Creating one of the finest private collections of modern British art

A dealer’s eye for the overlooked has helped focus a collector’s interest in art’s darker side. Catherine Milner reports. Portrait by Matthew Stylianou

Polly Bielecka and Chris Ingram with Meat Porters, 1959, by Ralph Brown
Polly Bielecka and Chris Ingram with Meat Porters, 1959, by Ralph Brown | Image: © Matthew Stylianou Courtesy of Ralph Brown's Estate/Pangolin London

When media entrepreneur Chris Ingram sold his eponymous business for £430m in 2001, he at last had the time and money to indulge his two great passions. First he bought Woking Football Club, the team he had supported since he was a boy, and then he decided to satisfy what has since become an obsession – art collecting. “I’m completely nutty about it,” he says.

At first he bought from auctions; it was while he was at a Sotheby’s sale that he discovered that modern British art was rather out of fashion, and upon further investigation with the house, was told he could build a really good collection for £1.5m. Since then, Ingram has amassed around 680 works, creating one of the finest private collections of modern British art from the early 1900s to the 1960s. About 40 of his pieces live in his 75sq m apartment in central London – the washroom is a shrine to “small classics” by artists including Kenneth Armitage and Eduardo Paolozzi. “The flat has been designed around the art,” says Ingram, “the furnishings, colours, everything. The art is the hero.”

Italian Peasant Woman, 1907, by Jacob Epstein
Italian Peasant Woman, 1907, by Jacob Epstein | Image: © JP Bland

There is no permanent home for the rest of The Ingram Collection – partly by design. Some of it is housed near his home in Woking at The Lightbox, a publicly funded gallery, but there can be as many as five exhibitions made up of his works simultaneously touring the country in locations ranging from Mayfair restaurants to care homes and prisons. “At any one time we lend out two-thirds of the collection – I want to get the story out there about British art,” he says.

The earliest sculpture in his collection is a bronze head of a fierce-looking Italian peasant woman by Jacob Epstein that dates from 1907 and sits on his dining-room table. “I regard her as my housekeeper,” he says. “She’s domineering but also omertà – she says nothing, which is very convenient,” he jokes. But he considers the “peak” of his collection to be a series of bronze sculptures dating from the 1950s and 1960s, several of which he bought from Polly Bielecka, director of sculpture gallery Pangolin London.

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Ingram met Bielecka in 2008 at the private view of an exhibition of Lynn Chadwick sculptures (Second Girl Sitting on Bench), and the two bonded over their love of a kind of art they freely concede is characterised by angst. “I like the fact that modern British art is often dark and multilayered,” says Ingram. “If anybody tells me about a work for sale that is grim and gaunt but amazing, I know they’ve got my taste to a T. Some dealers are excited by the thrill of battling to acquire a piece, but Polly is more interested in how artists arrive at the work they make – just as I am.”

Among the first pieces Ingram bought from Bielecka was the etching for Man – a curious aerial-like iron and stone structure already in his collection –by Geoffrey Clarke, one of the most commissioned artists of the 1950s but now largely overlooked. Ingram often likes to buy such preparatory sketches for the sculptures he has acquired; “I’m buying almost as a curator, with exhibitions in mind,” he says.

Second Girl Sitting on Bench, 1988, by Lynn Chadwick
Second Girl Sitting on Bench, 1988, by Lynn Chadwick | Image: © JP Bland

Man itself demonstrates how Clarke, a pioneering sculptor and one of a group whose work was dubbed “Geometry of Fear”, learnt to forge beauty out of rudimentary materials in the wake of two world wars that had rendered bronze too expensive for most artists.

“There is a wide range of materials used to make sculpture in Chris’s collection – everything from felt to aluminium,” Bielecka points out. “Man really signalled a seminal step change for British sculpture, which had until then been completely commandeered by behemoths such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.”

Man, 1951, by Geoffrey Clarke
Man, 1951, by Geoffrey Clarke | Image: Courtesy of Geoffrey Clarke's Estate/Pangolin London

One of Bielecka’s most important discoveries for the collector was the spidery Women with Children by Rosemary Young, which had not been exhibited since 1950 until Bielecka found a cast in the artist’s studio on top of a cupboard. And though the most significant work he owns is, says Bielecka, Ralph Brown’s Meat Porters – a huge carcass of bronze that stood in the Royal Academy of Arts’ Piccadilly courtyard in summer 2014, and which Ingram bought to inject what he calls a “pow” factor into his collection – the sculpture he most treasures is Walking Madonna by Elisabeth Frink (one of 28 pieces he’s purchased by the sculptor), which he describes as “an ascetic but graceful figure with a harrowed face yet full of dignity”. Ingram says the sculpture played hard to get: he offered more than £100,000 over the auction budget he had set himself, only to be outbid by the then Duchess of Devonshire. Happily, another version of the same sculpture cropped up (it was one of three) but he has never trusted himself to buy at auction again – now he lets the curator of his collection, Jo Baring, bid for him.

But this doesn’t hinder Ingram from acting from the heart. “Chris takes that leap of faith you need to build a good collection,” says Bielecka. In 2014, he spent £40,000 on Square World, a series of five aluminium panels by Clarke that came from a decommissioned church and had no auction history. The series highlights Clarke’s pioneering casting of aluminium in moulds made of carved polystyrene.

Women with Children, 1953, by Rosemary Young
Women with Children, 1953, by Rosemary Young | Image: © JP Bland

Although 20th-century British art has often been overshadowed in the historical canon by works from America, Germany and France, both collector and dealer say it is just as radical. “Where else in the world was there such a huge leap in style from the figurative bronzes of Jacob Epstein to the brightly coloured beams of Anthony Caro – all in the space of 30 years?” posits Bielecka.

Ingram thinks this was the first truly British art movement. “This is the style where, as an island, we were finally establishing our true identity. Before, we were horribly derivative. Up until the first world war a lot of artists were trying to be second-rate impressionists.”

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Ingram is also particularly comfortable collecting modern British art “because the artists can’t ruin it for me – most of them are no longer around. With those who are alive there is always the danger that they will start explaining their work and the truth is, I don’t want to know!” For many years he lived in happy ignorance of the history behind a totemic bronze head of a soldier, Frink’s Soldier’s Head II, which sits on his desk. “I liked it because it was inscrutable; I couldn’t work out if the soldier was a thug or someone who had been terribly brutalised – Frink is all about the contradiction of men. But then I learnt from a curator that it was in fact Frink’s husband, Ted, who was injured during the war. But I had liked not knowing.”

Looking ahead, Bielecka thinks there is room for a few more abstract works in the collection. “Chris owns a lot of figurative bronzes but there are some fabulous works to be found from the ‘New Generation’ of artists like Anthony Caro, Ralph Brown, Bryan Kneale and Austin Wright, which are still relatively affordable and have strong investment potential,” she says.

Ingram himself remains open – but, “certain artists I haven’t bought because I simply don’t like them,” he says, chuckling. “That’s why there’s no Peter Lanyon – it’s not an official collection. There are artists I quite like, such as Patrick Caulfield or Henry Moore, but they’re a lot of money. I mean, what Moore can you get for under £100,000?”



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