Having acres of wall space is one advantage of living in a rambling Edwardian manor house. And while some homeowners might wonder how to decorate those walls, this isn’t a problem for Philip Dowson, chief finance officer of exhibition and convention centre Excel London, because his collection of paintings by young, emerging, mainly British artists just doesn’t stop growing. “I love having original art around the home,” says Dowson. “It’s the Yang to the Yin of my corporate life.”
Dowson was initially introduced to gallerist Josie Eastwood in 1998. They met through a mutual friend at a time when Eastwood was presenting work in her home near Winchester. She has since moved the gallery into a farm building in the grounds of her home, but still holds biannual group shows in the house.
Having also held shows in London at the Air Gallery in Dover Street and Art London in Chelsea, she is familiar with the confines of commercial venues: “I feel it’s important for people to see the work in a home environment. I like to create an intimate atmosphere where there’s no pressure to buy. The shows are by invitation only, so there’s now a gathering momentum of people who all know each other at these events. I don’t advertise, and I don’t actively try to sell anything. The work really sells itself.”
Back in 1998, Dowson had never been to a home-show. “I find contemporary art galleries a bit sterile, so I was excited to see the work in Josie’s home,” he says. “Apart from it being a much more relaxed way to look at the paintings, the setting helped me to imagine them in my own home. It was very informal. Everyone seemed to know each other and I was amazed to be introduced to the artists socially. It made the whole experience much more engaging. And talking to them about their inspiration and hearing the stories behind the paintings really changed the way I viewed their work – I felt a much greater emotional connection with it.”
Dowson came away from his first event with a pair of Irish seascapes by Melita Denaro. The small, jewel-like, Turneresque oils now hang either side of his fireplace. “They’re elemental – full of soul,” he says. “They really give the feel of the thundering wind and force of the waves.” Even when the reaction is less visceral, Dowson can’t help but be affected by Eastwood’s enthusiasm for emerging talent. “The first abstract she showed me was Floating Circles, a soft sequence of blue and yellow shapes by a little-known English-Polish artist, Ruth Miemczyk. I wasn’t sure at first, but took a leap of faith and bought it. Now it’s one of my favourites.” Dowson went on to buy further abstracts by Miemczyk and other artists, including Linear Still Life by British painter Jeremy Annear. “It’s graphic, intriguing, intensely compelling – I had to have it,” he says.
“Some of the artists, who were completely unknown when Josie was first showing them, have gone on to become very successful,” says Dowson. “I’ve enjoyed seeing their progress over the years and adding to my collection. Jeremy Annear wasn’t at all well known when I bought Linear Still Life, but he’s a big name now. So is Melita Denaro, who is collected by Prince Charles and Oprah Winfrey, among others. I’ve also watched Oona Campbell blossom into a well-established landscape painter with a considerable following. And I was struck by the very contemporary feel of Mark Demsteader’s charcoal life drawings the first time I saw them; they’re now highly collectable.”
Eastwood also introduced Dowson to Oliver Akers Douglas, who has recently been signed by the Portland Gallery in London. “He has had a phenomenal start to his career,” says Dowson. “His painting Six Pillows, From a Study by Albrecht Dürer is one of my favourites. I just love the way he has taken inanimate objects and brought them to life as dreamy cloudscapes. There’s an incredible use of texture and colour in the work.” And although Dowson says he doesn’t see purchases as speculative financial investments, the painting has doubled in value since he bought it for £5,000 in 2005.
“Oliver was the first artist I was moved to represent,” says Eastwood. “I could see he had found a new and exciting way to paint landscapes. His textured canvases are full of energy: close up they feel like edible abstract shorthand; at a distance they translate into moody landscapes. I took some work immediately and the first five sold while I was hanging the show.
I pointed Phil in his direction the first time I showed the work but they all sold while he was deciding which painting to buy. Two shows later, he finally got his hands on one. More recently, an artist who has caught my attention is Angela Findlay. Her work combines photographic collage and oil to depict brief moments in time, and I’m waiting to see if her new pieces grab Phil.”
And well they might, since it was “a subtle mix of charcoal, oil and collage with a quiet energy and depth” that attracted him to Mark Demsteader’s Female Study seven years ago. The drawing now hangs in Dowson’s home alongside Emily Gregory-Smith’s ethereal River in the Morning and Miemczyk’s punchy Playing Yellow.
As his collection grows, Dowson is increasingly drawn to more challenging work. Sacred, a huge canvas by Arabella Johnsen, is a provocative choice with which to confront visitors in the hall but, says Dowson, “I love that it’s so moody with that heavy, scowling sky and stark, rather menacing landscape. I get an emotional jolt every time I see it.“Hanging these works around the home means that they become part of daily life,” he adds. And there’s plenty of wall-space yet to fill.