Cathedral. ‘I kept on extending the loan because she looked so stunning.’ Mr Ingram’s collection of 23 Frinks will form the basis of the Lightbox’s retro-spective of the sculptor, which opens on 19 February. He has been buying up work with this show in mind, one example of what he calls ‘curatorial buying’ – buying art with a public in mind.

It’s hard to resist the other side of the collector, though, the wide-eyed, boy-in-a-toy-store side. His recent forays into contemporary art bring out this side of him. He doesn’t look for new artists at auction, but sticks to graduate shows. ‘[At Chelsea School of Art] I walked into a room, full of flashing lights, steam, noise, a saucepan overhead. It was weird. I thought: I’ll buy it.’ He approached the artist who presented Mr Ingram with a menu of prices for various components of the work. ‘“No,” I said. “I want the whole thing.” The artist thought for a moment and replied: “Ah, you want to buy my orchestra.”’ Mr Ingram admires the young man’s marketing savvy. Since then Haroon Mirza (b. 1977) has won the Northern Art Prize and the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale 2011, and is one of the rising talents on the British scene. Meanwhile, Mirza’s orchestra still sits in a cardboard box in the safe room behind the WC sign at the Lightbox. Mr Ingram pats it fondly, waiting for the right day to unleash it on Woking.

Article courtesy of Apollo.