“And this is fossilised turtle dung,” says Simon Martin, prising open the lid of a small, decorated silver box from India that, in its former life at least, would have housed a religious relic. He hands it over. “Gosh,” I say, gingerly, handing it right back.
The coprolite – to give this unique curio its correct term – is returned to its position on the cabinet shelf, alongside antique clay pipes dug from the mud of the Thames, an axehead, some shells, the egg of an ostrich and a Greek icon or seven.
We are midway through a tour of Martin’s Brighton home. It’s a compact space, but warren-like; one marvel-filled room opening on to another. The star attribute is its grand bay window, through which the sun falls in chiselled bars.
Martin – the director of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and a trustee of Charleston Museum in nearby Lewes – is 40 this year, one of a new breed of younger museum directors responsible for reviving the fustier corners of the art world of late. He is also a dedicated collector in his own right, and of his own eclectic persuasion.
In the hallway alone are prints and drawings by such important British artists as Celia Paul, Edward Burra, Edward Bawden, Wyndham Lewis and Peter Blake, watched over by two gangly-limbed fabric dolls by the American artist Mimi Kirchner.
Ten minutes in, and the door buzzer rings. “I’ve been a bit busy on eBay in lockdown,” says Martin, apologetically, as we move to the living room. Here, elegant pieces by the Japanese ceramicist Akiko Hirai bristle along the mantel. A few feet away, vessels by the likes of Bernard Leach and Ray Finch, some flower-filled, crowd the kitchen dresser. I also spot an RB Kitaj print and a painting by Maggi Hambling. Martin found the latter for £2 at Brighton’s Sunday Market among a box of frames, he delights in telling me.
“And this one,” he adds, striding over to an easel, “which turned out to be of Sebastian Sprott!” I confess I have to look Sprott up afterwards. He was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury group, a bit of a ne’er do well.
In person, Martin is boyish and sweet-faced. Margaret Howell suits are his customary attire but in these #WFH times I find him in a high-waisted, wide-legged trouser, typical of the fashion men wore in the 1930s, which is very on brand, considering Pallant is renowned for its holdings of Modern British art.
Lockdown has not been kind to galleries and museums, most of whom rely near solely on visitor-generated income. Yet contrary to expectation, Martin is enthusiastic about Pallant’s future, and about the opportunities that the current moment might offer.
“For an institution of our size, we are in a robust position,” he says. “We’re fortunate in that we’ve built up various funds and endowments. Yes, our income will be down, and we’ve had to shift some of our programming to 2021, but actually that gives us a bit more time to work on the shows. It’s been an opportunity to think about how we can do things better. Having to be thrifty is enabling us to be imaginative.”
Pallant House was, as its name suggests, originally a home, built in 1712 for the intriguingly “disreputable” wine merchant Henry Peckham. The Grade 1 listed building became a gallery in 1982, when Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral, offered his collection of art by Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and the like to the city, with the proviso that they turn Pallant into a gallery to show it.
“Hussey always aimed for the best he could get,” says Martin. “He was single-minded about what he wanted to achieve as a patron, and I get the feeling he was not really that bothered by committees, which is what often waters down a collection.” In the intervening years, that original collection has swollen to include bequests by Colin St John Wilson (architect of the British Library, who also designed Pallant’s contemporary wing in 2002) and his wife, architect MJ Long; by the businessman Charles Kearley, whose taste – Gino Severini, Fernand Léger and so on – gave Pallant’s collection a more international flavour; post war abstract art from the artist George Dannatt and his wife, Ann; and from Frank Dunphy, business adviser to Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and co.
Martin makes a point of exhibiting newly acquired work as soon as he can. Shortly before lockdown, for example, works bequeathed by the curator Muriel Wilson (paintings, prints and sculptures by Michael Andrews, Peter Blake, Prunella Clough, David Hockney, and Eduardo Paolozzi) had gone on display for the first time, and these will remain on view when Pallant reopens. Wilson is one of several women whose collections Martin has brought into his fold, “I’ve been pleased to be able to tell the stories of those collections,” he says, “because they’re often less about being a mate of the artist, and more about personal taste”.
Wilson’s collection has also been particularly useful for its raft of David Hockney lithographs. “We have a lot of Pop Art,” Martin explains, “but strangely very few Hockneys and [Richard] Hamiltons, I think because in our early years, collecting was focused on the past, and then their works became simply too expensive for us to acquire.”
In the 18 years Martin has been in Pallant’s employ (he has worked his way up from assistant curator) it has been gaps like these in the gallery’s collection that have preoccupied him most. “Because we’re a collection of collections,” he says, “we’re by no means comprehensive. But I don’t think it’s enough to just throw our hands in the air. People are asking different, and sometimes difficult questions of museum collections now. Narratives are changing. The collection can’t be a static, historical thing.”
A vital part of his objective has been finding and celebrating overlooked artists (last year’s excellent exhibition Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries explored the forgotten women artists of Britain’s avant-garde, for instance). He has also encouraged a number of contemporary artists to respond to Pallant’s collection. Cathie Pilkington, Mark Hearld and Jann Haworth are among those to have taken part.
“Why the dogs?” I say, momentarily distracted by a pair of fairly garish glazed ceramic King Charles Spaniels on the window sill behind where we are sitting. It transpires that Martin has a “thing” (his word) for Staffordshire figurines. “I think it comes from liking mid-century British art,” he says. “Lots of those artists painted them, you know – like Dora Carrington.”
His other “thing” is artists’ book plates (labels pasted into books to indicate ownership) “which are as unique as limited-edition prints because they’d never make that many of them.”
He spreads examples by Paul Nash, Roland Penrose, William Nicholson out on the table. The more valuable denote the libraries of personalities such as Noël Coward, Ellen Terry and Samuel Courtauld. “The holy grail would be something from, like, David Garrick’s library,” he says, warming to his subject. “Those are several hundred quid. Otherwise they’re mostly affordable.” He pauses. “Of course, they have the added benefit of not taking up too much space.”
Pallant House Gallery will reopen early August: pallant.org.uk