Box of Delights: The Seemingly Sleepy County Town of Bedford Hides a Treasure Trove of Art, Discovers William Cook

By Cook, William | New Statesman (1996), May 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

Box of Delights: The Seemingly Sleepy County Town of Bedford Hides a Treasure Trove of Art, Discovers William Cook


Cook, William, New Statesman (1996)


Behind the humdrum high street of an unassuming market town, a new gallery has just opened, built to house one of the country's best collections of British art. If it was anywhere else in Britain, this treasure trove would be impressive, but here in sleepy Bedford, it seems downright surreal, rather like finding a huge stash of old Masters in a drab suburban semi.

On the top floor of this two-room gallery are landscapes by Constable, Turner and Sisley, alongside a royal flush of pre-Raphaelites: Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown. Bedford Gallery has a rich array of British modernists (including Graham Sutherland and Patrick Heron), a still-life by Walter Sickert and a hypnotic portrait by Lucien Freud, all squeezed into the same room. If you could do a supermarket sweep through Tate Britain, this is what would end up in your shopping trolley. It's like the Tate in miniature, a potted history of the past 200 years of British art.

Downstairs there are more superb pictures by David Hockney, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, alongside their American counterparts, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. On the opposite wall are works by Picasso, Munch, Bonnard, Goya, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, plus a trio of German expressionists: Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix. Incredibly, this is just a fragment of the complete collection, embodying a tantalising glimpse of things to come. There are hundreds more masterpieces packed away--from Canaletto to Kandinsky--awaiting the revamp of the original gallery next door.

This compact gallery is just the start of this new exhibition space. When the main building (currently closed for renovation) reopens in two years' time, Bedford will be able to exhibit a complete cross-section of Britain's greatest artists, from William Blake to Howard Hodgkin, from Stanley Spencer to Elisabeth Frink. The continental roll call is even more impressive, a virtual A-Z of European art. So how on earth did the good burghers of Bedford manage to assemble such a remarkable collection? And what on earth is it doing here, tucked away down a quiet backstreet in this modest county town?

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The fact that Bedford has a collection which would flatter a city ten times its size is thanks to a canny local brewer called Cecil Higgins. When Higgins died, in 1941, he left his collection of ceramics to his hometown, and [pounds sterling]100,000 to buy more artworks to go with it. Shrewdly, he stipulated that all future purchases must be overseen by a panel of experts from blue riband museums like the V&A. But what did these boffins know? Quite a lot, it seems, for since then they've amassed a collection worth [pounds sterling]100m.

The way these art buffs made a 100,000 per cent return on Higgins's investment was by doing exactly the opposite of modern bankers. They bought things which were first-rate, but happened to be temporarily out of fashion. They bought prints and watercolours, rather than more expensive oils. They snapped up pre-Raphaelites when the school was out of vogue. …

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