"Collected through Love: The Michael Woodford Bequest" on view at Pallant House Gallery

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"Collected through Love: The Michael Woodford Bequest" on view at Pallant House Gallery
Graham Sutherland, Pecken Wood, 1925, etching on paper, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Michael Woodford Bequest 2015), ©The Estate of Graham Sutherland.

CHICHESTER.- The extraordinary art collection of former bin man and school caretaker Michael Woodford, featuring works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Graham Sutherland and more, has become the most recent addition to Pallant House Gallery’s permanent collection. A selection of highlights from the bequest is on display in the De’Longhi Print Room until 28 February 2016.

Michael Woodford modestly described himself as a ‘minor’ collector whose motivation to accumulate works of art was not to create an investment or status symbol but to collect art that he sincerely loved. In spite of his humble background and disposition Michael’s collection, left to the Gallery in March 2015 after he died, is an important addition to Pallant House Gallery’s collections. It comprises 35 notable etchings, lithographs, linocuts and watercolours by internationally significant artists of the 20th century, including Graham Sutherland, Victor Pasmore, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Michael Ayrton, Alan Reynolds, Suzanne Valadon and Gerald Leslie Brockhurst. 30 of these works are on display in Pallant House Gallery’s De’Longhi Print Room until 28 February 2016.

Woodford was inspired to bequeath his collection to Pallant House Gallery after seeing a small exhibition of Graham Sutherland’s work in 2003, one of his artistic heroes. He wrote to the Gallery explaining: “I’ve long thought that I would like to bequeath [my collection] to a local gallery, which is perhaps lacking such, so that displayed, many more might get that same pleasure which I alone enjoy, or that same pleasure which I too derive from public collections.”

When Gallery curators went to visit Woodford at his home in Kent they found a former council-owned maisonette crammed with furniture and clutter – and every wall covered with notable etchings, linocuts and watercolours by some of the most significant artists of the 20th century.

As the house did not seem to reflect many preconceptions of modern art collections, Woodford himself seemed an unlikely collector. Known as Louis to his friends, he was a popular local ‘character’, playing trumpet in a jazz band. He began his career as a rubbish collector before becoming a school caretaker in Cranbrook, Kent.

From a young age however, Michael had an overwhelming passion for art. He visited exhibitions of his favourite artists up and down the country and collected more than 700 art books (some of which were also given to the Gallery’s library, including around 100 books on Picasso). He was also an amateur artist himself, going on painting trips to Wales, exhibiting his work in local art shows and even designing stained glass windows for a chapel in Cranbrook.

He collected significant works by Graham Sutherland including a group of important early pastoral etchings comprised of The Village (1925), Pecken Wood (1925) and St Mary Hatch (1926) all inspired by the visionary scenes of Samuel Palmer. Also included in the bequest is Clegy-Boia II (1938) which marked the change in the artist’s work from precision to a more expressive response to the landscape. These and other later works by Sutherland complement Pallant House Gallery’s holdings of 25 other works by the artist forming part of the Hussey, Kearley and David Medd Bequests.

The bequest also includes a small group of late etchings by Picasso, another of Woodford’s artistic heroes, including an etching of the artist and model from his 156 Series (1968-72) and two etchings of nudes from his 347 Series (1968), his last great series of etchings.

Woodford was also a friend of the abstract artist Alan Reynolds, who lived in the same town, and collected his early lyrical Neo-Romantic watercolours of the Kentish landscape from the 1950s, and his later abstract drawings and wood engravings.

Other prints in the Michael Woodford Bequest include a linocut of a nude by Matisse entitled Pasiphaie (1943/44), an etching of three figures in a landscape by the French Post-Impressionist artist Suzanne Valadon, an abstract etching by Victor Pasmore, and a group of four etchings by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, which were all created in 1920, including portraits of the artist’s mother and his models Clytie and Anais.

The bequest joins other gifts and bequests to Pallant House Gallery from private collections such as Walter Hussey, Charles Kearley, Colin St John Wilson and MJ Long, George and Ann Dannatt and the Golder – Thompson Gift. These generous gifts enable artworks once seen by only a few in private homes to be enjoyed by future generations of the public.

In one of his letters, now in the Gallery’s archive, Michael expressed his delight that ‘such a fine collection has accepted my bequest, so that in time, many others may enjoy that privilege which I currently possess’. He described his artworks as ‘a bequest by a “minor” collector (not a rich rock star!) collected through “love” and when finance permitted!’. It is an inspiring story, demonstrating that collecting art can be enjoyed and shared by anyone.

The exhibition in the De’Longhi Print Room is free to enter and runs from 16 December 2015 – 28 February 2016.

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