Platform
Collect call

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 23

Platform
Collect call

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 23

Platform
Collect call

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 23

Platform
Collect call

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 23

When David Ross, the founder of Carphone Warehouse, bought a stately home, he had nothing to hang on the walls.He tells Lucinda Bredin how he solved that one

I am standing with Jonathan Yeo, the portrait painter de nos jours, looking at his painting of David Ross, the co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, educational philanthropist, opera impressio and owner of a major collection of British art. Yeo is slightly on edge. He first met Ross 15 years ago at a wedding, and the two have been great friends ever since. The question is: will Ross like the portrait? "David has a very good editorial eye," Yeo says, a touch nervily. "He has a knack of telling me what is wrong with my paintings. Annoyingly he spots things that don't work ..."

The portrait has been painted during the past 18 months and shows Ross behind a grid of subdued red lines that gradually reveals itself to be a phone box. Ha! Of course! It's an ironic reference to Ross's role in turning these landmarks of street furniture into bygones of a distant age – the result of his absurdly successful business that flogged everyone a mobile. We catch sight of Ross walking up the path, appropriately talking into a phone. He has come straight from his office and seems tense after being stuck in traffic. He takes a look at the portrait and cuts straight to the chase. "It's good." Tension around the room relaxes. "Although I do wonder about the blue growth coming out of my neck." Tension notches up. "Jonny, you have made me look like a cheeky chap in a phone box."

This is the second time I've met Ross. A month before I went to Nevill Holt, his country seat in Leicestershire. On seeing how his art collection has spread like a virus through the house and is now colonizing his garden, the first question had to be: Why does he collect? Is it to channel frustrated creativity? Is it to provide something to talk about? Could it even be for ... investment? It turns out to be none of above. "No," said Ross, in a direct growl that comes from the back of his throat, "I needed something for the walls."

He certainly did. Nevill Holt is an impressive sight. He bought the 800-year-old stately home – complete with crenellations and its own church – in 1999 and the building stretches for what seems an absolute age along a sward of green lawn. It was formerly a prep school, but the flecks of swede and rice pudding are long gone. Ross has transformed it into a home for himself and his 12-year-old son, Carl, and it also acts as a showcase for his collection and as a venue for his opera festival that takes place every summer in the grounds.

Ross has just arrived from London and is wearing a blue suit and white shirt, and given his welcoming, but business-like manner, he obviously hasn't changed into country mode in any sense. Given the expanse of wall – and the fact that Carphone Warehouse was floated the same year for a reputed £1.6bn – clearly he had a lot of scope to collect whatever he wanted. As he points out, "Traditionally if someone inherited a house like this, there would be pictures that had been accumulated over many generations on the walls. But that wasn't the situation here." So the path he chose, and continues to pursue, is interesting.

Inspired by a conversation he had had over lunch with Debo, the late Duchess of Devonshire – he mentions her name with a gravitas appropriate for a saint – Ross decided that the collection "needed a story behind it", and one captivating aspect would be to get to know the artists themselves. He plumped in a practical way to focus on British art – specifically art made from 1965 (his birth year) to the present day. He now has a collection that bends the rules slightly – works by Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton from the 1950s, a few Bridget Rileys from the early 1960s, because as he points out, "decades are never neat" – through to the great British painters such as Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach, David Hockney and Leon Kossoff and now paintings created in the past year. He declines to mention who he is buying now.

I ask if it isn't a bit narcissistic to create a collection with his birth year as the defining point. A bit me-me-me? A lot of people would have bridled at the question, but Ross considers it carefully. "It's a way of framing the collection so that it supports living British artists. I find I get a lot more pleasure from supporting people I can get to know, than I would buying works by a dead Italian artist."

Riley, in particular, is represented in Ross's collection in a major way. In his dining room, which is traditional in every way with a fireplace, a long table, a bow-fronted window overlooking a walled garden, Ross has hung six of the artist's works on panels, their cool stripes offering a contemporary version of the serried rows of family portraits. "I was hooked on Riley's work in the 2000s – she was the first artist I bought. Lucky really, I'm not sure I could afford to buy them now," he says frankly.

This fusion of the traditional and contemporary runs throughout Ross's house. There are green baize doors and a butler in a tailcoat – so far, so Chatsworth – but upstairs, there is a Phillip King sculpture (Rosebud), a large bright pink cone in the middle of the drawing room. There's a similar clash of cultures encapsulated by a billiard table – a traditional accoutrement of the English country house, except that this one has a purple cloth. And over the stairs, where one would expect a large swagger portrait to hang, there's a vibrant painting by Patrick Caulfield. You get the picture.

On our tour, Ross doesn't dwell on any particular painting – or offer any observations unless asked a question. But when one does probe, he reveals how carefully he has thought about the works. For instance, I ask what draws him initially to a particular work of art. "I am attracted first and foremost by the image and what it represents. All I am doing is looking at things that I think are really beautiful, or cool or of its time. But sometimes response isn't instant. With some paintings, you have to spend a little time. One of my Hockneys [The First Love Painting, which hangs on the stairs] I had to see a few times before I came to terms with the image."

For someone with a collection containing so many key works, Ross is refreshingly unpretentious about his modus operandi. He says that he is drawn to post-war British art as it was the moment when artists such as Allen Jones and Richard Hamilton engaged with commercial and marketing images. As he says, "Because I am in the commercial world, my eye has become attuned to those sort of influences and I am also reminded of things that I experienced in my childhood ... fashion, the idea of America as a promised land, the obsession with machinery and technology."

Ross grew up in Grimsby, then a thriving port – his father was the fifth generation to be involved in the fishing industry. But art didn't really feature in the house. "My father was an obsessive collector, but of ceramics and local pottery. His real thing was music. I was exposed to opera and choral music from a very young age", an influence which has inspired his much-loved Nevill Holt opera festival. Ross painted a bit as a boy – he went to Uppingham School followed by a law degree at Nottingham University – but one gets the sense that while he was developing his business, all artistic activities were put on hold.

Now he is making up for lost time: apart from collecting art, he is deeply involved in education – he has a foundation that supports 35 schools. What is so engaging about Ross is that he plows his own furrow. I ask what he thinks will be his legacy? Will it be his collection? He shakes his head. "I don't think you create a legacy out of other people's pictures. I sometimes think about creating a gallery, which would be in Grimsby or Lincoln. Culture is a great driver for regeneration. But it really depends on my son, and the degree to which he wants to engage with it. My legacy is determined by his appetite, either to keep it going, or to say, 'Actually that is not my gig.' My son should have his own dreams."

Lucinda Bredin is Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Nevill Holt Opera is held at Nevill Holt from 16 June to 3 July. For further details and to book tickets, visit nevillholtopera.net

Jonathan Yeo's Portraits will be exhibited at The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark from 20 March until 30 June.

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