It was a particularly scenic part of northern Belgium, even to my weary eyes. Majestic pink and orange sunsets over craggy hills and scenic valleys are quite common in this area. The ever pervasive First World War had no doubt been something “very impolite in the south” for contemporary inhabitants.
As I drove up to the address my host had given me I was slightly taken aback. Perched on the top of a cliff face was a large 18th century stately home in the French style, and perfectly kept period gardens. The host was already at the door to great me. A door through which a coach would have no problem driving, by the way.
As I walked around the 18th century stately home I was amazed by the exuberant amount of paintings in the halls and rooms. A large, early 20th century, hunting piece, with English horsemen and energetic dogs under the stairs. A formal, yet personal portrait of Louis XVI looming over the piano, apparently given when he personally visited the house. Bijoux landscapes, off course, in the ladies salon, because we don’t want to upset the neighbours.
The collection had all the hallmarks of a long history of active collecting and incidental buying. One of the collectors had a knack for delicate landscapes, I noticed, another was more adept at gallant portraits of long forgotten men and women. All was dominated with epic pieces painted in broad strokes and depicting various dramatically rendered activities connected to the leisurely lifestyle of the landed gentry.
The owner guided me through the building, and stopped at every piece he thought of interest, rattling of some years, presumed or identified painters, scarcely giving me the time to soak up the colours or composition. In fact, something started nagging in the back of my head.
Suddenly it hit me: the owner talked about his art as if he was rattling off the content of a kitchen cabinet. There wasn’t a single instant in which I could detect the words or tone of voice you hear when a collector shows you his favourite piece. That slight tenderness in the voice, the careful wording, the hesitation in stepping away. We have all seen this behaviour in one way or another. The moment when a viewer falls in love with an artwork, and decides that life could not be complete without the artwork in his or her life.
I followed him through the opulent 18th and 19th century rooms, with fleets of chandeliers quietly patrolling the calm oceans of ceiling space. My host was an imposing figure, even in his late seventies you could see that he was a businessman to be reckoned with. Clipping his sentences with the efficiency of a surgeon, and never gesturing more then absolutely necessary. The hallmark of Dutch business. No nonsense, and first get the business out of the way, and only then get into small talk. I was a guest thrust upon him by circumstance, and I could see him struggle with the everyday pleasantries where no money would change hands. In stead of a perfectly chilled white wine in an 19th century crystal chalice, he served beer in a can. Quite in keeping with the ideas I had developed about him.
How did a man like this acquire this collection? Where there some unknown ancestors that had some deep and dark interest in art and betrayed their genetics?
Standing in front a school of Barbizon woodland to which he gestured and named a painter that rang a little bell in my memory I decided to solve that mystery.
“This is quite impressive, and I see that the art has been arranged carefully in every room. It doesn’t suggest a curator, but more the hand of a connoisseur. How did you do this?”
That stopped him in his tracks, and he fell silent as he looked at me in horror.
After the longest 30 seconds I have ever encountered he shrugged and said “This place used to be owned by an old Belgian aristocratic family. I bought it off the last descendant, an elderly woman, and bought the art of the family with it. Package deal.”
“Wait, you mean you bought the house and the art in it?”
“That is correct.”
“So, why did you buy this?”
“Well they offered, and moving all this junk out of the place would cost too much. Only later I found out it’s worth a bit more”.
Junk. The word had to sink in. I know, I didn’t fancy a few of the hilltop landscape in the yellow salon, but to call all of this junk was even a bit over the top for my tastes. The owner gestured me to follow him.
“You absolutely have to see the stables, I have no horses off course, wouldn’t know what to do with the beasts, but I bought all the trappings, had them cleaned and polished and had them hung again. It looks great. Just as if there are horses in the stables”.
The rest of the tour was in a state of personal disappointment.
Art just as a decorative element, with all the emotional attachment of a passing bus. Suddenly I had an image to go with the term “nouveau riche”. He didn’t buy my work, and I didn’t care. Art should be enjoyed, loved and cared for through generations. Art is not just a pictorial representation of what’s under the line of an excel sheet.