Art Market: Everything in the best possible taste: It's not just millionaires who buy serious art. John Windsor meets documentary maker and self-confessed 'tastie' Nicholas Barker, whose consortium purchases paintings to share

NOT THE Bomb, not pollution, not Aids: the 20th century's most insidious cause of anxiety is taste. The things one chooses to own, to be seen with, to hang on one's wall are horribly revealing. 'Taste is inherently embarrassing,' says Nicholas Barker, the television documentary director who risks being remembered as the first 'tastie'.

He means bad taste, of course. It was Barker who gave us the fly-on-the-wall BBC2 cult series Signs of the Times, a toe-curling celebration of doubtful taste in the British home. It had a suburban couple in their mock-Tudor interior innocently confessing attachment to decorative plastic reproduction pistols. His latest essay in cultural voyeurism, the BBC2 series From A to B, about taste among motorists, had sales reps explaining why they hang their jackets on coat hangers on the central pillars of their company-owned Maestro diesels.

'I deliberately examined our anxieties about taste,' Barker says. 'We're all snobs. We all define ourselves in opposition to other groups, whether we admit it or not.' But, paradoxically: 'Most people don't admit the possibility that their taste might be seen by others as completely ludicrous.'

People like Nicholas Barker, for instance. The taste issue seems to cause more anxiety to him than to his guileless home-makers polishing their plastic pistols. His toe-curl response time must be among the fastest in Hampstead, where his roof extension, converting a loft into art-hanging space, was unsuccessfully opposed by local planners - the sort of people who hang their jackets on coat hangers in their cars.

Unlike the hapless subjects of his documentaries, Nicholas Barker has taken precautions to ensure that his taste will never be derided as ludicrous, at least not by the other 10 members of his art-buying consortium which assembles every year to eat, drink wine and stump up pounds 500 or so for a share in an artwork purchased according to the taste of a panel of three: himself and two others. The circle is called Small Edition and has been accumulating art to hang on loan in its members' homes for 12 years.

As I sat in Barker's comfortably scruffy armchair in his large, comfortably scruffy sitting room with its insouciantly scattered art books and framed original paintings, the tables- turned irony of my position did not at first occur to me. Mr Tastie was probably more aware of it, expounding with apparent ease that Small Edition was 'a small, friendly, non- businesslike affair'.

Gentlemanly, perhaps. He did not say it, mind. Small Edition is, to attempt to position it more precisely in the taste strata, definitely not old-fashioned gentlemanly. It has a woman member, Lesley Knox, the first woman on the board of Kleinwort Benson.

Nor is it filthy-rich gentlemanly because, as Barker explains: 'We haven't done as much trading up as we could have done. If it were too profitable, people would want to cash in their share.' And that would be dealing, would it not? They are 'self-confessed enemies of most gallery owners'.

'The key to Small Edition,' Barker eventually confides, 'is its amateurism.' Which, after all, is the only proper sort of gentlemanliness. In practice, this means that while the group shares a joke about the Samuel Palmer etching that disappeared at its annual dinner three years ago - 'I lost the piece of paper saying who'd taken what' - it makes jolly sure not to buy anything that is not a good investment.

Barker, with no trace of anxious self-examination, explains his philosophy. 'When I collect I always have an eye for posterity. It is a form of vanity. There is nothing more irritating than to discover you have bought yesterday's breakfast or a passing fad.'

It is clearly not his own taste that makes Barker anxious: 'I've always had strong views on matters of taste and been very certain of the rightness of my aesthetic judgment. A form of arrogance, alas.'

So who are the people relying on him to reduce their anxiety over matters of artistic taste? Small Edition consists of City and media people, among them Oz Clarke, the wine writer; Campbell Gunn, a fund manager based in Japan; and Ross Devenish, a television director. So far, due in no small measure to Barker's lucid aesthetic, art historical and market perspectives delivered at the annual dinner, their taste has coincided precisely with his own.

The group was formed shortly after Barker left university. He and a friend, now a successful banker, pondered how much their friends might spend on art during their first five years in a flat, and how they might agonise over it. 'So we thought, 'Why don't we relieve some of them of this onerous responsibility?'.' They agreed that a member's initial stake should be in units of pounds 500. Barker invested most, pounds 3,000.

'You cannot buy art by committee,' Barker says, 'but they trust me and a couple of others.' The others are Waldemar Januszczak, art critic and Channel 4's head of arts, and Raymond Lokker, a Canadian-born art dealer. It is Barker, though, who scans catalogues and hobnobs with dealers and artists in their studios. Each of the three wise taste-makers has the right to veto proposed purchases.

At the annual dinner, held in rotation in members' homes, the entire Small Edition picture collection is put on view, the latest purchase being given pride of place. After dinner, glasses of wine are pushed aside and there is a flurry of chequebooks as members buy equal shares in it. They then draw numbers from a hat entitling them to take turns in choosing pictures to hang at home for the next year.

'Initially, the money was spent on pictures by household names, which flattered our members,' explains Barker. 'We bought a number of graphic works on paper by British modern and 20th-century masters: Nicholson, Sutherland, Sickert, Samuel Palmer. Then there were the blue-chip Europeans: Rouault, Dix, Ensor and Matisse.'

Barker's earliest experience of collecting was at prep school, where he was diddled in stamp collecting deals by Caspar Fleming, son of the author Ian Fleming. At university, having forsaken stamps, he discovered that picture dealers would not buy damaged prints at auction, so he snapped them up himself and had them restored. By the time he graduated, his friends were looking at walls bearing a couple of dozen original prints by the pre-war German Dada and Expressionists Dix, Grosz and Heckel.

He bought for himself a Heckel, a rare 1917 woodcut showing the classic German Expressionist image of a figure gripping its face, for pounds 500 at Sotheby's in 1982. Its margins were bent crudely round the mount and there was a printer's crease running through the image. It cost just pounds 70 to restore. Today, it would fetch pounds 15,000 undamaged - pounds 7,000- pounds 10,000 in its restored state.

Barker paid for his roof extension by selling a Paula Rego acrylic on canvas, The Vivien Girls, bought by his wife for pounds 500 in the early Eighties and sold through a Cork Street dealer for pounds 25,000 last year. 'Such price inflation rarely happens,' he says. The roof fund also benefited from a Dix dry point bought for pounds 2,000 at Sotheby's in 1983 and sold in the same saleroom for pounds 5,000. 'That grieved me, because I know it's going to rise further in value in a couple of years' time.'

Only in 1985 did Nicholas Barker's consortium turn its attention to paintings. It paid the Angela Flowers Gallery pounds 1,700 for one of the Nicaragua series by John Keane, the official war artist in the Gulf conflict. There followed an Adrian Wiszniewski, a Yuko Shiraichi (a Japanese minimalist) and, championed by Januszczak, two paintings by Tony Bevan - regarded by the group, after the appropriate tuition, as the most important figure painter of his generation.

The group's funds were subsequently swelled by the occasional trade-in: a Fifties Nicholson print of the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, bought for pounds 700 in 1987, was sold privately for pounds 3,000 three years later.

By 1992, the triumvirate reckoned the group was ready for photographs. A print of William Eggleston's Troubled Water of 1980, the time when colour photography was beginning to shine in American art, was bought for pounds 1,300 from the Lawrence Miller Gallery in New York. 'Initially,' says Barker, 'the group found photographs strange and demanding, a characteristic British prejudice, but with time I think they'll be popular.'

When members of Small Edition make their bibulous rendezvous later this month, they will be invited to stump up pounds 3,500 between them for the latest acquisition. It is a semi-abstract by Stephen Finer, a disciple of Auerbach, which was bought from the artist's studio. Barker spotted Finer's work 10 years ago when he was with the Anthony Reynolds Gallery. He is now with Bernard Jacobson.

'Finer is interesting,' says Barker, 'because he was championed by an arch-modernist in the form of Reynolds and now by Jacobson, doyen of the English landscape tradition. In terms of my own taste, this is a particularly happy purchase. I also straddle both camps, being firmly committed to modernism but believing equally firmly in the British tradition.'

There are now about 25 prints and 15 paintings in the collection. Before the annual dinner, Barker will have to gather them up and transport them to the home of the member hosting it. He will hire a van. One thing about vans is that you cannot see if the driver has hung his jacket on a coat hanger inside.-

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003