Visitors to Tim Sayer’s downstairs loo must find their cup of coffee is stone cold by the time they return to it. Where most people might hang a couple of small framed botanical prints or photos, Sayer’s cloakroom has 45 works of art crammed onto every inch of wall space. He’ll be used to friends lingering there awhile. Pals, acquaintances and groups of art-loving strangers regularly stream through the house to admire a collection that is spread over every available surface, and Sayer – a 70-year-old who for 40 years was a news writer for BBC Radio – is more than delighted to share his treasure trove of 500 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures and ceramics.
The sloping ceiling above the stairs is covered with art, as are the kitchen, living room and bedrooms. This is not just any old art, but pieces produced by the likes of David Hockney, Gerhard Richter, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Bridget Riley, Anthony Caro, Anthony Gormley and Prunella Clough.
Sayer, a man of relatively modest means living in a three-bedroom Victorian terrace house in north London, built up the collection by following his instincts, acquiring knowledge over time and never allowing ideas about art as investment to obstruct his vision.
“I simply buy what I like, within the budget I can afford, and don’t think about what a piece will be worth later,” he says. He has never paid more than £7,000 for an artwork.
He clearly has a naturally sharp eye and keen taste. A Richter drawing bought before the artist rose to stardom is worth many times more than the £2,000 Sayer paid for it 26 years ago, as is an Arthur Boyd painting that he bought for £3,500.
For all his adult life Sayer has spent every spare penny on what is now an unrivalled private collection which, in the absence of children and with no interest from the wider family, he has decided to give to the British public in a bequest to The Hepworth Wakefield.
It’s one of the largest and most prestigious private bequests ever to any regional British museum, and came about because Sayer and his wife Annemarie Norton, a former ballerina who now designs ballet and opera costumes, visited the Wakefield gallery last year and fell for the place.
“We had been thinking about who we would offer the collection to and had been considering a gallery in the south of England,” says Sayer, who is in Wakefield during the installation of 100 of his choicest pieces for an exhibition that will run until October. “However, the remarkable building, beauty and light here just blew us away. We spoke to Simon Wallis [director of The Hepworth Wakefield], mentioning some of the works we had, and he came down to have a look. Within half an hour he had accepted the offer.”
Seeing pieces that were crammed together in his home, now regrouped and with space to breathe on these pristine white walls, is making Sayer almost giddy. He seems visibly moved and strides around the space with the broadest of grins.
Naturally, as these are his babies, he has something to say about placement and grouping, discussing the odd change with the curator.
To the outside observer taking in the quality of this work and the breadth of styles and names it encompasses, it seems staggering that one man’s salary – that man not being an investment banker, say – could have brought it together.
He doesn’t own a car, rarely goes on holiday and his attitude to decorating and the replacement of worn carpets is “Sod it, who’s looking at the decor? A car depreciates immediately and turns to a pile of rust, but a piece of art lives forever.”
The logic is impeccable, but still, some would say it takes a certain kind of crazy drive to devote, as he did at times in the past, half of your salary to buying art, often juggling several payment-by- instalment schedules with different galleries in tandem.
Last year he retired from the BBC, so now the art is bought on a pension, but more recently finances have been helped by a couple of inheritances from his mother and an aunt, which meant he and Annemarie could buy the flat downstairs. “We’d always wanted to do it, and it meant we could spread the collection out.”
A good eye and a healthy disregard for some conventions seem to be key to amassing such a prestigious and eclectic cache. He says there has been no strategy, no slavish devotion to the words of critics and no consultations with experts about which artists or styles were most collectable. Gut is everything, and anyway, in his opinion “...there’s so much crap written about art”. Of the three standard rules for private collectors, he says he obeys two: see a lot of art and get to know the artists. The third – take your time – he ignores because, more than likely, while you hang about someone else will have bought what you’re after.
As a 17-year-old at Highbury Grammar School, Tim – brought up in home that “had more music than art in it” – came across a collection of 183 16th, 17th and 18th century prints in a junk shop in Richmond, Surrey. He bought them all for 10 shillings, and most are still in his hands.
He quickly got a taste for these finds and also haunted small galleries. Other early purchases include works by Philip Shepherd and John Nash. His most expensive buy is a Mark Tobey painting that cost £7,000. He’s coy about the total value of the works, but it’s in the hundreds of thousands.
“I just go for things that take my eye, and have gone through different phases, moving over time to more abstract art.” He also owns thousands of art books. The galleries I’ve bought from regularly always allowed me time to pay, and I would never buy from a gallery that didn’t give a discount or allow me to pay ‘on the drip’. And yes, I would say my need to buy art is compulsive. I see something, love it, and have to have it.”
Also crucial has been an understanding bank manager. Occasionally a piece or two has been sold “...to make myself feel better about one of those letters that began with ‘As of the close of business last night...’” At one stage the bank manager’s nerves were soothed when he came to see the collection and realised its value.
A patient wife is another major asset, he says. “Annemarie is brilliant, she puts up with so much, she really does”. He laughingly recollects how a gallery owner friend once refused to sell him a piece “...because Annemarie deserves a holiday.”
While 100 of Sayer’s pieces are currently “on holiday” in Wakefield, artists have lent him works to fill the spaces, and items he had stashed in the loft or at a friend’s house have also filled gaps. “It’s still odd, though, looking at a certain wall where you’re used to seeing that Hockney or Riley and it’s not there. They are like friends you miss, but still it’s exciting seeing them on a different wall in this marvellous light. You see them differently.”
The benefactor says he feels happy that the whole collection will eventually have such a “wonderful” home, and the fact that it will be free to view by the public fits in with the political views of this Jeremy Corbyn fan.
Organising his legacy doesn’t mean he’s thinking of dying just yet. “We intend to enjoy it for some time to come, and hopefully there will be more. I always have my eye on something...”
The Tim Sayer Bequest: A Private Collection Revealed runs until October 9 at The Hepworth Wakefield, Tuesday to Sunday 10am-5pm; www.hepworthwakefield.org