The Littlewoods heir, the film director, and how a £64m art gallery dream came true

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The Independent Online

Ten years after the Littlewoods Pools heir Sir Peter Moores first dreamt of opening an art gallery in one of Britain's country houses, his ambitious £64m project is about to become a reality.

Ten years after the Littlewoods Pools heir Sir Peter Moores first dreamt of opening an art gallery in one of Britain's country houses, his ambitious £64m project is about to become a reality.

A week on Saturday, the first paying visitors will arrive at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, a Grade I listed mansion set in 120 acres of Grade II listed gardens designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown seven miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

In this beautiful country house, remodelled and enlarged by Robert Adam in the 1760s but derelict when Sir Peter, 71, acquired it in 1993, the art collector and philanthropist hopes to introduce others to the passions that have dominated his life.

"I had the opportunity from an early age through the luck of birth and travel to discover and enjoy the art of many different ages and cultures," he said. "And I have always wanted to share with others the opportunities I have had to discover for themselves the pleasure that art can give."

Knowing that his charitable foundation could not afford to buy art to compete with the best national collections, his gallery has acquired ancient Chinese bronzes, British folk art, Neapolitan art and German painting and sculpture that are not championed elsewhere.

And in a stroke of marketing genius, Sir Peter invited Peter Greenaway - the film director who first box office hit, The Draughtsman's Contract, was set in an English country house - to create the first temporary exhibition on the site.

In between rooms filled with wooden panels depicting religious scenes and portraits of figures such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, an installation by Greenaway across 12 rooms features 92 suitcases and their contents. They tell the life story of his latest cinematic invention, a man called Tulse Luper.

Although Greenaway's reputation is for dark art-house movies, and Sir Peter's aim is to make art accessible and pleasurable, the latter sees no contradiction in their approaches. The public he wants to attract will not necessarily know of Greenaway's reputation for "difficult" films, he said, adding: "[The work] doesn't necessarily fit in, but it works rather well."

A house has stood on the site of Compton Verney since about 1442 and for almost 500 years it was the home of the Verney or Willoughby de Broke family. When it was sold in 1921, it passed through a number of owners before being requisitioned as a military research establishment during the Second World War.

When Sir Peter stepped in, it was two years from collapse after standing empty for 50 years, and it had been placed on English Heritage's at-risk register. Sir Peter said he never expected the project to cost so much. "Collecting is finite," he said. "You sign a cheque and you own a masterpiece. You sign a smaller cheque and you own a work of art. But you can always stop. This is where you step out of the spacecraft. You sign a cheque and you own a derelict mansion. You sign a cheque and you've got a building site."

Although a trust runs the property and the management must find additional funding after 2007, the gallery is very much Sir Peter's mission. Even the colours of the paintwork have been dictated by his tastes. There are no display labels for the exhibits. Instead, visitors receive an information sheet that they can take home for further consideration. Tickets will be £6, with £4 concessions and £2 for children. "I don't see any point in giving it away free," Sir Peter said.

Greenaway, whose other films include The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover, said it was "peculiarly interesting" to have an exhibition in such a venue. "The calling card film that brought me to public attention was a movie, The Draughtsman Contract, that happens in an English country house with its associations, its snobbisms, its privileges," he said. "Here we are back in a country house again."

The installation, an offshoot of a seven-hour movie due for release later this year, dominates 12 rooms and comprises suitcases of items illustrating the life of Greenaway's semi-autobiographical creation.

Despite the complicated layering of stories, he saidall visitors could enjoy the work at some level. And because it offers the opportunity to touch, smell and look, he described it as "the ultimate cinema experience".