Ken Powell

Collector of post-war British art
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The Independent Online

Kenneth Tyson Powell, art collector: born York 2 February 1923; married 1963 Ruth Cameron (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1979); died London 18 August 2006.

Ken Powell was a born collector and, like all true collectors, he not only had to have the best works available in the field, he also had to be amongst the leading authorities on the subject, though he always wore his scholarship lightly and with self-mockery.

When I first met him more than 30 years ago he collected work by the Camden Town artists, particularly Gilman, Gore and Bevan. However, his Camden Town collection had been preceded by other collections including Chinese blue and white porcelain and Georgian glass, but, as each area outstripped his modest means, they had been disposed of in their entirety and his eye and mind refocused to a fresh area which had caught his interest. The same thing happened again when the price of the best works of the Camden Town Group put them beyond his grasp.

Powell was born in York, but spent much of his childhood in Keswick, where his grandmother ran the King's Head, and where his ashes have now been scattered. It was these holidays in the Lake District that infected him with a love of the countryside and a lifelong interest in bird-watching.

After attending preparatory school in York he went to St George's, a co- educational boarding school in Harpenden. War service in the RAF found him stationed on Islay in 1945 and he jokingly liked to boast that he and his confrères nearly set fire to the entire whisky-soaked island with the giant bonfire they built and lit to celebrate VE Day. After being demobbed he went up to Queens' College, Cambridge, where, being of a scientific bent, he read Microbiology, before joining the chemicals division of Distillers.

This division - British Industrial Solvents - was later hived off and taken over by BP, for whom he continued to work as a manager in the Distribution and Purchasing Department until his retirement in 1979. His reputation as a relaxed, jovial and clubbable colleague, happy to fraternise and play indifferent golf with his colleagues, was amply born out by the number of his former associates who attended his funeral.

Fortunately for Ken Powell, who claimed that he had started collecting the day he received his first pay- packet, BP Chemicals had its head office in Devonshire House, Piccadilly, directly above Green Park Tube Station, conveniently close to the RAF Club, and in dangerous proximity to the West End galleries.

It was an exhibition at Agnew's in Old Bond Street, only a few hundred yards from his office, that kindled his enthusiasm for the Camden Town Group and, in the early 1960s, precipitated the sale of his collection of Chinese porcelain. This change of direction coincided roughly, but coincidentally, with his marriage in 1963 to Ruth Cameron, a marriage that lasted for 16 years and produced four children before they divorced - though they enjoyed a close friendship, indeed love, until the end.

Referring to Ken's reputation for scattiness, their daughter Sally, speaking at his funeral, said that it was lucky she was a person rather than a picture, otherwise she "might have been left on a train or given in part-exchange". Unbeknownst to Ruth, Ken had remortgaged their house in Bedford Park in the late 1960s, taking out a loan of £3,000 in order to purchase four paintings by Spencer Gore.

At that point he knew he was hooked, and that his love affair with art had turned into something more obsessive. Ruth, happily, can still laugh about two Duncan Grants that Ken had supposedly given her, which suddenly disappeared without consultation, to be replaced by a large painting by Prunella Clough incorporating a J Cloth. She is equally bemused by the lists he left of paintings marked "In the pipeline", which, as far as she was concerned, never materialised. Former BP colleagues recall his office as a miniature art gallery.

As prices for the best Camden Town Group paintings escalated out of his reach, a chance visit to the Annely Juda Gallery alerted him to the quality and range of works available by British constructivist and abstract painters of the 1950s. These works were largely overlooked at that time: they were old enough to be out of fashion, but too recent to have taken their place in history.

One of his first purchases from Annely Juda, in 1975, was an uncompromising 1954 piece, Construction with Aluminium Plates, by Stephen Gilbert; this was quickly followed by Anthony Hill's 1950 Composition, Adrian Heath's Climbing Composition Green and Blue, of the same year, and a raft of works by Prunella Clough, which formed the largest single group in his collection, and Pru Clough became a close friend, as did many of the other artists, who appreciated his enthusiasm and patronage.

These friendships added an extra dimension to this, his final collection, which was celebrated in an annual summer party for scholars, collectors, critics, museum curators and, of course, artists. They were memorable gatherings. In addition to his other attributes Ken Powell was a fine cook and keen gardener, winning prizes at the RHS for his camellias, and in 2000 remodelling his garden to celebrate the millennium, so that his guests would move seamlessly, glass and plate in hand, between the inside and outside worlds.

Collecting was undoubtedly Powell's primary obsession, but he never let it detract from his other interests. He was an inveterate traveller (often in later years in company with his childhood friend and partner Patsy Blackmore), photographer, cook, gardener, ornithologist and bon viveur.

It was always his hope that after his death a number of the works on paper from his collection should find a permanent home in the British Museum, whilst the major part should go to Edinburgh, which city had had conferred on him the ultimate collector's accolade.

Late in 1992 his terrace house in Chiswick was virtually stripped bare as over 70 works of art were removed for an exhibition, "New Beginnings", at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The introductory essay for the catalogue was written by Professor Alastair Grieve and dedicated to the memory of Adrian Heath who had organised the seminal 1954 exhibition "Nine Abstract Artists", and without whose activities, as Grieve says "we would have no context in which to study post-war British abstract art".

The same can now be said of "New Beginnings": a lasting tribute to a dedicated collector of modest means.

Peyton Skipwith