Coming home: A remarkable collection of 20th century Scottish art

Karen Taffner with her collection of Scottish art. Picture: Toby Williams
Karen Taffner with her collection of Scottish art. Picture: Toby Williams
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AN American couple’s passion for early 20th century Scottish art, despite no family links to the land of Mackintosh, will turn full circle this week with the sale of a remarkable collection, writes Susan Mansfield

Karen Taffner knew her mother’s sideboard was by Charles ­Rennie Mackintosh, but that didn’t stop it being used. Every time Karen went to her parents’ Manhattan home with her young children, her sons knew they only needed to open the Mackintosh sideboard to find the toys their grandmother kept there for them.

Karen Taffner with her collection of Scottish art. Picture: Toby Williams

Karen Taffner with her collection of Scottish art. Picture: Toby Williams

“Then, when the sideboard was in the Mackintosh exhibition at the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York], my son, who was two or three at the time, couldn’t understand why the security guard wouldn’t let him go over and open it and get his Power Rangers!” she laughs.

Karen’s parents, television entrepreneurs Donald and Eleanor Taffner, built up a very important collection of Mackintosh and other 20th-century Scottish furniture, drawings and paintings, now valued at up to £1 million. The range and quality of the collection, which will be auctioned at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh tomorrow, have led experts to describe it as “the best Mackintosh collection ever to come on the market”.

“I think my parents would be thrilled that the pieces have now come home,” says Karen Taffner, who works as a drama teacher in New York. After Donald’s death last September at the age of 80, 11 months after his wife, their children Karen and ­Donald Jnr made the difficult decision to sell the collection, which was kept in their parents’ historic home in Greenwich Village. “It feels right that from Scotland, where these works started, they’re now going to go off and find a new life,” says Karen.

The Taffners, whose company DLT Entertainment brought a number of hits from British television to the American market, developed a life-long love of the UK. The Scottish artist Barbara Rae introduced them to Anthony Jones, then head of Glasgow School of Art, and they became important supporters of the School, funding the post of Taffner Mackintosh curator for more than 20 years. Eleanor served on the Board of Governors for 12 years, and in 2005 she was awarded the Lord Provost’s Medal and an MBE for her contribution to the arts in Scotland.

The collection includes works by Charles Rennie MacIntosh. Picture: Toby Williams

The collection includes works by Charles Rennie MacIntosh. Picture: Toby Williams

After falling in love with Mackintosh’s work in the GSA building, the Taffners began to collect work principally by the Glasgow Four: Mackintosh, his wife Margaret MacDonald, her sister Frances and Frances’ husband Herbert McNair. Eleanor, in particular, became an expert in her subject, and went about assembling a world-class collection of rare and important works.

The collection includes a Mackintosh watercolour of the village of Bouleternère, one of a group painted when he lived in south-west France in the 1920s, ­valued at £80,000-£120,000, and Yellow Tulips an important still life estimated at £100,000-150,000. There are also rare and important watercolours by Frances MacDonald, considered by some to be the finest artist of the “Spook School”, as the four were disparagingly known, because of their use of dark colours and eerie imagery. Very few of her works survive as it is believed her husband may have destroyed much of hers and his own after her death in 1921.

Other items in the sale include rare cutlery designed by Mackintosh for his friend Francis Newbery, a pair of mahogany chairs designed by him for the Glasgow home of his patron, Miss Cranston and the first known watercolour by McNair, an eerily menacing work called The Lovers. There are also related works collected by the Taffners: paintings by Glasgow Girls Jessie Marion King and Annie French, and by Scottish colourists FCB Cadell and JD Fergusson, and an unusual portrait by Sir John Lavery, which shows the artist meeting Shirley Temple. “They were discerning, and they collected with determination,” says John Mackie, director of decorative arts at Lyon & Turnbull. “They took advice, they got to know ­certain dealers and specialists, and when they went for it, they went for it. Donald and Eleanor didn’t buy things casually or for investment, they bought them because they had some passion for them.”

“There are stories about how the car would screech to a halt outside a gallery in Glasgow because they’d spotted something they wanted in the window,” laughs Karen Taffner. “There was no negotiation, it was ‘That’s what I want!’, it went into the back of the car and off they went.”

The collection includes furniture and paintings. Picture: Toby Williams

The collection includes furniture and paintings. Picture: Toby Williams

In many ways, the Taffners were unlikely candidates for becoming leading collectors of Scottish art, as neither had Scottish connections. Donald was raised in a one-room apartment above his father’s candy store in Brooklyn, and was the first in his family to go to college. He planned to become a history teacher, but took a summer job in the mail room at the William Morris Talent Agency, which then led to a permanent position.

In 1963, he launched his own business, DL Taffner Ltd (later DLT Entertainment) in the fledgling field of international television distribution, with his wife of two years, Eleanor Bolta, as his business parner. “My father aggressively held on to his Brooklyn boy roots,” says Karen. “I think he was really drawn to Scotland because he saw something similar here, a sense of straight-talking, a desire to keep your feet planted firmly on the ground.”

Karen remembers a key moment in the early days of the business when success was far from guaranteed. “He started the business with a seed loan from his mother-in-law, and they had put the last of it into a little Australian children’s show called Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. My father said, if we sell it, our business will work, if we don’t, I’m going back to the agency.

“We called it the Skippy weekend. We were out in California and they used the last of the money to take my brother and me to Disneyland. My dad spent the entire weekend on the phone waiting to hear if the deal had gone through. But Skippy was a success and that was the beginning of the company.”

The Taffners brought several British television hits to the United States, including Benny Hill and Rumpole of the Bailey. They remade hit sitcoms Man About the House and Keep It In The Family with American actors to great acclaim. The company also produced shows such as My Family, with Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker, and As Time Goes By, starring Judi Dench, in the UK. Their achievements were recognised with awards on both sides of the Atlantic. DLT is now run by Karen’s brother, Donald Jnr, and continues to work in television and theatre. “I think, in many ways, my parents felt more at home in UK than in the US,” says Karen. “Many of their best friends were British, including Ernie and Doreen Wise and [Rumpole creator] John Mortimer.” A stone inscription inspired by Rumpole, “Eleanor’s Building – She who must be obeyed”, still adorns the former premises of DLT in West 56th Street, Manhattan.

Eleanor Taffner always loved to attend auctions, often taking the young Karen with her. “She’d have me do the bidding too, giving me the limit, I was 12 or 13 years old, she taught me well.”

Eleanor’s tastes evolved, and she developed a keen knowledge of art nouveau and art deco, and the Glasgow School. “She had a great eye for things,” says Alasdair Nichol, a family friend and vice chairman of Freemans, the US partners of Lyon & Turnbull. “It is a real connoisseur’s collection. They put a lot of thought into what they bought, they took their time, and bought right. It’s always been amazing to me, as this is a couple who had no connection to Scotland, and no art training.

“I always remember when I was working with an auction house in New York, we had a piece that hadn’t sold in our decorative arts sale, a fireplace screen which was catalogued as American. Eleanor came in, made an after-sale offer and bought it. It was a Glasgow School piece. No-one in New York apart from Eleanor would have known that – I didn’t even think of it and I’d worked in Glasgow for years! You could never accuse her of just dabbling, she was very interested, and had laser vision.”

The Lavery painting, made in the 1930s when the artist decided – at the age of 80 – to try to revitalise his career by painting Hollywood stars, was bought by Donald Taffner as a present for his wife. Karen says: “My mother bore a strong resemblance to Shirley Temple when she was a young child, and my grandmother entered her in Shirley Temple lookalike contests, a few of which she actually won. It was a source of contention for my mother, I don’t know whether she enjoyed it, but in a way I think going after the Lavery was my dad’s little teasing moment towards her.”

As well as a world-class collection, it was a personal one. Karen says: “There’s definitely something emotional about watching it all go, because they were so passionate about it.

“They were very passionate people. When they decided that they liked something or were going to support something, they did it with all of their hearts and all of their energy. This collection just reflects that passion.”

• The Taffner Collection will be auctioned at Lyon & Turnbull tomorrow, see for more information.