Chris Ingram: From messenger boy to museum benefactor

Woman on a Boat, 1953, Reg Butler

© The Estate of Reg Butler

Andrew Lambirth meets Chris Ingram, the collector behind a much-lauded museum in Woking

Chris Ingram is a silver-haired, incisive man, with an air of quiet authority and decided opinions about the art he so passionately collects. A media entrepreneur who started work at 16 as a messenger boy in an advertising agency, Ingram has the strength of his convictions. Over the past dozen years he has built up a remarkable collection of some 500 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, of which 350 belong in the category described by auctioneers as Modern British. (Or, in other words, 20th century rather than contemporary.) He began by buying for the home and consulting his wife’s taste as well, but branched out when he bought for the office. Then he was at Sotheby’s one day in 2001 (only viewing a sale, being then still very wary of buying at auction) when he realised that the category of Modern British was somewhat out of fashion, and consequently rather seductively underpriced. A Sotheby’s expert told him that he could build a really good collection for £1.5 million.

‘I thought that was very interesting being a media man who has always been interested in markets and how they work. The next thing that happened was that I sold my business at a very good price and it made it all possible. I’ve always been very enthusiastic about art, but the idea that it should be for other people to enjoy came later.’ He started a new business, which wasn’t a success, partly because he no longer wanted to work ‘24/7’, so he closed it and had to find somewhere to put his burgeoning art collection. The works ended up in storage, which saddened him, especially as he was still tempted to buy more. At the same time, he bought Woking Football Club (he grew up there and went to the local grammar school) and discovered that there were plans to build a new museum and gallery in the town, to be called The Lightbox. At once a possible destination for his collection became apparent.

The Ingram Collection is now so closely connected with The Lightbox that many think it is his own private gallery, rather than an independent, publicly funded museum. As its name suggests, it is a box of light, designed by Marks Barfield Architects, who were responsible for the London Eye. With a faade of gold and silver aluminium tiles, timber and glass walls, it houses three spacious and flexible galleries. Permanent home to ‘Woking’s Story’, a popular historical narrative of the town, it schedules a programme of changing exhibitions, some of which are built around the Ingram Collection. The museum opened in autumn 2007 and won the Art Fund Prize for Museums and Galleries in 2008. Admission is free to all exhibitions and displays. There are always items from the Ingram Collection on view (the collection as a whole is on what its owner describes as ‘a rolling medium-term loan’), and the presence of this substantial resource has given The Lightbox tremendous bargaining power (in terms of borrowing exhibits from other museums, who might well want to borrow in return) and a new-found status.

It has risen splendidly to the challenge of showing Ingram’s collection. Indicative of what The Lightbox can do was the recent solo show of sculpture and drawings by Elisabeth Frink, an impressively installed display of real breadth and quality. Ingram’s own substantial holdings of Frink were richly augmented by loans from public and private collections, and the scale of the project was national rather than provincial. In addition, The Lightbox is closely involved with education, and uses the collection inspirationally.

Ingram still buys a lot, at auction or from dealers, following his gut instincts and usually making up his mind very quickly. He’s interested in artists who are currently underrated, but mostly buys what he likes. ‘My funds aren’t unlimited, I invest a lot in small businesses. So if I’ve had to refinance a small business, I’m probably not buying at that time, though sometimes things come up in a flood.’ Ingram also makes the rounds of art-school degree shows: ‘Usually, 90 per cent of the stuff I don’t like, and then I bewail the lack of respect for craft skills, drawing and so on – because drawing finds you out pretty fast – so I buy very selectively.

‘These days I’m buying almost as a curator, with exhibitions in mind, which is really interesting. It enables me to buy pieces that ordinary collectors don’t – like preparatory drawings. For instance, William Roberts and his squared-up drawings full of flowing movement of people working or doing sport. After the drawing, you can have the watercolour and the oil, for example. Most people don’t do that. There’s a hierarchy in art and drawing is very undervalued, which is completely crazy. But I regard that as the market’s problem and not mine.’ Ingram’s mission is now a proselytising one, and his involvement with The Lightbox is essential to this end: he wants to reach a wider public. ‘Part of the attraction of buying for exhibitions is creating themes which will bring people in – yes, enjoying the collection but also enjoying not being so scared of art and having a view on it. We called one exhibition Dreams and Nightmares. If you’d called it Neo-romantics and Surrealists, apart from people who are really into art, no one else would have bothered to come.’

He trusts his instincts about popular taste and likes to mingle radical art with ‘softer’, more accessible options. His aim is to pull in the people so that they will look at all types of art and become more familiar with what’s available. Ingram’s own passion for football overlaps and interlocks with his collecting: he owns some 28 pieces of football art, has already mounted one hugely successful exhibition of the genre, and is considering another. His ambition to use his collection and get it out and about, in London and elsewhere, has resulted in the current loan of bronzes at Canary Wharf, displayed in the lobby of One Canada Square (until 15 November). It’s an impressive array, opening with Frink’s ‘Walking Madonna’, a curiously frail figure (given the element of self-portraiture in the face) walking purposefully towards the visitor – as if striding out of the building, unable to remain a moment longer in this temple of commerce. Only one or two pieces are dwarfed by the setting, most hold their own superbly. Here are Lynn Chadwick and Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler and Geoffrey Clarke, Epstein, Paolozzi and Leon Underwood.

The range and quality of exhibits bear testament to Ingram’s taste. ‘I’ve got very simple views on art: anything I buy I want to be able to look at again and again. Either because it’s of such stunning beauty or, much more likely, I see something different in it each time.’ The example he gives is a Frink bronze he owns (though not in the Canary Wharf exhibition) called ‘Soldier’s Head II’ (1965). ‘I had it by the side of my desk for two and a half years and every day I could not work out whether this guy was a thug, or somebody being bullied.’ Of course Frink intended it to be both, as Ingram has come to realise, and this accounts for the sustained interest of the piece.

Chris Ingram, who likes a challenge, planned to build a collection of Modern British art of national significance. Looking at the work at Canary Wharf, and the two-volume catalogue of his other acquisitions, he is definitely on the way.

Article courtesy of The Spectator Magazine