Tune in, turn on, buy up

The eccentric millionaire Ted Power amassed an equally eccentric art collection, now at the Tate
E J "Ted" Power (1899-1993) was an extraordinary collector of modern art in the 1950s and 1960s and a trustee of the Tate Gallery from 1968 to 1974. He liked the Tate and became its generous benefactor. Power made many donations and allowed the gallery to purchase from his private collection at favourable prices. In this way we are all in his debt, and the Tate now celebrates his life and interests with an exhibition of works that were once his own but are now the property of the nation.

Power was born in Galway of Irish parents, but grew up in Manchester. At the age of 16 he joined the Navy as a wireless operator. In the early 1920s he went into business as a manufacturer of crystal sets and transformers. Then he moved to Slough, where he earned his living by repairing wirelesses. In 1929 Power formed a partnership with an old family friend, Frank Murphy. Thus was born the famous firm of Murphy Radio, and Power became a wealthy man, especially when the company expanded into television. In 1962 he sold control of the company to the Rank Organisation, and in retirement devoted himself to buying art.

He had begun to collect in 1951, at which time his tastes were still conventional. By the mid-1950s, however, Power found that he gained more stimulus from art if it was completely new to him. So, instead of buying Vuillard or Picasso, he turned to Nicolas de Stael and Jean Dubuffet, both of whom were unfamiliar artists in the Britain of those days. What is more, he bought them in quantity. The catalogue of this show (which tells only a small part of the story of Power's collecting) states that in just five years he acquired 19 de Staels and no fewer than 80 Dubuffets.

Initially guided by dealers - who loved to show him things, for obvious reasons - Power quite soon came to value the ideas of exhibition curators, particularly those around the ICA, and of the artists themselves. I cannot gather from the catalogue introduction how impetuous he was when he made his many, many purchases. But he must have had an instinct for the swinging era, even though he was an old man by the beginning of the 1960s. Perhaps art kept him young, and perhaps that's why he liked so much of it? Anyway, he was part of the shift of sensibility in the London art world of the late 1950s, realising that art in New York had replaced the previously dominant school of Paris.

Although he visited America only once, Power made some wonderful buys in the area of late Abstract Expressionism. A Pollock of his best 1946- 47 period, for instance, a majestic Clifford Still, at least three Rothkos, a de Kooning, plus works by Sam Francis and Franz Kline. They are not in the present exhibition for they never came within sight of the Tate. And an intriguing thing about this show and its catalogue is that we can never discover what Power was doing with his art. A footnote says that he sold as much as he bought, but this is not explained. One thing is certain. If he had kept all the works that he purchased, Power could have formed a modern museum with the proceeds of Murphy Radio. But he preferred to let them come and go. Some paintings are surely (and properly, of course) with his family. The rest are scattered around the world, sent with the help of the art market that Power so much enjoyed.

It's all rather odd. I wonder whether his deep love of radio led Power to acquire thousand of works of art, take them into his control tower and then see them beamed all over the globe. By his control tower I mean the large flat in Grosvenor Square. Art world people would go there for whisky and chat, find Power disassembling and then reassembling television sets, and they would never know what they might find on his walls. Apparently the paintings (he had much less feeling for sculpture) would go on and out pretty quickly. The Tate is too reticent to say what kind of collector Power was. I guess that he was a very fast one, more like a dealer than a museum person.

How, in any case, do we classify 20th-century collectors? A Deirdre Robinson's excellent new book, Prestige, Profit and Pleasure (Garland, $75), is about the market for new art in New York in the 1950s. She analyses collectors, saying that they are: 1) Blue-Chip, going for Old Masters of the Matisse sort; 2) Consensual, buying what other people buy; 3) Corporate, purchasing for a company's image; and 4) New Contemporary, people who are close to current creative thinking. Sound stuff, but she might also have mentioned eccentrics. Power falls into none of Robinson's categories, but he was like a certain kind of self-made British millionaire with an obsessive hobby. You can be a man of the world, live in Grosvenor Square, enjoy your golf and the other pleasures and dignities of old age, as Power certainly did, and still be an eccentric. This I think Power was.

In listing so far as is possible the things he bought, one cannot say that he had consistent taste. There are 14 artists in the exhibition, from Brancusi (born 1876), the eldest, to Howard Hodgkin, Peter Blake and R B Kitaj (all born 1932, what a year), the youngest. In between came Dubuffet, Picabia, Hamilton and Caulfield. I had not realised before that there is an affinity between Caulfield and Picabia. Both are jolly gentlemen with a reserve of mournfulness. But there are no themes in this show. Bill Turnbull does not resemble Barnett Newman, though he learnt from him. Kitaj's picture (of 1960) is interesting because he appears to have learnt from nobody. Nothing really adds up in this tribute to Power, unless we concentrate on his private and conceivably uncultivated personality. And then one asks: were there much better paintings in his collection that didn't go to the Tate because he didn't understand how good they were? I suspect so.

!'Works from the Ted Power Collection': Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), to 16 Feb.