Many of the world’s great collectors, such as Sir Hans Sloane, whose vast collection played a major part in the founding of the British Museum, and Sir John Soane, founder of the Soane Museum, planned their collecting activities specifically with a view to creating long-lasting legacies.
Their fascinating collections now provide rich sources of knowledge for today’s museum visitors, be they acknowledged experts or just merely curious.
But what of the hundreds of thousands of collectors who are just individuals fascinated by particular items?
Their collections might seem insignificant when compared to the great collections mentioned above, but the process of collecting is the same, with some collectors going to any lengths to acquire specific items.
Many keep meticulous records in much the same way as Sloane and Soane.
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We should never belittle them since they, too, can provide a valuable insight into the past.
Ronald, a Dedicated Collector, Speaks Exclusively to Decoded Past
Visiting Ronald’s home is a bit like visiting a museum, but on a much smaller scale. He has a fine collection of prints by well-known artist Beryl Cook, but he also has a smaller collection of prints and paintings from the not so well-known artist, Henry Mathews.
Ronald’s collecting activities don’t stop there. Over the past thirty years, he has also acquired more than 300 die-cast vehicles as well as hundreds of classic cameras and a comprehensive collection of very beautiful porcelain figurines.
Decoded Past: Which collection did you start first, and why?
Ronald: The camera collection came first. It started when I saw an old camera in a shop window. It was like one I had when I was a teenager, and I had to have it. Since then, I’ve just been unable to stop.
I’m not sure when I started collecting the die-cast toys, but I do know why! If you look along the shelves you’ll see groups of cars that look the same. But they’re not! Every single one is different. Manufacturers like Models of Yesteryear often made different versions of the same vehicle with several variations. You need to look closely to spot them. It might be the size or colour of the steering wheel, or it could be the colour and style of the seats. The number of spokes in the wheels can vary and the wheels on one car might be a different style to the wheels on another.
Decoded Past: You have very mixed tastes – what about your other collections?
Ronald: I have a very large collection of figurines. This collection is very closely focused. The figurines are all by the same designer, Guiseppe Armani.
Extremely fine details show the fashions of the 1920s and 1930s which is why I find these figures particularly appealing.
I have books about fashion history but when you actually see the styles on the models, you get a completely different view.
With the cameras it’s very different. I collect anything, by any manufacturer, so long as it’s vintage, affordable, and in working order. Of course, I can’t always get the film these days, but there are still one or two specialist shops in London that keep a small stock. What I find so fascinating is researching the history of the camera, where was it made and who made it?
Decoded Past: Your collection spans over 120 years of photographic history so what are the major changes you’ve noticed?
Ronald: Well, for a start, the obvious change is the reduction in the size of cameras.
When you look at a modern digital camera alongside one of the old heavy folding cameras like the Lizars Challenge Model E, which dates from about 1905, it’s amazing that photography was such a popular hobby. You can’t slip the Model E into your pocket!
Also, there’s the invention of new materials like Bakelite. This led to new design opportunities. Manufacturers like Kodak were quick to take advantage of Bakelite with the introduction of the Hawkette No. 2 in 1954.
This was a cheap “premium” camera, and a lot of people saved coupons from cigarette packets and magazines to pay for their cameras. Bakelite cameras are keenly sought by collectors.
Decoded Past: I am surrounded by cameras – do you have a favourite?
Ronald: When I was a schoolboy in the mid-1950s, one of my favourite cameras was the Sterling II, another Kodak. It has an Anaston f4.5 105 mm focusing lens and Pronto shutter. It’s rarer than most folding cameras of its time, and like the Hawkette, it’s also highly collectible.
Decoded Past: You’ve got a selection of prints by Beryl Cook and Henry Mathews. What is about their work that interests you?
Ronald: Well, Cook’s work is instantly recognisable. She seems to paint mostly women but I do have one of her men, A Fine Figure, placed among my ladies.
Cook’s works show people she met in everyday life, usually having a good time. She had no formal training and didn’t start painting until she was about thirty years old.
She once said, ‘I don’t know how my pictures happen, they just do. They exist, but for the life of me I can’t explain them’. She was a very shy and private person and I think her paintings reflect the type of person she really wanted to be.
Henry Mathews, on the other hand, is not such a well-known artist. In fact, I’ve not been able to find out much about his life, other than he lived in Hampstead in north-west London, where I visited his studio in the late 1980s. I think he died in 1991.
His work is completely different to Beryl Cook’s. He came to painting late in life, interpreting popular themes or works by great literary figures such as William Shakespeare or composers such as Beethoven and Mozart. Harlequine and Columbine is one of the few oil paintings in the collection.
Mathews uses a single curved white line to give Harlequine his shape. The painting is vibrant, full of life, and very powerful. Harlequine, playing the lute, poses elegantly as Columbine watches from above.
One of Mathews’ favourite devices is to use pieces of music from printed scores. In this case, the fragment is from Robert Schumann’s Carnaval. I think Harlequine and Columbine will always be special because it was the first oil painting my wife and I chose together.
Does it Really Matter What You Collect and Why?
So, does it really matter what you collect and why? Probably not, as long as your collections give you pleasure. To give a collection real value for generations to come it’s very important to keep the results of any research you do, and to catalogue the collection objectively, preferably with detailed notes and photographs.
Decoded Past asked Ronald just one more question: Who dusts and cleans all these collections?
Ronald: That’s my wife’s job. She’ll probably tell you that as long as I don’t start collecting wives she doesn’t really mind!