‘Art-aholic’ collector fills every inch of Highbury terraced house with art - even the toilet

12:35 15 March 2016

Highbury-based art collector Tim Sayer, a retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter has been passionately collecting for over 50 years. Picture: Rosie Hallam

Highbury-based art collector Tim Sayer, a retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter has been passionately collecting for over 50 years. Picture: Rosie Hallam

Rosie Hallam rosiehallam@gmail.com

‘Art-aholic’ and benefactor Tim Sayer has built up a remarkable collection on a modest BBC salary but is now bequeathing the lot to the Hepworth Wakefield. Bridget Galton got a personal guided tour of his Highbury terrace where even the toilet is an art gallery.

London-based art collector Tim Sayer, a retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter has been passionately collecting for over 50 years. Picture: Rosie HallamLondon-based art collector Tim Sayer, a retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter has been passionately collecting for over 50 years. Picture: Rosie Hallam

Towards the end of my visit to the extraordinary gem that is Tim Sayer’s house, he confesses to his wife that there’s another art purchase on its way.

Although they are running out of wall space for his remarkable collection, costume maker Annemarie Norton barely glances up from her sewing.

“I don’t know how many times he has said he has to stop buying, he’s got no space or money. But it’s a passion. I wouldn’t have married him unless I could cope with it.”

The 70-year-old self-confessed “art-aholic” has bequeathed their modest Highbury terrace where every inch of space – including the toilet – is covered with works by the likes of Bridget Riley, Sonia Delaunay, David Hockney and Paul Nash, to The Hepworth gallery in Wakefield.

London-based art collector Tim Sayer, a retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter has been passionately collecting for over 50 years. Picture: Rosie HallamLondon-based art collector Tim Sayer, a retired BBC Radio 4 newswriter has been passionately collecting for over 50 years. Picture: Rosie Hallam

In one of the UK’s largest recent bequests, the 400 plus works pass to the gallery upon their deaths. But before that, there’s an exhibition of 100 key pieces and plans to set up The Sayer Foundation with BBC chief Tony Hall as patron.

“As soon as I had got together a body of work I thought ‘I must share this’”, says the retired Radio 4 news writer.

“Hopefully I live on a bit, but they get everything. It’s essential to share it with anyone who wants to see it – I can’t bear people who buy art and put it in bank vaults. Now art is fashionable and a commodity, prices have gone sky high and collectors like me who have knowledge but not a lot of money are pushed out.”

Sayer grew up in Teddington and made his first art purchase in 1962 at the age of 17.

“I used to go to junk shops looking for old books - you never knew what you could find - In Richmond I found a portfolio of 16th, 17th and 18th Century prints for 10 shillings. I had never bought art before but it just went on from there, got bigger and bigger.”

At first he collected “traditional figurative” British art, buying a John Nash from the Royal Academy summer exhibition and works by Jock Mcfadyen and Eileen Cooper. He later developed a keen love of abstract art, and now calls his taste “eclectic”.

Apart from once buying a sculpted head by George Frederic Watts from a catalogue, Sayer has never bought at auction.

“You really need to see it before you buy. You can never replace the intense pleasure of finding the unexpected.”

Over the years he has attended thousands of private views and supported artists, paying studio rents and lending them money.

“I got sucked into it,” he says. “Like wandering into the job of writing the news - my life has been serendipity meeting the right people at the right time – I never had any ambition apart from allowing everyone to see the collection. Now I am running out of money and my BBC pension doesn’t go far.”

He once calculated that half his net income went on art - an outlay that required a certain amount of sacrifice.

“We have no siblings, no children, no car, no TV and no holidays. People ask how can I possibly look at them individually, but I can and I do. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth keeping. If not it will come off the wall and go into storage.”

As Sayer shows me around his tireless passion for sharing his collection is evident.

Downstairs we encounter sculptures by Camden Town polymath Jonathan Miller, there’s a Henry Moore, a Gerhard Richter “bought 20 years ago for a song” a sketch of a boat by Sylvia Plath, and a Samuel Palmer.

Work by Naum Gabo marches up the stairs. At the top, Sir Anthony Caro and Alexander Calder grace the loo door, and tucked away in the living room is a Hockney.

Sayer’s favourite changes with his mood. “My tastes have changed over the years but there are three or four that if the place caught fire I would grab them, Annemarie and the cat and make a run for it.”

Last July when visiting Yorkshire for an exhibition of the late Hampstead sculptor Caro, he dropped in at the Hepworth which sprang from a bequest by her family because she was born in Wakefield. (She married Henry Moore in 1938 and the couple set up their first married home and studio in Hampstead)

Sayer realised he’d found “the perfect home” for his collection.

“It’s a place that could show the work permanently. It has gorgeously designed galleries in a beautiful building on the banks of the river Calder, the people are welcoming, I’ve been impressed on every front.”

He adds: “Regional museums are being starved of cash and anything that can be given to such as The Hepworth might encourage others to do the same.”

Tate Director Sir Nicholas Serota echoed the sentiment saying the bequest was one of the most generous donations to a regional gallery.

“The collection reflects the discriminating eye of a person of modest means, whose passion for art ‘took precedence over holidays’. At times of public funding cutbacks, arts and heritage organisations need all the private help they can get. It would be wonderful if Tim Sayer’s example encouraged other collectors to be as generous.”

The Tim Sayer Bequest: A Private Collection Revealed runs at The Hepworth Wakefield from April 30 until October 25.

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