It began with a single painting, but Ronnie Duncan tells Sarah Freeman how his love of contemporary art turned to obsession and took over his home
Ask Ronnie Duncan about the first piece of art he ever bought and he remembers instantly.
It was a small but perfectly formed painting of a crowd scene which he picked up on Hampstead Heath in 1948. Ask him where it is in his small but warren-like stone cottage and he struggles for a moment.
His forgetfulness is understandable since in the intervening years the Yorkshire businessman has amassed a nationally important contemporary art collection, much of it hung on the walls of his home. That first painting has been joined by a significant number of works by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a series by Rachel Whiteread as well as paintings by Scottish surrealist Alan Davie and the St Ives abstract artist Roger Hilton. Basically anyone of note in the art world over the last half a century is more than likely to have found their way into Ronnie’s home just a few miles from Otley.
“I’ve been a collector all my life and I have always stuck to one rule. I never buy a work because I think it’s a good investment, I only ever buy work that I like and that will give me pleasure. It’s a rule which has served me well.
“I buy art because I like to look at it. When I stop enjoying it I sell it, although I’ll admit I haven’t parted with many pieces over the years.”
Ronnie’s collection now runs to around 300 pieces and while there is barely an inch of wall left uncovered, the work on display is only a snapshot of the entire portfolio. He gets regular requests from galleries interested in borrowing from the collection and is usually happy to oblige. It means many of his paintings and sculptures are loaned out across Britain.
“If I’m honest I’m not sure where my love of art came from,” he says. “My grandfather was a collector, but his main interest was orientalist art, which is not really my scene at all.
“Right from an early age it was contemporary art which struck a chord and over the years I have been lucky to meet some of the artists whose work I have bought. I think that’s important. Art is all about relationships.”
While Ronnie, who in a previous life was the fifth generation to head the William Ackroyd and Company textile mill in Otley, says he doesn’t have a favourite, he has more work by Finlay than any other artist.
A poet, writer and gardener, as well as an artist, it was also Finlay who inspired Ronnie to take his love of art outdoors. Not one for plants and carefully manicured beds, he took his lead from Finlay’s Little Sparta garden near Edinburgh where stone sculptures take priority over flowers.
Ronnie’s own miniature version was begun almost two decades ago and today there’s a stone gateway dedicated to Samuel Beckett, an installation in homage to the Greek oracle at Cumae and inscriptions from the texts of the English pastoral poet John Clare and German writer and artist Goethe.
“It all began when Ian gave me a stone antiboreum (a rare sundial which shows the hour in a shaft of light rather than in shadow) back in 1976,” says Ronnie.
“A few years ago I asked the local farmer if he knew a good drystone waller. He put me in touch with a guy called Philip Dolphin. He lives just up the road, but I couldn’t believe it when I got in touch and he told me he had already done work for Andy Goldsworthy. I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.”
It was Philip who turned Ronnie’s ideas into reality, including a human sized version of a traditional animal pound. “Ah yes, the People Pound. In the old days if stray livestock wandered onto a farmer’s land they would be kept in the pound until the animals’ owners paid a suitable fee. I haven’t made much money from mine, but if you do want to go in, it’s a pound to get out.”
A few years ago he also converted an old cow shed into a gallery for emerging artists. The Barn Gallery is open by appointment only and is currently home to A Siege of Cranes by husband and wife artists Juliet and Jamie Gutch.
The installations, which measure up to 12ft high, have been hand-crafted in bronze, stainless steel and aluminium next to various smaller, wooden mobiles. It is inspired by the red-crowned crane, which breeds in northern Japan and origami versions became a symbol of hope in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi.
“I know how difficult it is to get exhibition space when you’re just starting out,” says Ronnie. “Commercial galleries just don’t want to know and even if they do get a break and manage to sell a work, 50 per cent of the price tag goes to the venue.
“I always thought it would be nice to have a little private gallery which I can give to artists and a few years ago I managed to realise the dream.”
He has little time for the kind of snobbishness which can often be associated with the art world. “Art is for everyone. When plans were first announced for Tate St Ives in the 1990s, a lot of people said we don’t want that thing here, art is only for a minority and the impact on the economy will be minimal.
“Of course it’s been massively successful and it’s the same with somewhere like Hepworth Wakefield. Before the gallery opened there was a lot of cynicism about the project. I think it’s absolutely wonderful and the record-breaking visitor numbers show just what a draw a good gallery can be.”
So given his deep knowledge of the contemporary art world and the fact he runs his own gallery, has he ever been tempted to create his own work? “Oh lord, no,” he says. “I am a failed artist. I realised fairly early on in life that my ambition far outweighed any talent I had when it came to art.”
A Siege of Cranes runs throughout the summer and to book a viewing go to www.julietandjamiegutch.com