Meet Deb Pearson, a lady with a serious passion for art. Not only is she the proud owner of a collection that takes up every available space in her home, she has spent her life around art, working as an artist’s model for over seventeen years. If a picture paints a thousand words, then Deb’s walls would have incredible story to tell. As she puts it: “I rarely eat out, I have humble holidays and I dress from charity shops; but my walls – they are priceless!”
Painting by Stephen Rose, of the sculptor Jim Turner with Deb, making the model of her which is now sitting on the mantlepiece behind her.
What first sparked your passion for collecting art?
My mother wasn’t an artist, but she was very knowledgeable about art history. Home was full of art books and I went with her to exhibitions from a very young age. I would spend as much time in the gallery shop as I would in the gallery itself, as that was the place I could acquire art postcards. My childhood bedroom walls were full of them, positioned with great care and consideration. I remember making a birthday wish list when I was still quite young, and at the top I put “a picture rail!” Rather random, but I already knew the potential of where it could lead me. People are often surprised that I’ve never wanted to paint myself, but I understand it’s not my calling. I’m a life model, and a collector.
Sculpture of Deb’s daughter, 5 days old, by Anna Gillespie
What was the very first piece you bought?
It was when I was about ten, on holiday in Cornwall. It was called “Milk Maid”, it probably cost my pocket money, but it was so characterful. It’s not on the walls anymore, but I’ve kept it, and can see what drew me to it. The first proper piece I bought was from a gallery in Paris when I was about eighteen. Its of a shady wooded rockpool. Its travelled with me on the walls of umpteen addresses.
How has your taste developed?
I suppose I’m a lot more discerning than I was 30, 20, even 10 years ago. My eye has honed in with age! Although I’m still basically attracted to the same sorts of thing. There are recurring themes: insects, trees, buildings, they feature a lot; but pretty much anything can catch my eye, with the exception of traditional still lives; and cats! My taste is pretty eclectic, but at the same time the collection works as a whole. Someone once looked at it and at the end she said ‘with every piece, I thought: “Ah, of course!” ‘ She could see why I had chosen each one. I took that as such a huge compliment.
What guides your collection? How has it grown?
The boring answer is price, not necessarily because they were too expensive, but just because I hadn’t the funds at that time. I have a parallel collection in my head, of all the pieces I haven’t bought! Sometimes I’ll track them down years after initially seeing them. One piece I got recently came from Australia, after seeing it at the RA summer exhibition over a decade go. Luckily the artist had one print left! I keep all exhibition catalogues. I always circle what I like so I can track them down if possible.
How has it grown? Its always growing! I am constantly playing catch-up, and dream of a day when there are no pictures stacked on the floor waiting to be hung, or pictures at the framers, waiting to be framed.
Is the status of the artist an important factor for you?
Totally irrelevant. The works I tend to buy are usually by jobbing artists, often West Country, people I know. I have absolutely no interest in the commercial value of an artist. If my purchasing their work helps them to continue making it, that’s value enough. I value the piece I got for one pound from a flea market as much as the piece that took me ten months to pay for with the Own Art credit scheme. The investment is in the continued pleasure the work brings to me and my family.
How do you manage to display such a large collection?
I’m very lucky to have a lot of wall space and a very understanding husband who pretty much gives me carte blanche when it comes to the walls – they’re my domain! I hang them very densely, maybe just an inch apart in places. Different walls tend to contain different things. The stairs, the bulk of the collection, are entirely monochrome. The hall is for colour. The lower landing is for photography. One room tends to hold the majority of self portraiture and life studies. Sculpture is everywhere! It just goes wherever there’s a spare bit of surface.
There’s a definite skill to hanging, to getting pieces to breath harmoniously side by side. I know when I’ve got it right and definitely know when its not! Often a wall will be as I want it, and then a new piece will come in and I know it has to go on that wall and it upsets the entire thing; I have to start from scratch. But moving pieces around is no bad thing; it keeps them fresh, keeps you looking at them, wanting to look. Some pieces are definitely prima donnas and refuse to have anything beside them. It’s as if they make the wall tremor a little around them. I have a chimpanzee by Matti that does that, as if it’s saying: “Danger. Keep Out!”
Sometimes its just a practical solution. A large glazed piece cannot hang where there’s a lot of reflected light, otherwise all you see is glare! That’s frustrating when space is at such a premium. Light is a double-edged sword!
Chimpanzee by Matti, sculpture of Deb’s son age 2 by Anna Gillespie
Do you have a favourite piece?
Ha! My children ask me that frequently because they know it will make me squirm! No, I couldn’t choose a single favourite piece, that would be impossible. I have favourite artists for sure: Mark Stopforth is wonderful, I have ten pieces by him. Rachel Milne; I love her miniature oils; a large panel of daddy longlegs drawn into wax by Jane Tudge; exquisite embroidered pieces by the textile artist Roanna Wells; minimalist pieces by Kate Raggett, sculptures by Anna Gillespie, numerous life studies by friends, a giraffe that my daughter did when she was four is a corker; I could go on and on! But I couldn’t choose just one.
What advice would you give to anyone beginning their own collection?
Go and look at as much as you can! Develop your own taste and have faith in it; there’s no need to be intimidated. Collecting doesn’t need to be a rich man’s game or an elitist one. Buy what you love and what you can afford, when you can afford it. Get to know the galleries or exhibition spaces that show work you like and is in your price range.
Big open shows at the RA and RWA are invaluable as they expose you to so many different artists and styles. Locally, visit Spike, BV Studios and Jamaica Street whenever they have their open studio weekends. They’ll all help you to realise and refine your taste.