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Secret treasure trove revealed in Milton Keynes

PUBLISHED: 12:46 24 January 2014 | UPDATED: 12:46 24 January 2014

The Bowie self-portrait now owned by Stowe's Headmaster

The Bowie self-portrait now owned by Stowe's Headmaster

Archant

Milton Keynes never fails to surprise – and when a call went out for works of art some extraordinary paintings and even a sports car were offered, Jan Raycroft discovers

In homes scattered across the countryside surrounding Milton Keynes you will find treasure. Some of this bounty has been in the same families for centuries, while other pieces are much more recent acquisitions.

We are talking works of art, much loved by the present owners, but rarely, if ever, seen in public. That’s the thing with private collections. Whether we’re talking heirlooms, generous gifts or finds at auction or in salesrooms, there is a personal connection.

Now, for the first time, some 250 such works will go on display in January at Milton Keynes Gallery, lent from some 50 private collections.

The sheer range of ‘Treasures in Milton Keynes’ is a perfect reflection of this city in the country, a fantastic mix of old and new, modern style and heritage. So you will find the 11th century Boarstall Cantuary, believed to be the oldest surviving depiction of an English medieval village sharing gallery space with a superb self portrait by David Bowie (more of this later).

This exceptional range of art will see Old Masters by Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, William Hogarth and John Everett Millais alongside the likes of Andy Warhol and Picasso.

It’s been a labour of love for staff at the gallery as their call for possible exhibits brought in such a warm response from private owners. They are delighted with this ‘cabinet of curiosities’.

And some of the memorabilia on display would never share gallery space under normal circumstances.

This includes items recalling ‘godfather of British aviation’ Frank McLean’s hair-raising flights under the bridges on the River Thames; taxidermied pelicans from a private zoo; and even a rare Aston Martin DB4 on loan from Aston Martin Works Service, based at Newport Pagnell.

Those who have lent works include Hugo and Belinda Morley-Fletcher of Padbury. Hugo, a well known face to Antiques Roadshow fans, has loaned an unknown painting dating from the 1600s and an Edward Lear preparatory sketch from 1878. These extraordinary artworks and objects are supplemented with additional work from excellent local collections such as those kept by the Open University, Waddesdon Manor and Buckinghamshire County Museum.

As Anthony Spira, Director of MK Gallery explains: “Treasures in MK is the second of a two-part programme about art in and around Milton Keynes. Last summer, part one, MK Calling, featured over 100 artists from Milton Keynes in a festival of art, music, dance, poetry and much, much more.

“We hope that by working intensively with both artists and collectors around Milton Keynes, we can build and nurture a strong, dynamic and thriving artistic community in the build up to the much needed expansion of the Gallery’s facilities. This ambitious £10m project is scheduled to open in 2017 to celebrate the city’s 50th anniversary.”

Now, as promised, back to that extraordinary self-portrait by David Bowie. Earlier this year the V&A museum in London staged a five-month long exhibition which was the first international retrospective of the musician’s career. We’ve no doubt they’d have loved to have known about this particular self-portrait, but it was lurking in Buckinghamshire and much treasured by its owner.

Bowie, of course, was no stranger to the county in his early years and in June 2013 a 40-years-old poster from a gig he performed at Friars Club, Aylesbury, was sold to a Japanese collector for £2,200. There is a huge interest in work by Bowie, reignited recently by his latest album, The Next Day.

Meanwhile, on the wall of the Stowe headmaster Anthony Wallersteiner’s home, hung that self-portrait, waiting for its moment.

“This all started when I was doing my PhD in art history, which focused on the works of St Ives artists, and one in particular, Peter Lanyon,” he explains. “So I went to Cornwall and everyone said I must visit Penwith Gallery and meet the owner, Henry Gilbert, known as Gillie. He was such a fascinating and helpful man and we got to know each other quite well.”

Also interested in the art coming out of this area of Cornwall was David Bowie. He had an aunt living there and collects Lanyon works. Bowie and wife Iman had also been to visit Gillie.

Anthony was already a fan. He liked the way Bowie pushed boundaries and always considered him to be an artist rather than a rock star: “He challenges you to define him.”

One day Gillie took Anthony into his stockroom and showed him the haunting Bowie self-portrait.

Anthony recalls: “We had dinner and Gillie said ‘I just don’t know what I’m going to do with it’. For me, who loved Bowie’s music – he was the most innovative artiste since Bob Dylan and the Beatles – it was something I wanted to be able to see every day.”

They struck a deal and Anthony paid £2,000 for the painting – a fair price at the time.

For 18 years it’s been his pride and joy and fate was to ensure that its first major public viewing would be in Milton Keynes.

When the V&A exhibition was announced Anthony decided to email them about his treasure but did not hear back: “Later I found out the email had accidentally ended up in some sort of junk mail box and although the V&A would have loved to include it, their catalogue was already printed.”

So London’s loss is Milton Keynes’s gain.

Every exhibit in the Treasures exhibition will have a story to tell – it’s going to be one not to miss this year.

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Treasures in MK - 24 January – 30 March 2014

Milton Keynes Gallery, 900 Midsummer Blvd, Milton Keynes, MK9 3QA; 01908 676900

www.mkgallery.org

Visit the gallery before January 5 and you can catch another fascinating exhibition, Future City, which looks back at the utopian origins of Milton Keynes, in order to consider aspects of its future. The exhibition includes inspiring material from the early days of Milton Keynes, including paintings, drawings and models by artists Boyd & Evans, Stephen Gregory and Helmut Jacoby. Alongside these displays is a community section and social space including iconic marketing material from early MK and new contributions from local residents including submissions by Milton Keynes school pupils in response to a ‘Design your MK Gallery’ brief.

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