Tom Bendhem

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The Independent Online

Thomas Bendheim (Thomas Bendhem), art collector and philanthropist: born Berlin 13 September 1928; died London 20 February 2002.

In a London art world which has witnessed during the past quarter-century the disappearance of most forms of disinterested philanthropy, booted out by ruthless promotional activity of one kind or another, the benevolent and untiring work of the collector Tom Bendhem reflected true kindness and enthusiasm at the service of a passionate love of art.

Bendhem's prodigious generosity seemed boundless: large gaifts of sculptures and paintings to the Tate Gallery and the Contemporary Art Society (which does such valuable work in feeding works of art to regional galleries and museums), underwriting the cost of catalogues for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park installations, and subsidising the costs of new sculptures. The famously successful annual series of Artists' Market shows for selling smaller, lower-priced paintings conceived by Caryl Hubbard for the CAS in the 1970s were made possible by a crucial cheque at the outset from Bendhem; a recent curatorial scheme under Royal Academy auspices to help poor and underprivileged children enjoy art was also subsidised by Bendhem – the list is endless.

Bridget Riley remembers travelling to the north of England with Peter Sedgley on a gloomy scheme to spend Christmas Day outside the convivial trappings of Christmas Day itself and being rescued in a deserted high street, at the end of a long wretched day with everything closed, by the sight of Bendhem's large limousine nosing towards them filled with good things to eat and drink.

At Tom Bendhem's cheerful, welcoming house in west London, filled with his own lively collection of paintings and sculptures, tucked away out of sight there were always dozens of fat, heavy files filled with the names of individuals, artists and others in the art world going through hard times and helped regularly by Bendhem munificence. Tall, bespectacled, unselfconscious and unhypocritical, with loud, sonorous voice and much tactlessly cheerful retelling of art-world follies, he enlivened the social scene and cut through the solemnities of committee meetings.

Bendhem was a late starter in the London art world. He was born in Berlin in 1928 as the youngest child in a wealthy Jewish family which was deeply conventional so far as education and work or profession were concerned. His father's family were wine and coal merchants in southern Germany, connected for hundreds of years with a small town called Bensheim from which the family name derived.

Although his father, Henry, was an imaginative collector of many things – books and paintings, sculpture, coins, semi-precious stones – his mother preferred the comfortable and sophisticated life of Berlin between the wars. Always practical, she was logical on her own terms, worldly and impatient with the other world of the imagination.

Henry Bendhem bought books illustrated by artists – Candide illustrated by Klee for example – and loved all his volumes of Goethe, Schiller and Mann. As early as 1928, as a Jew he was apprehensive of the newly formed Nazi Party and already exploring the possibility of settling with his family in America. In the event, he brought his family to England in 1934.

At five and a half, the young Tom Bendhem went straight to boarding school, unable to speak English. At 10, he moved to London to another prep school and then to University College Junior School in Hampstead, his father having established a business in London. Taking School Certificate at University College School, the young Bendhem had wanted to study arts subjects but his father, aware of the deprivations facing so many Jewish refugees, was anxious for his son to work in the sciences to establish a solid career for himself. The study of physics, chemistry and applied mathematics followed, in all of which Bendhem failed at this stage.

From 1946 to 1948 Bendhem was in the Royal Air Force, posted all over England and enjoying the discovery of cathedral and country-house architecture. On leaving the services, he wanted to read arts subjects at last at university, but his father again insisted on a science course. Bendhem picked on Chemical Engineering, studied at Birmingham University, obtained his BSc and became chairman of the Debating Society. Oxford University followed, where he read Law, spoke a lot in the Union and became its Secretary.

In 1956, when Bendhem left Oxford, he was beginning to frequent museums and galleries. He spoke well in public, loved humour and wrote some humorous talks for television, one of which he broadcast. From 1958 to 1968 he worked in an offshoot of the family business in London.

Around 1964 he began to collect contemporary art seriously, gradually developing his taste and, by 1968, with the growing feeling that he wanted to become an artist himself. In 1968 he emerged from the family business with his own separate company, but it took another 14 years of hard slog before he was able to sell his firm to a Swedish company with handsome profit and achieve total independence.

As soon as the business was sold, he began to study drawing at Morley College, the RCA and RA schools, drawing from life, and then with Bruce McLean and Paul Richards at the Slade: drawing, painting and sculpture. Bendhem travelled a great deal, all over the world, and his activities as a collector gave him tremendous pleasure, apart from his own work each day in the studio.

His mainly figurative collection includes sculpture by Tucker and Hall and is very strong in drawings as well as paintings by an eclectic range of British and foreign contemporary artists, notable Auerbach. Bendhem loved the strength of vision and the imaginative vitality of the art that he collected and these are the qualities that he aimed for in his own work.

In this he was disappointed, however: his rather "art-school" studies of male nudes, although increasingly competent, failed to arouse interest among dealers. The professional art world saw him always as an amusing, opinionated, truthful, and always compassionate collector of real perception often conveyed through generous, personally delivered hospitality – it took days to recover from his Sunday drinks parties and lunches.

Increasingly subject to ill-health in the last decade, with loving help and support from his friend and neighbour Edward Flanagan, Bendhem admitted himself to the art-filled Chelsea and Westminster Hospital with ulcer trouble, and died within 48 hours from a sudden heart attack surrounded by the fine contemporary art, some of which he had personally donated to this most buoyant and imaginative of hospitals.

Bryan Robertson

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