ARTS & COLLECTIBLES
The Fleming family has shown the world of finance how to collect, with their unrivalled Scottish artworks being admired by connoisseurs and the envy of their peers and rivals.
When a selection of paintings from the Fleming Bank collection was shown at the National Galleries of Scotland in 1995, the exhibition was titled Hidden Assets. The Fleming collection is an ever-more valuable asset, but since 2000 it has hardly been hidden.
The partnership that became Robert Fleming Holdings, one of the United Kingdom’s most successful merchant banks, was set up in 1909. It grew from the business acumen and investment skills of Robert Fleming from Dundee, who left school at 13 to become a clerk in a jute factory, made his first serious money selling sacks for sand-bags to both sides in the American Civil War, and established an investment trust in London in 1873 to profit from the American railway boom.
He then set up on his own in 1900 and continued in the business until shortly before his death, aged 89, in 1933. Although established in the City of London, the bank’s Scottish origins were important to Fleming’s descendants – indeed, until the sale to JP Morgan Chase Manhattan in 2000, staff at the headquarters were welcomed to work by a Piper on three mornings each week. Naturally enough, the family – which included the writers Peter and Ian Fleming – were not the only Scots on the board, and it was Aberdonian David Donald, who in 1968 first suggested that life in the then new offices in Crosby Square, could be made more enjoyable for all if a few pictures were placed on the walls, and that they should be by Scottish artists. Donald, a lawyer turned investment manager, had a life-long enthusiasm for art and was given carte blanche to buy pieces. In the early days, there was no mention of a budget and he only consulted the chairman when making unusually expensive purchases. For 18 years, Donald was, as Bill Smith his successor put it: “A committee of one, using his special blend of flair and wit to build up a fine collection of Scottish art.”
Jean Maconochie by J D Fergusson, 1902
Luckily, until around 1980, Scottish art was generally undervalued and remarkably good purchases could be made. The Fine Art Society in Bond Street was virtually the only London dealer to show any interest and in 1970 held exhibitions of the Glasgow School and the Scottish Colourists. However, it was in the 1980s that prices began to soar.
In the late 1970s, a good work by the Colourist S J Peploe could be had for £5,000; in 1988 his Girl in White sold at Christie’s in Glasgow for £506,000. From an early stage, it was not just established 18th, 19th, and early 20th century art that was bought, but the works of modern and living artists were also sought after and secured. This injected an element of patronage into the bank’s collecting activities.
Donald continued to be responsible for the collection after his retirement from Flemings in 1984, but a year later he died unexpectedly following a short illness. His achievement had just been recognized in a rare and fitting manner, by his election as an honorary member of the Royal Scottish Academy.
Directorial responsibility for sculpture as well as paintings had fallen to Robin Fleming, a grandson of the founder, and he brought in Bill Smith, who says: “When I joined Flemings in 1965, I had no great enthusiasm for art. However, seeing the collection gradually building up around me, I began to take an interest – an interest that soon became a passion.” So much so that Smith took early retirement from the corporate finance department to fully concentrate on the art.
An immediate task was to supervise the move to a new HQ in Copthall Avenue, a building designed by Fitzroy Robinson & Partners, which came to provide one of the most striking visual experiences to visitors of any interior in the City. The architects were briefed to consider the collection’s display a priority and this resulted in the spectacular use of the glass- walled atrium. It was topped by a glass roof and served by glass lifts from which the galleries of pictures could be seen. Much consideration was given to the balance of lighting, so that the art could be enjoyed without suffering damage. Each office was provided with one or two paintings, which were regularly circulated, sometimes despite the protests of temporary custodians who had fallen in love with them.
At that point there were about 450 paintings in the collection. It has since grown to nearly twice that number. The sale of the merchant bank in 2000 did not mean the end of Flemings as a force in the world of investment, and a side effect was the projection of the collection onto a much larger stage. Fleming Family & Partners was set up to manage the assets of the family and an increasing number of outside clients. The clan’s influence is still strong. Adam Fleming, a former chairman of Harmony Gold, is chairman of Fleming Family & Partners and two more Flemings, Valentine and Philip, are non-executives along with another member of the family, Richard Schuster.
The collection emerged from the offices to become a registered charity in 2000, the FlemingWyfold Art Foundation – of which Robin, Roddy, and Rory Fleming are all trustees – and the handsome gallery at 13 Berkeley Street in Mayfair, between Berkeley Square and Piccadilly, opened to the public at the start of 2002. As a result of neglect south of the border, which had been so ably exploited by Donald to the advantage of the collection in its early days, Scottish art is poorly represented in museums and galleries beyond Scotland, and it is a principal aim of the foundation to remedy this situation. It not only displays, and exhibits works from the collection itself, but also houses shows drawn from other private and public collections of Scottish art and, as has often been said, acts as Scotland’s cultural embassy in the English capital.
Some of the collection, when not put on display in the gallery, still serves the original purpose and gives pleasure to those who work in Fleming family’s offices and boardroom nearby. The whole progress and development of the Fleming collection could surely be offered as a template to any corporation wishing to improve the lives of those working for it, to provide a benefit to a much wider public, and almost incidentally to make a very sound investment.
Green Sea, Iona by S J Peploe, 1920
Since 1997, the curator – now Keeper of Art – has been Selina Skipwith, whose connection goes further back in a peripheral way, since she is the daughter of Peyton Skipwith, who for many years was joint managing director of the Fine Art Society, a source of many fine things in the collection. This year, for the first time, the collection will be putting up a selling show, thus continuing the Fleming tradition of acting as patron to contemporary artists.
It will be a Scottish summer show, opening with a gala in June at the time of the Royal Academy event on which it is based. This will follow on from the current show Highlands and Islands: Painting and Poems (running to 5 June), which has been selected from the collection by Mary Miers, architectural writer and arts and books editor of Country Life, to coincide with the publication Miers’ book of the same name.
The idea of a guest curator was taken further in two shows called Inspired, which have now provided the foundation with the book to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Favorite pieces were chosen by artists, curators, museum directors, gallery owners, collectors, Flemings staff and other friends of the collection. Each wrote a few paragraphs to explain their choice. Two of the creators of the collection were among them.
Robin Fleming selected Lochaber No More by John Watson Nicol (1856-1926), a title taken from a pibroch, or pipe lament, particularly associated with the grim experience of so many Scottish emigrants. He writes: “The plight of the Highlanders was a favored subject of Victorian artists, whose depictions of bailiffs seizing chattels in lieu of rent, evictions, and emigrations found a ready audience in England… The simplicity of the composition and sketchy suggestion of the west coast of Scotland give the departing couple and their dog a sense of majesty and humility.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Bill Smith’s choice was not Sir David Young Cameron, on whom he has written an excellent book, but James Pryde (1866-1941), of whom, he had barely heard before purchasing The Unknown Corner in 1988. “I was immediately captivated by this master of suggestion, his subject matter at times romantic, mysterious, claustrophobic, moldering, sinister, menacing and – not infrequently – all of these. I acquired The Unknown Corner for the Fleming collection and bought a small oil study of The Green Pool for myself. To this day these paintings and their enigmatic creator never fail to move me.”
The Fleming-Wyfold Foundation and the collection are very much about drawing people into a personal relationship with the art. Although established and supported by the family, current activities are further funded by grants, donations, and sponsorship, including the Friends and Corporate Friends.