Michael Portillo: Art of my family

Michael Portillo at the Scottish Gallery, standing alongside The Lobster. Picture: Jane Barlow
Michael Portillo at the Scottish Gallery, standing alongside The Lobster. Picture: Jane Barlow
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MICHAEL Portillo’s grandfather built an astonishing collection of paintings, many by the Scottish Colourists. Now 38 pieces still in family hands are up for sale

WHEN Michael Portillo was a child, going to bed in his grandparents’ house in Kirkcaldy was an ordeal. Portillo, the politician turned broadcaster, recalls that the staircase in Wilby House was hung with large paintings. The largest, by William McTaggart, showed “youngsters who were evidently about to perish”.

Trouville, Les Jetees by Eug�ne Boudin

Trouville, Les Jetees by Eug�ne Boudin

“That painting of children cowering on a beach being buffeted by wind and surf and rain must have been about 7ft by 5ft in a heavy gilt frame,” says the former Conservative minister. “It was an alarming image, as I had no idea whether they were going to survive. All the pictures, suspended on chains, were among the biggest objects I’d ever seen and I feared being crushed if they fell. I had to steel myself, then scamper by those huge paintings,”

The pictures were part of an astonishing collection amassed by Portillo’s maternal grandfather – Fife linen manufacturer John Waldegrave Blyth – and included an abundance of Scottish Colourist work. There were 237 paintings in the entire collection, including 84 Samuel Peploes, 45 McTaggarts and 24 by Walter Sickerts.

The bulk of these are at Kirkcaldy Art Gallery, but now the Scottish Gallery, in Edinburgh, is staging an exhibition and sale of 38 pieces still in family hands. The paintings in the sale are expected to make in the region of £1m, according to Scottish Gallery managing director Guy Peploe. He believes it’s fitting that The Taste of JW Blyth exhibition and sale is being held in the gallery, which was formerly known as Aitken Dott.

This is where Blyth bought much of the art that he began collecting in his early thirties, in 1909, and which he continued to amass until 1956, six years before his death.

Sunset at Machrihanish, by William McTaggart

Sunset at Machrihanish, by William McTaggart

“My grandfather, who was always known as Jack, was a passionate, compulsive collector,” says Portillo, who has written the foreword for the linen-bound exhibition catalogue. “I remember my grandmother, Alice, telling me how he would come home from the factory at lunchtimes to sit and gaze at his latest acquisition for an hour rather than eat a meal.”

Peploe says that London dealer Lillian Browse, who supplied Blyth with many Sickerts, once said: “He used to lick his lips in front of a painting as if it were a huge feast.”

Portillo says: “He was definitely in love with his art, but he also loved his grandchildren and often played with us. When we went to the factory, which had closed by then, he would wheel us around on the trolleys that had once moved product. He was a good grandparent.”

As he grew up in a semi-detached house in suburban London, Portillo says, Wilby House in Loughborough Road, with its vast gardens and which is now a nursing home, seemed the grandest of mansions. During school holidays, a uniformed chauffeur would collect the Portillos from the overnight London train “having spent the night in the cheapest seats,” whisking them off in a monogrammed Daimler for breakfast, which was announced by a gong, and eaten at a table laid with silver cruets and sugar shakers, and stiff linen napkins. It was another world, he says, adding that his mother Cora’s marriage to his father, Luis, was one of the crises of his grandfather’s life. “The fact that my mother, his only daughter to marry, chose a penniless, left-wing political refugee, who couldn’t speak English, from southern Europe, was a fate worse than death in 1940. My grandparents were deeply shocked. Fortunately, they got to know my father well and became very fond of him and of their grandchildren.”

JW Blyth

JW Blyth

Since Blyth was a compulsive collector, he acquired far more pictures than he could find space for in Wilby House, so he loaned many to Kirkcaldy Art Gallery. “I was incredibly lucky to be exposed to all these world-class paintings,” says Portillo, currently working on a new series of his Great Railway Journeys for BBC2, to be followed by another exploring Continental train routes.

On Blyth’s death at the age of 89, the nine-year-old Portillo and his four older brothers accompanied their mother to Wilby House for the house clearance. “A sad day,” he sighs.

His grandmother moved close to the Portillos in London, sharing a house with her unmarried daughters, Portillo’s aunts, Dorothy and Margery. “She brought with her some of the outstanding Peploes, Fergussons, McTaggarts, Wingates, Sickerts and Boudins. Rarely can such a modest dwelling have sheltered such a fine and valuable collection. Certainly there was not room there even for the small number of works that remained with the family, and so some superb pieces graced my parents’ walls, too.”

He believes that his grandfather would have been cheered to know that an exhibition celebrating his taste was being held in the gallery where he bought the majority of his pictures.

Although Guy Peploe says he’s not a political animal, he has forged a “grandsons’ bond” with Portillo, as his grandfather was the great Scottish Colourist S J Peploe, whose work Blyth collected so assiduously.

Peploe’s still life The Lobster, which would surely have made one of those substantial lunches Blyth skipped, is now regarded as one of his masterpieces. It’s on sale for £350,000; Blyth paid £90 for it in April, 1937.

“It is definitely the one painting I would love to own,” says Peploe, adding that Blyth, who groaned heavily when writing cheques for his purchases, always kept a record of them in a single “address book,” as well as receipts and letters from dealers. “It’s absolutely invaluable.”

There is no doubt, says Portillo, that his grandfather’s taste in art has influenced his own taste. “I collect modern Scottish work, from the late Alberto Morrocco to Lachlan Goudie, who is just embarking on his career. My grandfather was a great advocate of Scottish art at a time when Scottish artists struggled to be taken seriously. They were not highly regarded, but he fought for them, befriended them and championed them.

“With his discerning eye, I think he made an enormous contribution to the radical change of perception of Scottish art that has occurred since his death.”

The Peploes that Blyth bought are worth a fortune today, while the Sickerts and Boudins also command high prices, but the Wingates, McTaggarts – “the Scots Turner” – and Alexanders are less appreciated. Both Peploe and Portillo hope that the exhibition of these “so-called lesser works” will lead to them being re-evaluated.

“Whenever I’m in Edinburgh, which I visit often, I always try to hop on a train to Kirkcaldy to visit the art gallery, where my grandfather was convenor for 36 years, to revisit the marvellous paintings from my childhood -- as do other family members.

“What I loved as a child is the fact that the paint is laid on so thickly in these glorious, colourful images of flowers in vases or cows in fields, say, that the picture disintegrates when I came too close,” remarks Portillo. “As I withdrew, all these things magically appeared, especially in the Peploes.

“For me that remains one of the most mysterious things about great art.”

• The Taste of J W Blyth, The Scottish Gallery, Dundas Street, Edinburgh, July 4-28.