Tim Sayer, aged seventy, of Islington, has bequeathed the art on the walls of his home to The Hepworth Gallery, in Wakefield, and has been besieged since morning by journalists and reporters who want to ask him why.
Besieged was a theme we were happy to embrace. Secure in the first floor sitting room, we discussed tactics with Tim to delay the arrival of an expected reporter from the Telegraph, including heaving a bowl’s worth of boiling water at him from our upstairs vantage.
It’s not only the journalists.
“I find since this was decided that I now look more times when crossing the road,” says Tim. “Just in case The Hepworth are up to no good.
“I’ll keep checking their exhibition lists. The Tim Sayer Bequest! It’s all here now! That’s when I’ll see a crazed bus driver. It’s Simon Wallis.” Simon Wallis is the director of The Hepworth.
“Or maybe even you, Naomi, sent to run me down.” Naomi is The Hepworth’s PR manager, and in the corner of the room she looks appalled.
“It’s been a very quick process with The Hepworth,” says Tim. “Perhaps I didn’t realise how quick it was going to be.”
By the time of our visit, on a Wednesday afternoon, Tim has settled into a relaxed routine of charming his inquisitive guests and appalling Naomi.
“The response has been extraordinary,” he says, after greeting us at the door (“Tim?” we asked. “Jim,” replied Tim) and guiding us up the stairs. “Not only Look North filming. I had Front Row yesterday afternoon, which went out on Radio 4 last night. That only emerged about lunchtime. They asked if I would care to come in to the BBC for a live interview, and I said no, I wouldn’t. I don’t really want to go into Broadcasting House again. But why not come here? So their presenter popped round.
“It was extremely well done. They interspersed bits of Charlotte Green reading the news, and then me talking, because I had this career working at the BBC. It worked very well.”
Did they know about you already? we asked.
“Oh no, the BBC is so large. They didn’t have a clue who I was. Until about midday the presenter didn’t even know he was doing it.”
In retrospect we’re a bit surprised by that. Not only because Tim worked at the BBC, writing the scripts for news bulletins, for forty years, but because he must have made his presence felt. Robert Peston, we think, will remember him.
“Being nasty to Robert Peston,” says Tim, when we ask him exactly what his job involved. “My role in life was to write the news, on Radio 4 mostly. For the six o’clock news there would be about five of us writers, and two editors; writing the news, dealing with all the correspondents at home and abroad, being nasty to Robert Peston.
“I had a tremendous row with Robert once,” begins Tim, and the story that follows – Robert, hunted by Tim throughout Broadcasting House, cornered in a television editing suite, and browbeaten – “He ranted, I ranted, it went on a bit like that” – into changing his script – doesn’t sound like a one-off. Neither does its conclusion. “I got a topline message later, saying, ‘Thanks for your fucking help,’ and we were as good friends as we ever were.
“It was just pressure. People outside that environment don’t always appreciate that you could have a blazing row with somebody and be buying them a drink half an hour later.”
We’ve visited on the premise of talking to Tim about the life-long modern (and some ancient) art collection that he is leaving to The Hepworth, but we’ll get round to that, and we don’t know yet that The Telegraph are on our heels, so we ask more about working at the BBC.
“Nearly forty years,” says Tim. “It was all accidental. I just sort of drifted into it. Didn’t go to university or anything, got no training.
“When I left school I was offered three jobs. One was as a general trainee with The Hawker Aircraft Company, as it was then. One was as a trainee with Martins Bank, as it was then. And one was cutting up newspapers in the BBC News Information Library. So I went for the last one.
“I left after a while, went to work in magazines, and drifted back to the BBC. I left a few times. Most of my time there was freelance. What I discovered was the hours were such that I had lots of time to pursue other things, like collecting art, working in various galleries, things like that.
“The hours were long, very long. I worked a lot of nights as well, from ten o’clock at night to nine in the morning. A day shift would be eleven-fifteen until quarter to eleven at night. I had to know a little about everything, and become specialist in a story on Tuesday and forget it all by Wednesday, because there was so much to do.”
We’re all news-gatherers now, scanning Twitter, and editors, as we choose what to retweet, and experts, at least when someone forces us to factcheck a complacent opinion on Wikipedia. Forty years ago news was a job of hours, not seconds.
“I do sometimes wonder, I really do, how we ever did manage,” says Tim. “It was much slower in those days. If you wanted to check something you had to phone up news information, which was the library on the fourth floor, and they would look up newspaper cuttings for you. They would ring back in ten minutes and say, this is what we know. Amazingly cumbersome.
“All the editing was done on quarter-inch tape and five-inch spools, and there were studio managers who did that for you with a razor blade and sticky tape. Now that’s all done on a screen, you do it yourself.
“We used to dictate stories to typists, who would sit there with a cigarette in their mouths, fag ash hanging off the end of it, and the good thing was that if they didn’t like your English they would say so.
“They would say, ‘Well, you can’t say that love.’ And I would ask why not. They’d say, ‘Well, it’s not bloody English.’ Right. Thank you.
“It was great training. I had to write very tightly. In the days when I was first doing it, if you misheard something on the radio you couldn’t listen again, you had to wait for the next hourly bulletin. So you had to take the first sentence, grab the listener’s attention with that first sentence, explain it all in the second, and conclude it all in the third. It was as simple as that. I would be very lucky if I had seventy words to write.
“Which is why I don’t like all this bollocks that is written about art.”
Which is, remember, why we’re here; to write some bollocks about the art on Tim’s walls.
There’s a problem with that, because there’s so much of it. That ought to mean a wealth of material for us to write bollocks about, but walking into the house that Tim shares with his wife, Annemarie Norton, a costume maker and former dancer with the Dutch National Ballet, is an art experience unlike any other, making it hard to compare.
The art is everywhere; better behaved than it used to be, since Tim and Annemarie bought the ground floor flat, took down some of the art that hung on the upstairs ceilings, and rehung it on the new walls. And removed it from the banisters, where it was blocking the light.
Paintings and prints are edge to edge, with no room for explanatory notes to guide art-blinded novices like us. The vase on the table by which we sit, Tim says, dates from 2200BC, and we think of every vase we’ve ever seen toppled by a placid cat’s paw, and wonder how life here, with a placid cat named Otti prowling the rooms, can possibly be real.
Later, with freedom to explore, we discover the reporter from the Telegraph has breached our defences and is dazed on the first floor landing; “There’s just so much!” he exclaims to us, then, “My camera!”, and with that he rushes off to find his camera. While he’s gone, Tim guides us through Annemarie’s studio at the top of the house – an oasis of her tastes for mid-twentieth century glamour, to which a photo of Annemarie as a young ballerina adds – into the loft, piled with unhung art and more books (there are, on every bit of wall not covered by valuable artworks, incomprehensibly many books). The only place we’re not taken is to Jane’s house up the street – there’s more art there, apparently, that won’t fit here. It’s only after we’ve gone that we think to ask if Tim has a cellar, and what might be in it.
“Why don’t we start at the beginning?” asks Tim, ready to razor his life of art collection for us into a seventy word bulletin.
“I was seventeen in 1962, and I lived in Teddington in south-west London. I cycled across Richmond Bridge one Saturday and there was a junk shop, selling a portfolio of 183 prints. I know there were 183 because I’ve still got the list. It was ten shillings, which is about 50p. And I thought I would buy them. Fifty-four years later, I’m still framing them up. And then it sort of went on.
“I had always collected; I was only young, but I had collected books, Dinky toys, things like that. There was always a collecting urge. Gradually, as I started framing those prints, that’s what started me off. If I could put these on the walls and appreciate them, I thought, let’s see what else I can buy.”
The facts and figures of what Tim bought over the next fifty-four years, and how what he bought became a collection that a nationally important gallery would welcome, will have to wait until The Hepworth are able to catalogue and calculate the contents, because Tim bought without a system, although some systems were tried.
“A friend came round once when I lived in Finsbury Park and said, there’s a lot of black and white here. And I thought, he’s right. So then I went into buying colour. And at one point there was a lady called Nancy Balfour, who was president of the Contemporary Art Society, who said I should only buy art by living artists. So I kicked out all the dead artists and started buying living artists. Then one of the living artists died so I got rid of them, and I thought, this is crazy.
“So any time a living artist died I kept them, and then I went back to buying dead artists. The living artist’s thing probably only lasted for about six years, but unfortunately I got rid of a couple of things I should have kept. There are probably three or four things over the years that I really regret letting go.”
Do you think you’ve got enough to make up for it? we ask, having a bit of a redundant moment.
“What do you reckon?” asks Tim.
We reckon Tim’s done alright. In fact we reckon Tim is in a unique situation with his collection, developed according to taste rather than fashion, arranged around him in cramped domesticity; the effect on a visitor is like vertigo, but Tim is at ease.
“I am lucky that I can focus,” he says. “A lot of people ask how I manage to look at just one painting, and I say it doesn’t worry me, I can do that. I do like going round the house and picking something to look at.
“Living with art is a very good way of appreciating it. Most people can only manage it through books, but I am lucky enough to have not had holidays, and nearly bankrupted myself, and bought it.”
Which brings us to the question of what, having bought it, Tim is to do with it.
We’ve heard stories like Tim’s, of the odd fellow in the mid-terrace, that nobody knew had a valuable collection behind its front door. Usually, though, the Tims don’t appear in those stories, except as ghosts; the collections aren’t discovered until they’re dead and gone.
“I want people to see it,” says Tim. “It has always been our policy that people should be able to see it, and we have always welcomed people here to look round. I don’t like the idea of sitting behind the curtains saying, ‘It’s all mine.’
“Annemarie and I don’t have children. We don’t have siblings. So we have nobody to leave the collection to. And what I didn’t want to do was have the thought that, when we die, nobody will know what to do with it. So I was looking around.
“We went up to Yorkshire last July for an Anthony Caro opening at Yorkshire Sculpture Park and The Hepworth. And we were very impressed by The Hepworth. Such an amazing setting on the banks of The Calder, the building by David Chipperfield, the galleries themselves, the enthusiasm of the local people – this is the script isn’t it, Naomi?”
Naomi looks more incredulous than appalled.
“And the director, Simon Wallis. I had never met him, hadn’t heard of him before, but after he gave a speech to introduce the Anthony Caro exhibition, we sort of polled up to him and asked if he would consider a collection.”
On the spot?
“On the spot. And he said he didn’t know, because he’d never been offered one on that scale before, but that he’d come and look. So he popped down to London a few weeks later and took a look. And within about half an hour he said, yes please.”
On the strength of that yes please the Tim Sayer Bequest sealed a fate for the collection in the north, at a new – five years old in 2016 – gallery, in an industrial city far from the genteel, well-heeled world of London art. It’s an affronting gesture that Tim is adamant ought to be noticed.
“I didn’t want to give it anywhere in London,” he says. “London has got enough, I think. And The Hepworth is overwhelming. You’ve been, you know what it’s like, it’s ideal. It is a truly remarkable place and they have been incredibly good to me. They have sent curators down, gallery managers down, trustees; they showed more interest in the first month than I think anyone has shown, ever. And they’ve sustained it. There’s always one of the buggers on the phone nagging me to do something.
“Clearly, regional museums are starved of cash. This hypocritical government keeps
talking about a Northern Powerhouse, but it clearly doesn’t care about a Northern Powerhouse when it comes to the arts. I don’t think ministers care about the arts anyway. They’re a bunch of bloody Philistines. They’ve no idea how important the arts are to this country, culturally and economically.
“So I want very much to encourage other people to do what I have done. Either give their collections, or loan works, or make bequests of money, to regional galleries. They are the ones that need it.”
The Hepworth are not going to delay displaying Tim’s collection. From the end of April, until October, a selection from Tim’s walls will travel to Wakefield for an exhibition that will replicate, as much as it can, the domestic setting of Tim’s home in Islington. Which is going to leave Tim’s home with some bare walls.
“It certainly is.”
How will that feel?
“Come back and ask me when it has happened. But some artist friends have offered to fill the holes.
“It’s going to be a fascinating experience, seeing it out of this context. Seeing it possibly as a whole unit, or seeing things completely differently, or even seeing things and thinking, why did I ever buy that? That’s the great part for me. The different context, different setting, different lighting. Seeing people looking at it, listening to their comments. Maybe their rude comments. It’s going to be an adventure.”
While Tim has his photograph taken, we wander the rooms and staircases, disturbing the cat, trying to judge the value of the heavier ceramics, in case we need something non-essential to drop upon the head of the man from the Telegraph.
There is art on every side of us, of quality that could suffocate you if you attempted to breathe it all in at once. This, we suppose, is why galleries look like galleries; they talk about letting the art breathe, when actually it’s the viewer who needs air. But that’s also why so many galleries can be so deathly; all those people and artworks use up all the air. We’d rather be suffocated among Tim’s nearly-lost-at-Tetris wall hangings and long shelves of paperbacks than by a white plaster wall, and we’re glad that’s the atmosphere The Hepworth are intending to transplant north, alongside the art.
But then there’s one. A painting. Hung above a radiator, we remember, or maybe it was below a shelf. Those built in necessities of the house receded when we noticed it. All the other paintings receded too. It was burgundy mostly, a rectangle, with dull yellow stripes at angles that felt Soviet; it was abstract, anyway, as most of the collection is. It was brilliant. We looked at it for as long as we could. Maybe we’ll see it again at The Hepworth.
“A couple of weeks ago, a friend called from the Ronchini Gallery in the West End,” says Tim. “It was about Rebecca Ward, a young Texan artist whose work I had bought. I had spoken to her at her latest private view and asked if she could do me another small work. Well, she’s done it. It’s not here yet, but that’s the most recent one I’ve bought.”
So with the bequest settled upon The Hepworth, Tim is still buying?
“Yes, I’m afraid I am,” he says. “I’m not sure where the money’s coming from. But I’ll still stagger along – maybe not quite at my former rate – but I can’t stop. Only death will bring it to an end. Death, or incarceration in a high-security psychiatric hospital.”
First published in TCT