The hanging judge

The work of past and present cons rubs frames with the likes of Robert Bevan and Maggi Hambling in Sir Stephen Tumim's personal art collection. Now the former judge and prison reformer is putting his pick of his pictures on public display. By Andrew Lambirth
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The Independent Culture
Above the fireplace in the study of the Principal of St Edmund Hall, Oxford, hangs an imposing painting by Maggi Hambling. Entitled Trade, it depicts a person in a black polo neck with cropped hair like a tam- o'-shanter to one side of the head, the nose, a single eye and mouth all askew. It is a deliberate attempt to paint someone of ambiguous sex, and was done entirely from the imagination. The man who sits at right angles to this unusual and unconventional picture is Sir Stephen Tumim, the genial former judge and prison reformer, who retired as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons in October 1995, and is now Principal of St Edmund Hall. He sits at ease with the world, surrounded by books and pictures and objects. A delightful raconteur, alternately serious and amused, he delivers an apparently effortless stream of anecdote and often surprising opinion. "This is Maggi going through her Francis Bacon 'club' period, 20 years ago," remarks Sir Stephen of the painting that dominates his study. "It's got enormous strength. In this room I interview students for the Ruskin Art School. I often ask them who painted it. One boy, who I must say was very impressive, said, 'I would think it was a Bacon, but I don't think you could afford one'. Then he said he'd seen an exhibition of Maggie Hambling's and could it be by her? I thought that was excellent, so he got a place."

Sir Stephen has been interested in art since his days as an undergraduate at Worcester College, Oxford. "I rather fell for the Robert Bevan paintings in the Ashmolean. Shortly afterwards I was walking down Bond Street and Colnaghi's had a show of his. I went in and rather grandly asked for a catalogue. A couple of days later somebody rang me up and said, 'I'm Robert Bevan, I understand you were enquiring after the catalogue.' I said, 'But you died in 1925!' He said, 'No I didn't, that was my father, the painter.' Anyhow, I went down to visit Bevan fils soon after I was married. The house was full of marvellous things, and I was totally paralysed by the grandeur of it all. The picture I remember more than anything else was in the downstairs gents' lavatory - a drawing in ink on a big sheet of rough blotting paper. It portrayed a hunt and there were people looking on and blowing curly horns and leaping around on horses. It was inconsistent and odd. Down at the bottom it said "PG, Vincent, RB..." and I can't remember who else. It had obviously been done in a cafe by Gauguin and Van Gogh in Brittany, and Robert Bevan pere who'd been there with them. That was enough to convince me that art was fun."

Nowadays Sir Stephen is the proud owner of several Bevan paintings. "I was sent to Godfrey Pilkington at the Piccadilly Gallery, who became a friend and adviser. In those days you were spending two or three hundred pounds for a major Bevan oil. I loved them then and still love them. They've got a kind of Blake tang to them and a Stubbs tang, and a solid English provincial no-nonsense look. For years it was only that sort of period painting that meant anything to me. Then, as time went by, two people pushed me more towards the modern - Marina Vaizey, who said, 'Enough of these Bevans, it's time you looked at Anselm Kiefer'; and Sir Anthony Lousada, who was the Chairman of the Trustees at the Tate, and a beautiful draughtsman. He was a lawyer and an aesthete and a great friend. When he was about 80 he started drawing ladies' bottoms, which he did marvellously. He introduced me to the Friends of the Tate, of which I was later Chairman."

Sir Stephen likes people who both paint and write: Blake, Beerbohm, Wyndham Lewis. "The other artist that I see as a writer-painter is Van Gogh. His Letters are one of my favourite books." Counter to popular opinion, Stephen Tumim prefers Van Gogh's ink drawings to the heavily worked oils. Likewise, he admires Blake more as a painter than as a writer. Even the reputation of the Incomparable Max is questioned. "I'm passionate about Beerbohm, but I'm more interested in him as a writer. He was a minor but distinctive artist: you can see across the room who the picture is by. It makes life simpler. Gillray, who I have great respect for, is like that. I have some of his cartoons, and bits and pieces by Rowlandson. I like the strong line of them."

Drawings and prints tend to be cheaper and thus more readily affordable than paintings, but Sir Stephen has amassed a considerable and diverse collection of all three. He also buys sculpture, though not necessarily by household names. "I've a wooden sculpture over there by a Haitian shipwright. It's one piece of oak carved into a boat full of desperate people with their eyes closed fantasising about escaping from Haiti in the Duvalier period. Nacius Joseph is the name of the sculptor. I find that a very moving and impressive work."

In another part of the study Sir Stephen points out a "jolly African sculpture of a prison officer and two handcuffed convicts. Isn't it just like Picasso?" A recent trip to Hong Kong has yielded several treasures, including a carved jade cat which nestles in the breast pocket of the Principal's striped shirt.

There is no prize piece in the collection, though favourites include the major Bevan paintings, and Maggi Hambling's portrait of him. According to Hambling, Sir Stephen had to search through 16 difficult shops to find the right turquoise cardigan in which to pose for his portrait . The garment had to harmonise with Hambling's painting Laugh at the Bottom of a Well, now destroyed, in front of which the Judge, as he then was, sat. The result is a masterly study of character.

Chairman of the Arthur Koestler Trust, which was set up to promote the creative work of those held against their wishes, Sir Stephen owns a couple of dozen paintings by prisoners and ex-prisoners. People always seem to want to know what crime a prisoner has committed, regardless of whether the painting is good or bad. Sir Stephen is not interested in satisfying such prurience. A man of honour and compassion, he is more concerned to rehabilitate individuals. "I support them because they are good painters but also because I believe it's a way of finding them something to do which is legitimate. It's also a way of bringing them back into society. I think that is very important." Sir Stephen gestures to a painting on the wall by Peter Cameron depicting a couple of what's known as 'E Men' wearing the yellow stripes which indicate that they've tried to escape. "I think he's very talented in a sort of Rowlandson way. He's out of prison now and works very hard. I'm sure he'll do well."

How would Sir Stephen define his taste? "I don't think I really distinguish between abstract and figurative. Certain techniques attract me and certain don't. I don't like very thick paint on the whole; someone like Bomberg puts me off. I find if I look at an Auerbach from different angles I'm seeing different pictures and to me this is not satisfactory. I sometimes think that I prefer drawings to paintings but I'm not sure that that's true either. I think I just like thin paint, which is why Brueghel is a great favourite of mine. You can see in a Brueghel landscape the drawing beneath it, boned and muscled."

"The Judge Hangs: A Personal Selection by Sir Stephen Tumim" was the gallerist Michael Parkin's idea. It features the work of 17 living artists, connected with different aspects of Sir Stephen's life: Oxford, Orkney, London and the prisons. Erlend Brown, for instance is the nephew of George Mackay Brown the poet, who was a great friend. He lives and works on Orkney, as does Sir Stephen's eldest daughter, the painter Matilda Tumim. David Tindle and Stephen Farthing are past and present Masters of Drawing at the Ruskin School of Art. Peter Cameron and Ray Scobie are ex-prisoners. The curiously underrated Prunella Clough, and that sensitive painter of animals and myths, Tory Lawrence, broaden the artistic scope. Sir Stephen considers that his taste is getting simpler as he grows older. "The French 18th century depresses me. I think mixing up gilt and wood is somehow very distasteful. Complicated china I don't like. I like things like that 10th-century Sung bowl," he gestures to the mantelpiece, "which is monochrome and plain."

Ultimately, public spiritedness comes before the desire to collect, even if money were no object. "There are quite a number of Picasso's which I'd rather like to own, but the one thing about paintings of that level is that I'm not a great believer that they should be in private houses. They should be somewhere where people can go and see them. Everything I've chosen for this current show is suitable for a private house. I admire Piero della Francesca more than any other painter, but it would be impertinent to possess one"n

'The Judge Hangs: A Personal Selection by Sir Stephen Tumim' opens today at the Michael Parkin Gallery, 11 Motcombe Street, London SW1 (0171-235 8144). To 23 May