For a man who has built up a highly successful hospitality empire, Stefan Turnbull is the epitome of quiet modesty. He’s unassuming when talking about the sleek Cubitt House enterprise – a stable of two London hotels and four high-end gastropubs, including The Grazing Goat in Marylebone – which he co-founded in 2005 and sold in 2015, yet his passion is palpable. He now runs an investment fund for small and medium-sized companies, seeking out equally energetic entrepreneurs.
But if business is one love, art has long been another. “Over the past 20 years I have collected drawings and prints,” he says. Then, a few years ago, his collecting took a more serious turn, when he and his wife Gosia came across a Henry Moore print at the London Art Fair. The sculptural 1983 study, entitled Mother and Child, was being offered by specialist print dealers Sims Reed for less than £5,000, and while it instantly struck a chord with the Turnbulls, it was the gallery’s then director, Lyndsey Ingram, who sealed the deal. “She told us all about Moore at that moment in time and what his influences were. Her enthusiasm really came out in that first five minutes,” says Turnbull. “I hadn’t experienced that kind of openness in a gallerist before. I thought: ‘This is someone I can relate to.’”
Ingram lives and breathes prints: she started at Sotheby’s print department aged just 19, then joined Sims Reed in 2003, before striking out on her own last April. Today she is a leading dealer in modern and contemporary prints, having built up strong relationships with printers, publishers, museum curators, auction houses and collectors worldwide. “With prints, artists know that more than one is produced, so the image has to be really compelling,” she explains. “If I were dealing in drawings or paintings, I would always feel like I was showing second best, because the best are either in museums or totally unaffordable.” This is part of the appeal of prints for Turnbull too. “You can get the best for a fraction of the cost of the best in other media,” he says.
The second time Ingram heard from Turnbull she was in the midst of sending a big show of Hockney prints to an art fair. She had sent him an invitation and he called to say he wanted to see everything. It was all packed up, but Ingram unpacked a beautiful selection: “some big pools, a pretty Paris window – all these fabulous, very accessible pieces. Then I mentioned that I also had this wonderful series of 16 etchings called A Rake’s Progress that Hockney did between 1961 and 1963 – very rare and very expensive [one etching costs about £8,000-£12,000; a complete series £120,000-£200,000]. Moreover, it wasn’t just any Rake’s Progress – it was in its original wrappers and had never been framed before.” To her complete surprise, she relates, “Stefan said, ‘I think if I’m going to be serious about building a collection, then I should buy it.’”
This was quite a leap from Turnbull’s first-ever print, bought when he was 20 years old at a charity auction for £50. “It was Peter Blake’s Clown and I still have it next to my bed.” A few years later, he bought an artist’s proof by another British pop artist – Gerald Laing’s iconic Brigitte Bardot (about £6,000-£10,000) – directly from Laing himself. “This put the foundations of a collecting thought process in place,” says Turnbull, who is particularly drawn to works created in the 1960s and 1970s. “The prints of this period seem very fresh; they have a sense of adventure that appeals to me.”
Of their second encounter, Ingram recalls, “I saw this was someone who understood the value of what they were being offered and was prepared to go for it. Things that special don’t come up very often. When they do, I have to decide who to call. And when you’ve built that sort of relationship with a person, they get the call first.” It marked a turning point for Turnbull, too, whose focus on postwar prints and works on paper homed in on pieces that have “either a personal touch or a backstory”.
Another early Hockney print, Alka Seltzer (about £10,000-£12,000) certainly has this added level of interest. “It’s an etching of “Doll Boy”, who was based on Cliff Richard, and it says on it ‘the most beautiful boy in the world’,” says Ingram. “It’s an edition of just 15, and it’s also inscribed ‘To Peter C with all my love, David’. At the time, Hockney was in love with his friend Peter Crutch and gave him this print; it’s like a love letter, it’s so full of personal meaning.”
Ingram has also found Turnbull a seminal early Bridget Riley op art silkscreen print, the undulating black and white Movement in Squares (about £35,000-£60,000): “Because of the poor paper quality in the early 1960s, not many of Riley’s prints survived, and those that have are in poor condition. This happened to come straight from her studio so has incredible provenance and is beautifully preserved. It’s arguably her most important print.” Another highlight of Turnbull’s collection is Grayson Perry’s enormous 8ft by 2ft etching Print for a Politician (about £30,000-£50,000) a version of which hangs in Her Majesty’s Treasury. And Ingram has her eye on another contemporary artist: “I need to find Stefan a good Harland Miller – a really gritty one, maybe handworked.” For Turnbull, however, Hockney is still top of his list: “I would very much like to complete my collection when the right things come up, to keep moving forward.”
Turnbull and Ingram don’t always see eye to eye on every artwork, but neither of them is nervous around these delicate works. “You have to be willing to invest in museum-quality materials, but we have the technology now to protect these things,” says Ingram. Once that’s done, you can live with them – as Turnbull happily does at his home: “They are part of the family. And I get huge enjoyment from looking at them every day.”