Hamilton's capacious cellar, under his farmhouse in the Chilterns, has been specially adapted for wine storage. Beneath a thick concrete shelf, three layers of neatly stacked, unopened wooden cases bear the names of some of the great classified Bordeaux chateaux: 1986 Pichon-Lalande, 1982 Ducru- Beaucaillou, 1978 Leoville-Barton, 1975 Lynch-Bages.
The true artfulness of the thrifty collector, however, is revealed by a host of classy but unclassified chateau names from the best vintages: 1989 Chasse-Spleen and de la Dauphine, 1986 Monbrison, Poujeaux, Potensac, and Sociando-Mallet, 1982 d'Angludet.
Above the wooden cases, rows of wine bins hold individual bottles, lying invitingly at eye level: 1969 and 1966 Corton, 1970 and 1966 Grands-Echezeaux, 1983 Guigal Cote-Rotie, 1966 and 1969 Chambolle-Musigny, 1981 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du- Pape, 1986 Sassicaia, a 1958 Gaja Barbaesco here, a 1945 Chateau Cheval Blanc there. Even a bottle of 1984 Richard Hamilton Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia.
It was not always so. Hamilton's earliest memories of wine were of his parents buying a bottle of tawny port on Saturday nights to drink by the fire. As an art student at the Royal Academy School in the Thirties, he drank beer and cider. And when he first tasted wine on a trip to France in 1939, 'it was abominable. I couldn't imagine how people could drink the stuff. For years, my understanding of wine was that it was this strange rubbish that French people drank.'
In his final year at the Slade, he met Roland Penrose, a friend of Picasso, and for the first time in his life was given fine red wines. 'I began to see what all the fuss was about.' Penrose bought him a share in the Wine Society. Through him and Marcel Duchamp, Hamilton met William and Noma Copley, who had a magnificent cellar in France.
'When Magritte or Marcel Duchamp or Peggy Guggenheim was there, they would serve some magnificent wines. On one occasion, they invited Henryk Szering, a distinguished violinist, to see the cellar. I tagged along and watched as Szering's eyes popped out at the sight of all the Romanee-Conti. I began to understand the mystique of the cellar.'
Hamilton did not start buying wine until the early Sixties, investing in an occasional bottle from the fine wine rack of a merchant in Highgate, north London. His appreciation was greatly enhanced by rail journeys to and from Newcastle, where he was teaching.
'I travelled a lot with Kenneth Rowntree, professor of the fine art department at Newcastle, who was a bit of a wine freak. We used to have steak-and-kidney pudding, a classic of the British Rail menu, and we would have really good wine with it. At that time, the British Rail wine cellar was the best in England, probably one of the best in the world.'
Like many astute wine collectors, Hamilton exploited the Bordeaux crash of 1973/4, stocking up with fine wines at a fraction of what he had paid before. 'That was the foundation of my cellar. I bought '61, '62, '64, '66, very good ones, at a reasonable price, from wine merchants around Hampstead, and stacked them all up at the back of my garage in Highbury.' At about the same time, he moved to the country.
'I first bought en primeur in 1975. Then I bought 1978. I started to do it quite seriously, always looking at the market and buying cheaply.' By 1982 he was studying form, 'rather like horse racing. You picked up tips wherever possible, and gained experience by drinking and making decisions.'
In 1983 he was invited to an Oxford College tasting, where all the talk was of the 1982s, and where intimations of mortality served to concentrate his mind: to drink these wines at their best, he would have to wait between 12 years (until he was 72) and 20 (when he would be 80). What if there was not another good year for five years? 'I thought I'd better really stock up.' So he bought 45 cases, including 15 of Ducru-Beaucaillou at pounds 96, and five of Palmer at pounds 94 apiece. 'It was like backing the winner of the Grand National.'
His buying acumen is founded on a meticulous study of value, price and form. He doesn't buy First Growths such as Chateaux Latour or Lafite, partly because he believes they are overpriced, and partly because he seems to attract them as presents (in nooks of his cellar are to be found odd bottles of Chateaux Lafite, Latour, Mouton- Rothschild and Margaux). 'I'd rather buy what a good informant is saying is as fine as the First Growths at a third of the price.'
He has no qualms about drinking First Growths when they are offered, of course. At one posh dinner party, Christian Moueix of Chateau Petrus was doing the honours. 'I had told him I'd bought five cases of La Dauphine. He gave me quite a generous serving from a jeroboam of 1975 Petrus, and said: 'That's for buying the La Dauphine.' It was a very grand occasion, being served a great Petrus by the proprietor of the chateau. I told my neighbour, who described himself as the keeper of the Queen's wines, that I was disappointed. He said, 'I think you're right, we had a magnum of the same year last night, and it was a lot better.' '
He virtually stopped buying wine in earnest last year. Now, if he buys at all, it is usually white wine or beaujolais. 'I've got '89 beaujolais, which I love, and it's probably much more drinkable now than a bottle of Bordeaux.'
He tends to avoid burgundy 'because I'm mean. Or maybe it's not meanness. Part of the business of drinking, for me, is to drink great wine at a reasonable price. I think it's a laudable ambition.
'People say: 'Why don't you sell it?' But selling has never interested me in the least. What I've invested in those bottles is not money but time and care and love.'
Richard Hamilton and his wife have a house at Cadaques in Spain, where, on their regular visits, they lay in supplies mostly of Spanish wines, among which Vina Ardanza, particularly the 1982, is a favourite. 'And there's a wonderful wine we've been drinking there over the past two years that we enjoy enormously, a still cava - Raventos, light and beautiful to drink in the sunshine.'
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