The Most Enchanting House in England

‘We meet a lot of people in the course of our lives and sometimes you find someone who is very special. I think it is just like that with an object. There are many things out there and you have to trust your instinct, your intuition when you come across something you believe is special’

I am speaking to a friend of mine, an avid collector, Todd, over the phone during lockdown. Having visited his extraordinary country house and garden, I suggest he will be less upset at being stuck at home than most.

Growing up, I always thought my father was the most obsessive collector of art in the world. That was until I came here.

The house is like nothing you will have ever seen; you step in through the door and are hit by beautiful paintings fighting for space on every wall, frames brushing up against each other. Curiosities fill every table, whilst ancient marble sculptures are on parade next to painted idols and architectural models. Minimalism is consigned to the bin, which sits next to a large elephant skull.

‘I have an uncontrollable urge to acquire’ Todd admits, ‘not in a greedy way. More it is the pleasure of having something that you can examine at your leisure. These things are mine for my lifetime and then they will go onto somebody else, that’s fine.’

Todd is a celebrated landscape gardener and lives with his partner Tim. Both are well known figures in the art world and insatiable collectors.

Tim and Todd have been acquiring ever since they were children. Both were brought up in remote parts of the earth (Tim in Africa and the South Seas and Todd in South America and the West Indies) and from a young age both formed their own personal ‘museums’ of natural history.

So it was no surprise that when they had me to stay two years ago they put me up in their ‘Museum Room’ (see above). I headed upstairs from dinner, partially in the dark, feeling my way by candlelight to my bed, making sure I didn’t break anything. I woke at dawn to see I had an ostrich, a crocodile, several saints, idols, bones and skeletons for company.

In the corridor outside my room was a cabinet of death masks (see above), many of criminals from the old Phrenological Museum in Edinburgh.

I ask Todd if they are the only collectors of death masks in the country? ‘Oh no, as recently I tried to buy the only mask of Francois Courvoisier, who murdered the 6th Duke of Bedford’s younger brother in the early nineteenth century, but unfortunately someone else wanted it very very badly.’

You can probably tell that Tim and Todd have more eclectic taste than most.

‘We don’t have boundaries. When we look through salerooms or markets we feel open to anything that intrigues us. Often it is things you have never thought about but they just suddenly appeal. That is why I loved fishing at Portobello [Market]. Collecting sends you on a journey. It doesn’t end with the acquisition. You take it home and then try to understand what it is and where it comes from. That is much an enjoyment as buying it. Otherwise it is just an object. And once you have it you need more to compare and contrast.’’

‘It’s not good enough having one whale vertebrae you want to have ten’

(Above) a plaster model of an imported Southdown Ewe in its original case, circa 1854. The original was bred by Thomas Webb who presented this model to Jonathan Thorne as a ‘perfect specimen of the breed’. (Below) its entry in Todd’s Acquisition Book

On one visit Todd showed me his acquisition book (see above). Everything he has bought over the last thirty years is recorded, described and drawn. ‘It means that this thing is pretty well engraved in your memory. If I buy some porcelain, there may be lots of copies, but I will notice a particular crack that makes it my plate.’ He encouraged me to write my own acquisition book, which I have and which is now full of badly drawn scribbles of my particular haphazard collections.

I ask Todd if it still possible to make discoveries?

‘Of course. You have to keep your eyes open. I accept, there are probably fewer objects in the wild. If you are looking for the things that everyone else is looking for you probably won’t find what you want. I have never had very popular taste, I was never buying portraits of pretty women that people really love to have. I like challenging objects, so generally they have been more readily available.’

Tim and Todd are different from many collectors, who want to complete a set or dominate a field. ‘Some collectors, great collectors, you go to their house and they say ‘this room is finished’ and I think ‘how could you say that, how can you not admit another object or move a painting?’

I myself have spent the last month of lockdown trying to persuade my father to rehang the walls at home. He has been stubbornly refusing, having stuck with this hang for at least the last decade or two, only adding in the gaps. But Todd firmly comes down on my side (thank you, Todd); ‘if you have something hanging for ten years above a chimneypiece you never notice it. You have to move things round. Tim is very good at this, making compositions that constantly change’.

I tell my father (who probably respects their opinion more than mine) and I see a chink in his armour. Three hours later he has agreed to trial run, swapping his Lely and Reynolds portraits.

Todd says ‘we love to live with these objects. We don’t want it to be too serious. We don’t have a museumified aesthetic, so everything has been touched, studied, enjoyed and loved.’

‘‘We think it is important to have grand fifteenth century paintings above the loo because why not, it’s a place you want to see something interesting sometimes.’’

Has Todd ever felt the urge to throw it all out and live in a minimalist white-walled house? 

‘Never. I admire people who can do it but its unnatural, certainly to me. It implies that things are too precious. I need lots of things to focus on to keep my brain going.’

I would argue that the Tim and Todd method of collecting, or lack of method, relying on instinct and a love for the hunt, is the superior way. It is as if they are foraging in a vast forest, tasting everything they find, taking pleasure in the discovery. They do not have a particular aim or an end point. It is about the never-ending search for knowledge and the joy of learning through touch and sight. I find visiting their house a complete revelation and inspiration.

‘Go, collect!’ Todd implores me.

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