One man's pounds 7m gift turns stately home into an art gallery for the people

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The Independent Online
ONE MAN'S dream to make art more enjoyable for the wider public will be realised with the completion of a gallery at Compton Verney, an 18th- century stately home lying in 40 acres of Capability Brown parkland.

Peter Moores, the 66-year-old multimillionaire philanthropist from the Littlewoods Pools family who bought the derelict house in 1993, announced a pounds 7m gift yesterday to complete the transformation of the Warwickshire mansion into an art museum.

Just as significantly, he is providing pounds 1m a year for running costs and an art purchase budget of pounds 800,000 a year, something of which most regional galleries can only dream.

Mr Moores has already spent pounds 5m on buying 300 paintings and over the past few years has put pounds 7m into the renovation of the house - a sum he is now doubling.

He opened the art gallery on a trial basis for local residents this summer and will now shut it for a year while architects Stanton Williams complete a huge restoration and landscaping project. It will open properly in 2000 as an interactive art gallery like none other in Britain.

"Too often people find museums intimidating and boring, or don't go to see art at all. I will make it a nice day out, with luncheon and a walk round the garden," said Mr Moores.

The entrance hall has a message from Mr Moores saying: "Compton Verney is opening so you can get as much fun out of art as I've had. Enjoy yourselves."

He said yesterday he would be displaying only "arresting images or arresting subjects". He added: "It has to be art that speaks to me. No one is going to look at men in wigs and black costumes. But people stop to look at a women in a black Spanish dress."

Brian Hayton, the gallery director, added: "Peter wants to share his enthusiasm. When we reopen there will be interactive displays, perhaps with something as simple as a stereoscopic viewer looking at pictures.

"With portraits, for example, we will ask why is the sitter dressed as he is?

"We will show the effects of different lighting on pictures. We will spend the next year exploring the technology and the most effective methods of involving visitors."

The house near Stratford-upon-Avon has already been painted off-white and its lower floors painstakingly restored. It has 26 miles of pipes under the floors to warm the building byheat extracted from the lake using heat exchangers.

The history of Compton Verney reads like a mixture of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Dads Army.

Designed in the 18th century by Robert Adam, in Capability Brown grounds, it was the home of the Willoughby de Broke family until they sold it in the 1920s.

During the Second World War it became the School of Smoke Camouflage where Army scientists formulated a plan to combat the Luftwaffe with vast clouds of smoke over British cities.

The Pioneer Corps stationed there celebrated VE Day by tipping the balustrades of the Adam Bridge into the lake.

The house stood empty until the Eighties, when businessmen had a plan for an opera house, the Glyndebourne of the Midlands. Now Mr Moores is fulfilling his dream for a lavish, scenic gallery that will be illuminating for the art historian and yet fun for the family.

The categories in the collection comprise 19th-century naive art; British portraits (including a portrait of Henry VIII from the "Circle of Holbein"); and Oriental works of art, especially Chinese ritual bronzes.

There will be 15th and 16th-century North European paintings; 17th-century Baroque paintings by Neapolitan and Genoese artists (including a pounds 1.3m acquisition of Barnado Strozzi's The Incredulity of St. Thomas, his most expensive purchase so far.)

There is also a room devoted to British folk art.

Mr Moores is adamant that no air of solemnity should surround the collection. He has arranged for local schoolchildren to help him to hang his folk art collection and has set aside a room in which they can play once they have seen enough.

He has also asked them to write comments under some of the paintings. Under a painting of an inordinately long pig is the question: "Do you think the artist meant this to be funny?"