Richard Attenborough – Art Belongs To No One

Lord Richard Attenborough; the great creative talent of the British film industry died on 24th August, leaving behind a rich legacy in film – and a lesser known history as a prolific collector of Modern Art.

The acclaimed director announced in May 2007 that he was donating his entire collection of Picasso ceramics – numbering about 140 pieces – to Leicester, his home city, to commemorate the lives of his daughter, Jane Mary, and granddaughter, Lucy Elizabeth, who perished together in the Asian Tsunami on 26th December 2004, and a permanent gallery for The Attenborough Collection was created.

“My family and I have experienced untold joy assembling our ceramic collection over the last 50 years,” said the actor and director.

In 1954 Richard and Sheila Attenborough paid their first visit to the Madoura pottery in Vallauris, this was where Picasso had been working for many years with Georges and Suzanne Ramié. The Attenboroughs started with a few modest purchases, which eventually lead to the entrepreneur’s sizeable collection.

In fact Attenborough collected art throughout his life including works by Graham Sutherland, and L.S. Lowry.

Regarding this collection the acclaimed actor noted: “Mahatma Gandhi himself once observed: ‘True art takes note not merely of form, but also of what lies behind. They haunt, they resonate, they don’t merely mirror the world, and they reflect a man or woman’s vision of it.’ His words struck me so forcibly that then and there, I committed to attempt a film about Mahatma Gandhi — a commitment that hanged the subsequent 20 years of my life,” he said.

“This passion has led me and my wife Sheila to possess more paintings than our walls can contain. As building the collection has been an integral part of our life together, we came to the decision that we wanted to be the ones to preside over the dispersal of some of these paintings. We have loved and cherished these wonderful pieces through the course of our lives, but in truth, art belongs to no one. Some of us are simply its temporary, fortunate custodians.”

“My passion for collecting art comes directly from my father. Till the day he died, my wife Sheila and I always delighted in showing any thrilling new purchase to him before anyone else.”

Yet as with life; ownership is a fleeting affair. Sir Richard Attenborough auctioned 51 paintings of his personal art collection on November 11 2009 in London, through Sotheby’s, for the grand sum of £4.6 million. He called it a “house clearance”.

One of the famous paintings — Card Players — from the actor’s collection, was created in 1922 and bought by Attenborough in 1940. “I desperately needed to raise money for Gandhi. So I sold my beloved Card Players by Christopher Wood,” reveals Attenborough, who bought it back in 1985 as soon as he could afford it.

The actor and director wrote in his autobiography how he once asked for an extended overdraft by parking outside the Bank of Scotland in his Rolls-Royce, with his art collection piled into the boot. “Being the ham that I am, I knew that a grand gesture was needed.”

Attenborough’s ownership may have been fleeting; a temporary custodian of great art, as sadly, we were in the finite company of a great actor and director. But through his gift to the nation we have a more permanent ability to appreciate his Picasso ceramics collection, gathered together throughout the great British actor’s life.

Picasso Ceramics: The Attenborough Collection Gallery 13, New Walk Museum & Art Gallery

Words: Paul Black © Artlyst 2014


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