The Joy of Collecting

Photo of Alexander Walker in his apartment sitting in a red leather armchair with lots of art hanging on the walls
Alexander Walker in his Maida Vale apartment surrounded by his collection, 2002. Photo © Rob Carter.Credit

What do you collect?

Our new exhibition Living with art: Picasso to Celmins, a British Museum touring exhibition, features a selection of prints and drawings that were collected by film critic and writer Alexander Walker (1930–2003).

In this short blog post, artist and art teacher Vita Ryan explores the idea of collecting, and shares her personal joy in finding, organising and displaying her own unusual collection.

Alexander Walker's collection

Alexander Walker developed his art collection over his lifetime. He collected over 211 works of art, and was especially interested in works that signified a change in an artist's process or approach to their work.

Photo of the corner of Alexander Walker's kitchen with bookshelves and art covering the walls.
Alexander Walker’s kitchen, 2002. Photo © Rob Carter.Credit

He displayed his collection on every surface and every inch of available space in his London flat - even in the bathroom and kitchen! When Walker died he bequeathed his collection to the British Museum to share the pleasure and joy that he got from his art with the public. Walker's love of collecting inspired me to think about collections.

So what is a collection? 

A collection in a group of items gathered together over time. The items or objects in a collection usually have a connection to each other, such as the colour, shape, size, function, theme or place of origin. Let's look at some of the different ways people collect objects; this might inspire you to develop your own collection.

Photo of a variety of chisels in a wooden drawer.
Photo of hands reaching towards woodcarver's tools laid out on a bench

Collecting objects to use

Alexander Walker collected art to display and look at, but people also collect objects to use. For example, a craftsperson, such as a woodcarver, collects their chisels over time. They will collect different chisels for different functions. Some might be secondhand, some might be new. As the craftsperson develops their skills they collect more specialised tools and develop their collection.

Two photo, one of a green glove lying on the ground, and one of a child's woolen mitten lying on a paved ground.
Photos © Vita Ryan.Credit

Collecting for fun

People also collect for fun or out of a curiosity for unusual things. A number of years ago, I noticed a lost glove on the street and I photographed it. Since then, whenever I see a lost or lone glove I photograph it. Now, I have a collection of photographs of gloves.

Photo of a black glove lying on a grey stone surface.
Photo of two black gloves lying on a brick wall next to a banana peel.

I love to imagine stories about each glove. Who was the person who lost it? Where were they the moment they realised their glove was gone? 

The gloves are categorised as the same object, but they all look different. Some are mittens, some are gloves; some are wool, some are leather, and so on.

Photo of a blue woolen glove lying on a wooden floor beside a metal vent.
Photo © Vita Ryan.Credit

When you find what you love to collect, you will discover there are almost always other people who love to collect similar things. I found other people who photograph gloves on a website called Things Organised Neatly. Here you will see lots of different collections organised and displayed in lots of different ways.

Photo of the corner of Alexander Walker's bathroom with pink sanitary ware and tiles, with framed artworks covering the walls.
Alexander Walker’s bathroom, 2002. Photo © Rob Carter.Credit

Displaying your collection

How you display or organise your collection can also be fun. You could display the objects according to their colour, size, or shape. Or, group them by theme. Or, organise them in chronological order – based on when the items were made or when they joined your collection. You could hang them on your walls, like Alexander Walker, or you could photograph and present them on your Instagram.

Artists who collect

Sometimes, artists collect objects as part of their art practice. Steven Maybury, an Irish contemporary artist, collects combs that he finds on the street. He then uses these combs to create beautiful line drawings, and he often displays the combs alongside the drawings.

James Kirwan, another contemporary Irish artist, collects driftwood on the beach. He has used this wood to create frames for his paintings.

Start your own collection

  • Think about your hobbies and what interests you. Is there a way you could create a collection based on something you like?
  • How might you organise your collection? By colour, shape, function, theme, or age?
  • How will you display your collect to share it with others?

Visit the exhibition

Living with art: Picasso to Celmins, A British Museum touring exhibition is on view until 7 June 2021. Free entry, but you must book a ticket in advance. Book your free general admission ticket now