In Conversation: Sarah Grant
Katherine Riley interviews collector Sarah Grant about her approach to, and enthusiasm for, the art of collecting.
Ahead of Hundred Heroines’ Dorothy Wilding: 130 Photographs exhibition (March – July 2023), I spent a day with collector Sarah Grant in her hometown. After showing me some of the highlights of her collection, which encompasses over 3,000 individual pieces, Sarah sat down with me to discuss the story of her collecting journey.
A New Beginning
Sarah started collecting to aid her recovery from a mental health condition. She had tried mindfulness, and various creative activities, but found they did not have a beneficial effect on her. She describes how starting a collection – researching and discovering fascinating, yet overlooked, rarities – gave her a sense of purpose which continues to uplift her. “I am able to pop in and out of collecting”, she explains, “and it doesn’t matter if my concentration is not the best.”
Having a full time job and two children led Sarah to feel she needed to do something for herself. There were limitations; prospective activities needed to be in an easy location – travel can be difficult for her, given her relatively rural home in North Devon. It also needed to be affordable; she describes her budget as “tight”. She is keen to dispel the misconception that collecting is unavoidably expensive; some of her greatest finds have been procured for as little as a few pounds.
Sarah emphasises the perhaps surprising accessibility of collecting. Internet auction sites have catalysed her collection; she credits them with “opening up the possibility of buying items that years ago there was very little chance of finding.” She had never set foot in an auction house before beginning her collection, and they remain somewhat unfamiliar. Besides websites, she loves visiting car boot sales and was even recently featured on an episode of BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
One thing which stood out to me during my day with Sarah is the respect she feels not only for the craft of collecting, but also the pictures and objects she has accumulated. She expresses the importance of individualism as a collector, and reveals that her collection has personal significance for her. There is the sense that Sarah has, in part, restored the sentimental value of these objects through her attachment to them. “People’s tastes change”, she reflects. “We live in a more minimalist era, where people do not keep things for sentimental value. Some of the things I have found for sale have broken my heart.”
Maintaining her focus on the individual, Sarah has centred much of her collection around one person in particular – Queen Elizabeth II (1926 – 2022). Researching over 150 artists of royal portraiture and paraphernalia led her into the vicinity of Hundred Heroines via a shared Gloucester heroine – the inimitable Dorothy Wilding, whose idiosyncratic style defined the genre of royal portraiture throughout her long and illustrious career.
Both Queen Elizabeth II and Dorothy share qualities which Sarah finds inspirational. “I chose the Queen as she has had an amazing life and was incredibly dedicated to her work. From the age of 21, she kept her promise”, Sarah says. In Dorothy, Sarah finds “a formidable lady. Her autobiography was uplifting. I can see a lot of her in me; I strive for perfection and it can be my downfall.”
Sarah discusses her knowledge of Dorothy’s life and career, mentioning both her resilience and her death in relative obscurity; “There was no obituary.” Modern research, including the collecting undertaken by Sarah, is bringing Dorothy back into public consciousness. Dorothy’s revival perhaps mirrors Sarah’s joy in finally achieving recognition for her work; last week, she opened the first public exhibition of part of her collection at the Hundred Heroines space in Gloucester. “I have spent many years researching and collecting”, she tells me. “It’s only now that I feel at a stage that I can promote it. I was very lucky to learn about the Hundred Heroines [Dorothy Wilding: 130 Photographs] exhibition and meet Del. This has led to meeting Terence Pepper who has been the leading person up to now promoting Dorothy Wilding.”
Collecting in Practice
Although Sarah’s confidence has been bolstered by her newfound connections, she maintains that her ability to collect ‘under the radar’ is one of her key strengths. “When I started collecting, HM Queen [artefacts] were not really popular. People have an expectation that if you collect HM Queen you collect cups and saucers and are a middle aged lady. I used that to my advantage… It can sometimes upset specialists as I can find items that they have spent years looking for!”
Sarah’s approach to collecting mirrors that of two of her central figures of inspiration – Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. A seemingly ordinary New York couple, Dorothy and Herb channelled their shared enthusiasm for art into a collection which amassed more than 4,000 works of art over a 45 year period, filling every corner of their one-bedroom apartment. Despite their modest income, they were eventually able to donate millions of dollars worth of work to the National Gallery of Art, as well as other institutions across the country. “I wanted to see if that could be done in this day and age,” Sarah says, “using the internet as a basis rather than physically attending art shows and exhibitions.”
What are Sarah’s top tips for collecting? “I do not specialise in any specific area,” she explains, “which makes collecting easier. I’d encourage people to collect with a passion, rather than to build a financial portfolio. Taste is important – I only include work I personally like. One of the most interesting things about collecting is learning about the history of the portraits – for example, how they came to be commissioned and any hidden stories connected to them. I have no formal qualifications in art or art history but that doesn’t hold me back – I believe that anyone can be a collector!”