Collective Spirit: Wilfrid Evill and the Art He Loved

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    Few have ever heard the name Wilfrid Ariel Evill and yet, in the history of modern British art, his role was crucial. He was an important and original collector of art. The gathering together of some of the best works by Britain’s twentieth-century artists was an endeavour to which this elusive lawyer and enthusiast devoted himself with remarkable passion. It was a life’s work which remained largely private. Only now do we have the opportunity to discover fully this intensely personal and yet profoundly relevant project. The relevance is to Britain, to the twentieth century, to London, to today. On the death of the collection’s inheritor – Evill’s ward, Honor Frost – its impressive breadth and quality can finally be appreciated as it surfaces for sale by Sotheby’s in London. As it does so, the stories of the collector himself, the artists and the inheritor – so unique and intriguing in their own right – also come to light.

    The significance of Evill’s role as collector was aptly described by Bernard Denvir in an article of February 1949 in The Studio following an open house exhibition of the collection. He wrote that the responsibilities of a collector at that critical juncture in British art were ‘greater probably than ever they have been in the whole history of art. It is not good taste so much which is expected of him as courage, imagination and discernment; with these qualities he can guarantee the art of the future’. For while Evill focused his attentions on a wide range of artistic fields – from porcelain and silverware to furniture and rugs – it was in the realm of contemporary, indeed emerging, artists’ painting, drawing, printmaking and sculpture that he could be said to have come into his own as a collector.

    The rubric he set himself was almost rigid in its vision: ‘From the outset it was determined to keep the collection strictly contemporary and strictly British. Contemporary was, in my thought, defined as being painted by a painter living on August 4, 1914 and British, as living and painting in the United Kingdom’, he wrote. Thus the parameters were set within which Evill could patronise – and thereby promote – the artists he felt were making the most important and progressive contributions to the British art scene of the day. His choices, in their historical context, were brave; the artists he selected were not the trendiest moderns who followed the School of Paris. All of them, Stanley Spencer especially, were strongly individualistic.

    Stanley Spencer’s “Workmen in the House”.

    What is peculiarly remarkable about this collection is the very privacy of it. Aside from the afore-mentioned open house in 1948, the Wilfrid Evill memorial exhibition at Brighton City Art Gallery in 1965 and occasional loans, the vast majority of these key pieces have never before been seen. Many were thought to be lost and some forgotten. Until this point the roughly two hundred objects and hundred paintings have lived together, initially in Evill’s Hampstead home on Eton Avenue and at his offices, and then in Frost’s flat on Welbeck Street, quietly demonstrating what James Rawlin (Sotheby’s senior expert in twentieth-century British art) describes as Evill’s ‘eye for quality and detail; his drive for acquisition’ and the urge towards a completeness in the collection that qualify him as a truly devoted collector. His unerring sense of quality was applied equally to Chinese porcelain, to a tea service believed to have been created for Versailles, to the furniture and of course to the paintings that will for many dominate the sale. This again is testament to the judgement of the man, for while earlier objects came with an established artistic and financial value, the paintings that Evill acquired were new, challenging and therefore far riskier a proposition. Rawlin describes how, in many ways, Evill’s collecting went against the grain, instead representing ‘the genuine voice of British art of the twentieth century’. Now, not only have all the works been examined, researched and catalogued, not only have they toured the globe, but they will be dispersed as they are likely to be acquired by a new generation of collectors, for their own reasons.

    The dining room at Welbeck Street

    Evill was known to have sold pieces over the years in order to obtain a more significant example to ‘upgrade’ the collection. With regard to the major paintings being produced by the up-and-coming young artists he frequented and with his own guidelines clearly set, Evill became the owner of some iconic images. Central among these are the outstanding Stanley Spencers. Of the eighteen examples present in the collection – including works on paper – two or three are considered among the artist’s greatest works.

    Spencer was a client of Evill and also a friend. Evill was quick to spot the artistic value of Spencer’s unusual work, no doubt thanks to the professional relationship and understanding. He started buying pieces, partly to help Spencer. He was confident enough to avoid the more commercial ones, such as the landscapes that were being produced in some number, and to go instead for the large, narrative, spiritual compositions that came straight from Spencer’s heart. For while Evill was a private man, Spencer became something of a celebrity, and while Evill remained a bachelor, Spencer was engaged in a love triangle, which included marriage.

    Spencer’s work was intensely personal. Narrative in composition, the story that the great paintings on Evill’s wall really tell is that of the artist’s identity: his religious faith, his love of familial intimacy, his sexual playfulness, his sense of optimism and hope and, perhaps most of all, his dear home – the village of Cookham. Indeed, as Spencer wrote to his dealer, Dudley Tooth, in 1933, ‘Usually, in order to understand any picture of mine, it means taking a seat and preparing to hear the story of my life’. Spencer’s perspective on his life and therefore his art was absolutely his own. His apparent inability to adapt it led him into the romantic complications that have so come to define him. His bizarre biography has always enthralled, as anyone who saw the play, Stanley, at the National Theatre in 1996 could attest.

    Spencer’s was an outlandish tale. It began simply, finding love – finally – at the age of thirty, marrying and becoming a parent. This soon descended into confusion and heartbreak when he fell for a handsome yet deceitful other. He divorced his wife, Hilda, and remarried the complicated Patricia only to find it impossible to consummate the new marriage as his bride showed more interest in her artist friend, Dorothy. Faced with such unforeseen circumstances, he conducted an affair with Hilda until she found the situation unliveable with. Spencer even reached bankruptcy by indulging Patricia with lavish gifts. At his lowest points – those of the greatest turmoil – he was, through the support of Tooth and Evill, able to maintain his apparently unwavering sense of optimism.

    It is impossible to appreciate Spencer’s art at the deepest level without acknowledging the intense fascination he had for the features of his own existence. Indeed, for him, the process of painting was itself secondary to the emotion and the spirituality within everyday life that he found himself so adept at expressing. In this sense he has been considered almost anti-modern when juxtaposed with the European artistic context of his time. Perhaps for this reason he was extremely well read but less well ‘seen’ in terms of the art world that surrounded him. Resisting the most prevalent modernist tendencies, Spencer can be seen as a quintessentially English painter, in many ways picking up the tradition of the Pre-Raphaelites in terms of what Rawlin describes as ‘observation, nuance and story-telling’. He goes on to point out that while the artist’s detractors dismiss these qualities they can in fact be valued in terms of Spencer’s oeuvre as they would be in a work of literature. Where the modernist elements of stylisation and flatness of composition appear, Spencer’s paintings typify a more ‘homely’ modernism.

    The work of William Roberts, also importantly represented in the collection, is another to produce such an amalgam. Rawlin describes him as continuing the anecdotal tradition of Frith in a Vorticist manner. Again, testament is provided to the conscious vision of Evill the collector. As Denvir wrote, ‘It would be impossible for anyone wishing to understand the development of British painting since the First World War to do so without having seen Mr. Evill’s Spencers and Roberts’.

    Alongside the Spencers and Robertses sit works by Ceri Richards, Henry Moore, Leon Underwood, Edward Burra, Gwen John, Patrick Heron, Lucian Freud, Graham Sutherland and several others. A Robert Bevan oil, Cabyard, Early Morning, was considered lost since 1918. Such reappearances are rare and precious for collectors – and the market.

    Patrick Heron’s “Table with Fishes”.

    No wonder the acquisition for sale of the Evill/Frost collection by Sotheby’s felt like a dramatic coup. Rawlin, whose painstaking curation ensures no aspect of the relevance of the moment is lost on anybody, in certain respects resembles the personnage of Evill. A collector and intense appreciator himself, he instinctively recognises the need to bring together the finest complementary pieces. And he shares the collector’s taste, therefore admiring the one who had managed to spot that moment in the history of British art while it was happening. No wonder either, then, that Rawlin speaks with such passion about the collection and shows such emotion at being the one who supervises its exposure at long last.

    Graham Sutherland’s “The Crucifixion”.

    For the collector’s death did not bring the works into the light. Evill died in 1963 leaving the entire collection to Honor Frost, the orphan whom he had taken under his care. It was her death in 2010 at the age of ninety- two that brought the collection to sale. Having studied art at the Central School in London and the Ruskin School in Oxford, designing for the Ballet Rambert and becoming head of publications at the Tate, there is no doubt that Frost inherited taste and appreciation from her guardian. Her own life’s work, however, was focused very much elsewhere, for the mark she left was in the field of marine archaeology.

    Frost became a renowned specialist in her field, making key discoveries, developing pioneering techniques and writing several books. She dived the Mediterranean extensively and travelled the region widely, learning languages and cuisine as she went. Frost was an expert on ancient ship- building and stone anchors and, at the point of her death, was preparing to travel to a symposium in Gujarat in India where she was excited to examine the largest stone anchor ever found. Frost’s soirées in her modestly-sized but breathtakingly adorned Marylebone flat were generally well-known; guests included the great gallery director Erica Brausen, the fashion designer Thea Porter and Lord Gowrie, then chairman of Sotheby’s. These chosen ones were able to admire the collected works in their original setting. Now, we all have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of them. It is no surprise that their arrival has caused such a stir. It can only be hoped that certain of the pieces will find their way into the public domain to enrich the proud canon of mid twentieth-century British art.