NOT THE Bomb, not pollution, not Aids: the 20th century's most insidious cause of anxiety is taste. The things one chooses to own, to be seen with, to hang on one's wall are horribly revealing. 'Taste is inherently embarrassing,' says Nicholas Barker, the television documentary director who risks being remembered as the first 'tastie'.
He means bad taste, of course. It was Barker who gave us the fly-on-the-wall BBC2 cult series Signs of the Times, a toe-curling celebration of doubtful taste in the British home. It had a suburban couple in their mock-Tudor interior innocently confessing attachment to decorative plastic reproduction pistols. His latest essay in cultural voyeurism, the BBC2 series From A to B, about taste among motorists, had sales reps explaining why they hang their jackets on coat hangers on the central pillars of their company-owned Maestro diesels.
'I deliberately examined our anxieties about taste,' Barker says. 'We're all snobs. We all define ourselves in opposition to other groups, whether we admit it or not.' But, paradoxically: 'Most people don't admit the possibility that their taste might be seen by others as completely ludicrous.'
People like Nicholas Barker, for instance. The taste issue seems to cause more anxiety to him than to his guileless home-makers polishing their plastic pistols. His toe-curl response time must be among the fastest in Hampstead, where his roof extension, converting a loft into art-hanging space, was unsuccessfully opposed by local planners - the sort of people who hang their jackets on coat hangers in their cars.
Unlike the hapless subjects of his documentaries, Nicholas Barker has taken precautions to ensure that his taste will never be derided as ludicrous, at least not by the other 10 members of his art-buying consortium which assembles every year to eat, drink wine and stump up pounds 500 or so for a share in an artwork purchased according to the taste of a panel of three: himself and two others. The circle is called Small Edition and has been accumulating art to hang on loan in its members' homes for 12 years.
As I sat in Barker's comfortably scruffy armchair in his large, comfortably scruffy sitting room with its insouciantly scattered art books and framed original paintings, the tables- turned irony of my position did not at first occur to me. Mr Tastie was probably more aware of it, expounding with apparent ease that Small Edition was 'a small, friendly, non- businesslike affair'.
Gentlemanly, perhaps. He did not say it, mind. Small Edition is, to attempt to position it more precisely in the taste strata, definitely not old-fashioned gentlemanly. It has a woman member, Lesley Knox, the first woman on the board of Kleinwort Benson.
Nor is it filthy-rich gentlemanly because, as Barker explains: 'We haven't done as much trading up as we could have done. If it were too profitable, people would want to cash in their share.' And that would be dealing, would it not? They are 'self-confessed enemies of most gallery owners'.
'The key to Small Edition,' Barker eventually confides, 'is its amateurism.' Which, after all, is the only proper sort of gentlemanliness. In practice, this means that while the group shares a joke about the Samuel Palmer etching that disappeared at its annual dinner three years ago - 'I lost the piece of paper saying who'd taken what' - it makes jolly sure not to buy anything that is not a good investment.
Barker, with no trace of anxious self-examination, explains his philosophy. 'When I collect I always have an eye for posterity. It is a form of vanity. There is nothing more irritating than to discover you have bought yesterday's breakfast or a passing fad.'
It is clearly not his own taste that makes Barker anxious: 'I've always had strong views on matters of taste and been very certain of the rightness of my aesthetic judgment. A form of arrogance, alas.'
So who are the people relying on him to reduce their anxiety over matters of artistic taste? Small Edition consists of City and media people, among them Oz Clarke, the wine writer; Campbell Gunn, a fund manager based in Japan; and Ross Devenish, a television director. So far, due in no small measure to Barker's lucid aesthetic, art historical and market perspectives delivered at the annual dinner, their taste has coincided precisely with his own.
The group was formed shortly after Barker left university. He and a friend, now a successful banker, pondered how much their friends might spend on art during their first five years in a flat, and how they might agonise over it. 'So we thought, 'Why don't we relieve some of them of this onerous responsibility?'.' They agreed that a member's initial stake should be in units of pounds 500. Barker invested most, pounds 3,000.
'You cannot buy art by committee,' Barker says, 'but they trust me and a couple of others.' The others are Waldemar Januszczak, art critic and Channel 4's head of arts, and Raymond Lokker, a Canadian-born art dealer. It is Barker, though, who scans catalogues and hobnobs with dealers and artists in their studios. Each of the three wise taste-makers has the right to veto proposed purchases.
At the annual dinner, held in rotation in members' homes, the entire Small Edition picture collection is put on view, the latest purchase being given pride of place. After dinner, glasses of wine are pushed aside and there is a flurry of chequebooks as members buy equal shares in it. They then draw numbers from a hat entitling them to take turns in choosing pictures to hang at home for the next year.
'Initially, the money was spent on pictures by household names, which flattered our members,' explains Barker. 'We bought a number of graphic works on paper by British modern and 20th-century masters: Nicholson, Sutherland, Sickert, Samuel Palmer. Then there were the blue-chip Europeans: Rouault, Dix, Ensor and Matisse.'
Barker's earliest experience of collecting was at prep school, where he was diddled in stamp collecting deals by Caspar Fleming, son of the author Ian Fleming. At university, having forsaken stamps, he discovered that picture dealers would not buy damaged prints at auction, so he snapped them up himself and had them restored. By the time he graduated, his friends were looking at walls bearing a couple of dozen original prints by the pre-war German Dada and Expressionists Dix, Grosz and Heckel.
He bought for himself a Heckel, a rare 1917 woodcut showing the classic German Expressionist image of a figure gripping its face, for pounds 500 at Sotheby's in 1982. Its margins were bent crudely round the mount and there was a printer's crease running through the image. It cost just pounds 70 to restore. Today, it would fetch pounds 15,000 undamaged - pounds 7,000- pounds 10,000 in its restored state.
Barker paid for his roof extension by selling a Paula Rego acrylic on canvas, The Vivien Girls, bought by his wife for pounds 500 in the early Eighties and sold through a Cork Street dealer for pounds 25,000 last year. 'Such price inflation rarely happens,' he says. The roof fund also benefited from a Dix dry point bought for pounds 2,000 at Sotheby's in 1983 and sold in the same saleroom for pounds 5,000. 'That grieved me, because I know it's going to rise further in value in a couple of years' time.'
Only in 1985 did Nicholas Barker's consortium turn its attention to paintings. It paid the Angela Flowers Gallery pounds 1,700 for one of the Nicaragua series by John Keane, the official war artist in the Gulf conflict. There followed an Adrian Wiszniewski, a Yuko Shiraichi (a Japanese minimalist) and, championed by Januszczak, two paintings by Tony Bevan - regarded by the group, after the appropriate tuition, as the most important figure painter of his generation.
The group's funds were subsequently swelled by the occasional trade-in: a Fifties Nicholson print of the Tuscan town of San Gimignano, bought for pounds 700 in 1987, was sold privately for pounds 3,000 three years later.
By 1992, the triumvirate reckoned the group was ready for photographs. A print of William Eggleston's Troubled Water of 1980, the time when colour photography was beginning to shine in American art, was bought for pounds 1,300 from the Lawrence Miller Gallery in New York. 'Initially,' says Barker, 'the group found photographs strange and demanding, a characteristic British prejudice, but with time I think they'll be popular.'
When members of Small Edition make their bibulous rendezvous later this month, they will be invited to stump up pounds 3,500 between them for the latest acquisition. It is a semi-abstract by Stephen Finer, a disciple of Auerbach, which was bought from the artist's studio. Barker spotted Finer's work 10 years ago when he was with the Anthony Reynolds Gallery. He is now with Bernard Jacobson.
'Finer is interesting,' says Barker, 'because he was championed by an arch-modernist in the form of Reynolds and now by Jacobson, doyen of the English landscape tradition. In terms of my own taste, this is a particularly happy purchase. I also straddle both camps, being firmly committed to modernism but believing equally firmly in the British tradition.'
There are now about 25 prints and 15 paintings in the collection. Before the annual dinner, Barker will have to gather them up and transport them to the home of the member hosting it. He will hire a van. One thing about vans is that you cannot see if the driver has hung his jacket on a coat hanger inside.-
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