JC: A lot of the things you collect end up in your work.
PB: Yes, it works on different levels. What it used to be about was that you were often competing – you know someone else who collects and you want to get a better whatever than they’ve got.
Did that drive you at one point? Were you a competitive collector?
It did early on, yes. When the second world war started, I was seven and I was evacuated, first to Essex and then to my grandmother in Worcester. It really took away [those years] for me. It was blank time. At seven, I had a couple of lead soldiers and probably one book. Then, at 13, I went to Gravesend Technical College, to the junior art department, and at the railway station there was an old Nissen hut that was a junkyard, and I bought three objects: a painting of the RMS Queen Mary, a papier-mache Victorian tray and a complete leather-bound set of Shakespeare. That was the day I started to collect.
Were you trying to catch up on what you’d missed during this blank period?
Yes, I wouldn’t have been that conscious of it, but that’s where it started. Often it relates to work. I did one series called A Memory of Place where, if I went somewhere for the day, I’d collect collage material. What I collected had to be used and I couldn’t add to it.
At one point, I collected Disney memorabilia. I had a phone call from this young American dealer called John Armbruster who said: “I like your work. Would you do a swap for a collection of Walt Disney?” It sounded interesting, so I agreed. A couple of weeks later, he called and said: “I’ve just arrived at Dover with the collection.” It was literally a lorry load of tea chests full of Disneyana.
Things from the actual film productions?
A lot of original [animation] cels, letters written by Walt Disney, toys of all kinds. I had a great Disney collection thrust upon me, I’d never tried to acquire it… I also collect elephants, I collect toys. I collect art. I collect African things. Jewellery up to a tiny point. Not watches, I don’t collect watches.
When did you decide to classify it all and put it in the studio?
We got this house first, which is quite big, so my studio here took a lot of the stuff. Once I bought the studio [in Hammersmith], it gave me this very beautiful space with lots of room. It gave me a little museum, really. I’ve always done that with my studios. They’ve never simply been a place to work. They’ve always been a kind of haven and somewhere separate from my house.
So it created an environment that you’re happy to be in.
Yeah, and that was right from the start. After I’d left the Royal College and went back home to live with my parents, my dad let me have his shed at the bottom of the garden. Even in that tiny space, I arranged it. It’s something I’ve always done.
Making a little kingdom that you’re in charge of.
In a way, I’m still in a shed. My studio in Hammersmith has a corrugated iron roof, so, yeah, it’s really just a much bigger shed… [In the 1990s] I was doing a series that started off being called Museum of the Colour White.
I think I have seen some of that. You were just getting white objects?
All white objects, and then it evolved into black and white. At the Chiswick car boot fair, I would be looking at things because they were either black or white but they had no intrinsic value as anything else – little enamel signs and that sort of thing. What was valuable to me at that point had no value to the dealers at all.
Most people think of value as being a monetary thing, but what you’re saying is that the objects have got a personal value, almost like a value that you invest in them.
Yes, I think that’s right.
Some people are very focused on the things they collect, but you seem more open. If something interesting pops into your field of vision, you’ll think, oh, yeah, I’ll have that.
Yeah. The mermaid I bought recently…
Is it one of those things that sometimes you’d see in a cabinet of curiosities, where they’ve welded part of a fish on to a…?
Yeah. I used to take World’s Fair, which is a trade magazine for circuses and funfairs, and there was an advertisement that just said “Freaks for sale”, and I thought, I’ve got to at least inquire. So I phoned this man named John Bowley, who had worked at the Golden Mile in Blackpool with a miniature freak show. They were contrived freaks – a bird’s body and a dog’s head and something else’s tail.
Kind of creative taxidermy.
Yeah. I went up to Bolton and he took me down into a terrible little cellar – it was quite freaky and he was obviously a freaky man – and I bought certain things. But that was my first mermaid.
Andy Holden: ‘The impulse to gather objects is natural’
Andy Holden’s grandmother never owned a cat, but she did collect ceramic cats – hundreds of them – from charity shops. After she died, Holden, a multimedia artist and musician from Bedfordshire, inherited her collection and turned them into an installation called Cat-tharsis (2016). “My gran had been my early champion of my strange desire to be an artist and I realised that looking at her collection as a child had been an influence on my art in many ways,” he says. “The cats, when all arranged together, made a terrific sculpture that told you a lot about the person who was responsible for it.”
Holden doesn’t do much collecting himself these days, but, he says, “I like to be surrounded by things, to live with things, as vehicles for stories”. His work, which has exhibited at Tate Britain and Bristol Museum, doesn’t shy away from the darker side of collecting and its links with colonialism and environmental destruction. In his 2017 show Natural Selection, commissioned by Artangel and made in collaboration with his father Peter, he explored the impulse to collect birds’ eggs. “It takes great skill and you can never complete the collection,” he says, “however it destroys the very thing you love.”
Did your grandma have her collection on display at home?
The cats lined the shelves of her small bungalow, floor to ceiling, staring back at you. As a child I remember asking my mum: “If grandma likes cats so much, why doesn’t she just get a cat?” But I realise now that I had entirely missed the point. She would collect them from charity shops. They were not souvenirs, often they were other people’s souvenirs, bought secondhand. It was an open-ended collection; at times she had to get rid of some to make room on the shelves to be able to continue to amass them.
Why did you hang on to it after she died?
Collections outlive you, and it felt natural that I’d inherit her collection. I had initially assumed the collection was about cats. Cats have always been a symbol; from their God-like status in ancient Egypt to their omnipotence as symbols of unselfconsciousness on the internet. However, I realised that it was more a portrait of my grandma. They were not about saying she went here or there, they did not contain memories, but were a way of exerting control over the present moment, over the unpredictable events of life. Everything that can’t be invested in human relationships can be invested in objects.
Tell me about the art piece you created around your grandma’s collection.
Soon after I inherited them I was asked to do a live performance supporting the comedian Simon Munnery. For the show I decided to “unbox” the cats on stage and tell stories about cats and my grandma, rambling towards a punchline that the process had been “cat-thartic”. I found this really helped me process my gran’s passing. I have since made this into a video, which I’ve been showing as part of the British Art Show, alongside her collection. It is a way of thinking about how the things we collect and surround ourselves with tells us about who we are. The ceramic cats, with their absurd long necks, big eyes and vase-like decoration, at first appear kitsch and trivial, but through talking about them, my grandma reappears.
The first piece I saw by you was your Natural Selection exhibition with Artangel, made in collaboration with your dad, in which you explore how birds make their nests. As part of the exhibition you recreated a bowerbird’s bower. Is collecting an instinct?
The bowerbird is a unique collector and arranger of objects. It gathers up shells, feathers and sometimes blue plastic and places them around the bower, demonstrating aesthetic preference. I think it shows the impulse to gather objects around us for display is indeed a natural impulse.
What do you collect?
At the moment I’m only collecting my thoughts. I have started a diary to try to collect them all in one place. If I wasn’t a maker, who makes more than I part with, I think I’d be a collector, because I like to be surrounded by things, to live with things, as vehicles for stories. As a kid I collected all sorts; fossils, shells, bits of toys, stones. My first exhibition at Tate Britain was about the impulse to collect. When I was 10 I “collected” a piece of stone from the side of the Great Pyramid of Giza. But when I got home I felt terrible about it, as my dad said: “If everyone did that there wouldn’t be any pyramid left.” So this stone in my collection filled me with guilt, and 15 years later I decided to travel to Egypt again and return it to where I’d taken it from. I then made a 100,000 times enlarged knitted replica of the stone called Pyramid Piece, a kind of monument to a piece of a monument. It was a little parable about the desire to want to possess objects that are significant to us, and what can be undone. It was also a comment on colonial guilt, and the objects in some of our beloved museum “collections”.
Cat-tharsis will be part of the British Art Show 9 in Plymouth, from 8 October to 23 December; andyholdenartist.com
Stephen Ellcock: ‘Everything you could imagine is online’
A lifelong collector of images, torn from comics, magazines and books, Stephen Ellcock made the transition from physical to digital with the advent of social media. He now curates a vast online museum of “visual delights, oddities and wonders” from all over the world, reaching more than 300,000 people via his Facebook and Instagram pages. The popularity of his online work has propelled him back into the world of print: in 2019 he published All Good Things: A Treasury of Images to Uplift the Spirits and Reawaken Wonder, following it up last year with The Book of Change: Images to Inspire Revelations and Revolutions. His latest book, published on 10 May, with words by Mat Osman of Suede, is England on Fire: A Visual Journey Through Albion’s Psychic Landscape.
I came across something you said in an online interview that really chimed with me, quoting the Portuguese novelist and Nobel prize winner José Saramago. It was the idea that collectors do it to try to ward off the chaos of reality. Has that been your experience?
Yes, definitely. I’ve always collected images and it’s an impulse that was initiated from a very early age. I used to vandalise comics, magazines, books, anything I could get my hands on and I would accumulate them in various plastic bags, which I dragged around with me. I probably vandalised things that would be worth a fortune now, everything from very early Marvel comics and copies of countercultural underground press, like Oz and International Times, and then early zines like Ripped and Torn and Sniffin’ Glue. Every so often I would get them all out and sort of have them like… Have you ever seen the famous photograph of André Malraux, who came up with the idea of an imaginary museum?
I haven’t, no.
He was a grand old man of French letters, and he had this idea of creating a museum without walls, a musée imaginaire, and there were some extraordinary photographs of him in these vast halls and he’s on his hands and knees with hundreds of postcards and photographs and things taken from books, shifting them around and trying to make patterns out of them. I was a bit like that, only with things torn out of Howard the Duck and early issues of Silver Surfer. I had this idea to make a vast collage that would be like a visual map of everything. Nothing ever came of it. I was dragging this stuff around with me right into adulthood, until I had to move rapidly and I lost all of it.
How did you feel when you lost the stuff? Did it devastate you?
No it didn’t. In a sense it was quite liberating, though it did get replaced by a mania for book collecting. That urge has now been tamed. I’m in control of it and that’s kind of satisfying. Social media has been my life-saver in a way.
When it was a physical collection, did you ever invite other people to see it or was it solely for your benefit?
It was solely for my benefit. I did do a bit of decorating, gluing and Sellotaping things and stapling things to walls and bits of furniture that looked a bit like the Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell flat in Noel Road, where the walls were covered in images torn from books from Islington library. It would have looked a bit like that, I think.
Is the reason you feel in control of it now because digital images don’t take up physical space? Is it also something to do with the fact that you are now sharing it with people and getting feedback?
Definitely. It’s also partly to do with a change of circumstances. Instead of a fairly torrid and unstable past, my life is now quite staid and reclusive, so the feedback is great. I’m wary about saying things that may create a puff for Mark Zuckerberg, but Instagram and Facebook do have their uses. Joining Facebook was completely life-transforming for me. It provided a platform where you could create this endless museum, this infinite archive of things.
Where do you find your images now? Do you find them all online or do you scan things from books?
Ninety-nine per cent of the stuff I find and post is all online. There are the most extraordinary archives freely available that people don’t know about. Basically everything you could ever imagine is there or will be soon, as great institutions and libraries and museums digitise their collections.
Do you think that images can speak to people in a subconscious or subliminal way? Because the way that you arrange stuff in your books is for a specific purpose isn’t it?
Yes, that is exactly my intention. The key thing is to seek juxtaposition and correlation, correspondences between images. The individual images are less important than the overall arc of the books. It’s sometimes like Keats’s idea of negative capability. It becomes like a trance-like state, and certainly when I’m putting the books together, I sometimes think: “Oh, that really works. That juxtaposition is fantastic, I don’t know how that happened.”
See more at instagram.com/stephenellcock
Loretta Pettway Bennett: ‘What a way to share love with someone else, by turning it into something that they can use’
In 2002, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts put on a major exhibition dedicated to the quilts of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The first show of its kind in the US, it toured 12 cities around the US and contained work – by women descended from generations of slaves on the nearby cotton plantations – that the New York Times described as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”. Many of the quilts on show were made by the extended family of Loretta Pettway Bennett, who started quilting aged five or six and continues the tradition to this day, collecting material from thrift stories and turning them into glorious works of art. Her latest show, at the end of 2021, was at the Greg Kucera gallery in Seattle.
Could you explain to Observer readers in the UK where Gee’s Bend is in the States?
Gee’s Bend is in the south, Alabama actually. It’s a 45-minute drive south-west of Selma, which is a little city that people are probably familiar with, and about a two-hour drive from [the state capital] Montgomery.
So is it quite a remote place?
Yes, very remote. It’s a little horseshoe peninsula [on the Alabama river] and there’s only one way in. No street lights, just docks and fields and woods.
And do you know how the tradition of making the quilts started?
[Gee’s Bend is] in a rural area and the houses were not that well built – log cabins and whatnot – so whatever little they got in this area, they took it and made quilts out of it to keep warm, or keep the dust out, or to put over the windows to keep the cold out. They didn’t have the means to buy material, so they used what they had.
What age were you when you first made one?
I was about 12 or 13 when I made a whole quilt, one that would cover a bed.
How did you know you were ready?
I grew up looking at my mom and grandmother and aunties making quilts. This usually happened in the summertime after they had gotten everything growing in the field – what they call “laid by”. While they were waiting for the harvest, they pieced their quilts up. Our job was to thread the needles. The girls, and some of the boys too, practised on the little pieces that were discarded. One summer, I decided I’m going to make a flower garden quilt, octagon shape. It was not the easiest quilt to make for a beginner. It took me all summer to do it and it came out lopsided – but I made it. And I never made another one like it.
One of your quilts that caught my eye was made from denim, from bits of jeans and stuff.
Yes. When I thought of really getting back into making quilts, I decided to do what my mom and grandma did and use what I had at hand. So I used old denim that we weren’t wearing any more and that I hadn’t donated to a thrift store.
For this article, I’ve been talking to people who collect things and sometimes it can become a real burden for them. But you’re finding a use for things that a lot of people would just throw away. The things you collect, you use to make something else. It isn’t just a collection. That must be a nice feeling.
Oh yes it is. I will keep things to pass on to someone else, but it turns out to be even better to turn it into a quilt and pass it on to somebody else. Someone loved wearing these jeans or this denim shirt or dress. What a way to share that love with someone else, by turning it into something that they can use.
Where do you find your materials?
Thrift stores, for the most part. I have friends who give me clothes that they’ve decided they’re not going to wear any more. I do alteration also, and if it’s big enough to cut, it’s big enough to sew.
When I went into the loft where my things were stored, all the clothes were ruined because the moths had been in and eaten them. How do you stop that? Do you have a special room that you store all your bits of material in?
I keep them in a plastic bag or plastic containers. When I was growing up, my mom used to keep them in between the mattress and the box frame, and that kept the bugs or anything from getting to them. They kept for many years. I have some that I just got from my cousin about two years ago and they had them maybe in the 50s, maybe even earlier than that. You can feel the cotton seeds still in there.
Of all the quilts that you’ve made, is there one that you could say was your favourite or that meant the most to you?
There’s one that I sold some years ago and it was [made from] a pair of denims with a hole in the knee belonging to my youngest son. I tried getting those jeans from him but he would wear them every day. I tried buying them from him. He was, like, “no”. I had to wait until he outgrew the pants before I could cut them up and put them in a quilt. That’s one of my favourites.
See more at instagram.com/geesbendquiltmakers
Robin Sunflower: ‘My dad’s collection gets people talking about their life and experiences’
For the past eight years, musician Robin Sunflower has been sorting through the vast collection of ephemera – empty bags of crisps, drink cans, supermarket recipe cards, club flyers, and much more – accumulated by his late father John Townsend, who died in 2014. The collection filled their five-bedroom family house in Manchester, spilling out into the garage and garden, and becoming so unmanageable that Townsend was no longer able to catalogue it properly. The sorting is nearly complete – Sunflower is leaving the house later this year – and his father’s collection has already spawned a book called Wrappers Delight, written by the DJ and label boss Jonny Trunk (with an introduction by Jarvis Cocker).
You’ve got an interesting insight into collecting as you witnessed your dad amassing his collection. And also, you’ve been left as the custodian of it after his death.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s an understatement.
When you were a kid, did you enjoy helping out with it?
When my dad was working as a rep, he would call into shops and he’d quite often pick up full boxes of, like, 144 bits of bubblegum in a wax wrapper with three or four cards in each, and he’d come back with four boxes, so we’d have 600 packets to open. We had to sort out all the cards into sets and so on.
It seemed to me that you gave a rueful laugh when I said that you’ve been left to deal with your dad’s collection. As I understand it the house that your dad lived in was absolutely rammed with stuff. Is that right?
Yeah, there was a garage and a caravan, which we’ve now emptied and dismantled. And he had built five sheds in the garden as well. It’s a five-bedroom detached house, so it’s not like a tiny house. I’ve got two brothers, and as we all left home – my mum died 30 years ago – my dad just expanded into the areas that were becoming vacant. So before we knew it, our old bedrooms were also full of things, and the faster the stuff came in, the less he was able to sort through it and get it catalogued and organised. So all the stuff that came in after we left was just random collections in bags and boxes, and every room was just wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling. You had trouble walking around the house.
It sounds like a mammoth task for you. It must have been difficult, because collecting this stuff was very important to your dad, but other people would say, “Well, it’s just rubbish…”
Yeah. You know, he collected other people’s rubbish – he wanted people to save their junk mail and bring it to him, only part of which he managed to sort through. So I’d have a load of Hacienda club flyers, and a load of tourist information leaflets, all in the same bag. We had to go through every little thing, but we’ve pretty much sorted it now.
How long has that taken you?
He died in December 2014. It has taken us all that time to do it.
Did he ever talk about how he got started in collecting and why he collected things?
He said he was collecting for future generations. If he didn’t do it, then who would? Obviously, some other people did, but a lot of the stuff he collected has become quite scarce. The way that he collected things, his need for completion, was really – what can you say – a bit off the scale.
You say that your dad’s ambition was to preserve things for future generations, and that was the first thing I thought when I looked at your book Wrappers Delight. It instantly took me back to my childhood, and these things that I would buy from the corner shop. I guess it worked on me as he wanted it to.
Everyone I show the book to, straight away they go, “Oh, I remember that”. They’re back in their childhood. Quite often it leads on to, “Yeah, I remember we used to go to such and such a place and pick these up”, or, “Oh yeah, we’d have one of those after we’d been swimming”. People start talking about their life and their experiences. It’s just a fascinating way in.
Do you actually collect anything yourself? Or has it put you off for life?
Well, Paula’s over the other side of the room, and she’s saying harmonicas. I don’t collect harmonicas, I’m a harmonica player – that’s my job, has been for 30 years. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these 2ft-long chord harmonicas and a bass harmonica the size of a house brick. It used to belong to Viv Stanshall [of the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band]. I’m probably the only person in the country with two 2ft-long harmonicas. But do I collect anything? Well, I’m kind of collecting things that I like, that my dad had collected. I’ve got a stack of these advertising-back playing cards, because they’re lovely, with images of a time gone by.
Patrice Caillet: ‘Record sleeves, the silent tracks, the modified or broken records, they always tell a story’
Patrice Caillet collects vinyl, but not in the usual way. Instead of valuing the pristine, the unblemished, he seeks out records that have been damaged or modified in some way, intentionally or otherwise. One long-running project, stored at his home in the suburbs of Paris, is a collection of record sleeves that have been defaced by previous owners or reimagined in a way that, for Caillet, could be seen as an art form in its own right.
When did you start this collection?
In 1996 or thereabouts.
I collect many things, and it can be a kind of artistic endeavour, looking at the crossover between popular culture and contemporary art. A couple of friends and I did a project called Sounds of Silence, and had fun collecting any recordings of silence, from the beginning to the end of the record industry. I collect the records you’d get in audio booths, from the 60s to the 80s. And there’s a new project: records that are very damaged, almost scrap, considered trash, that you find at flea markets, and, when you play them, they skid and jump, and I assemble the interesting tracks.
I was just in Switzerland for a contemporary music festival called Archipel and, with a friend who also works in sound recording, we played these types of records, presenting the project as Ethnophonograpie du Dimanche – a play on peintre du Dimanche, someone who paints only on Sunday, an amateur artist. The idea is to recreate, phonographically, sound landscapes that were produced accidentally. It might be the last time we get to hear these records because they’ve reached the very end of the consumer chain. So, that’s the latest project, but the pochettes modifiés – the modified or customised record sleeves – I’ve been collecting for a very long time.
With them, it’s interesting because if one collects records, it’s their condition that’s the most important thing – near-mint or “very good plus”. And usually, if the sleeve has been torn or changed, that makes the record less valuable.
Yes, it’s very strange for me because it allows me to buy cheap records! Of course, it’s also a way of exploring the excesses of mass consumption, or the tail-end of that consumption. But the sleeves, the silent tracks, the modified or broken records, they always tell a story. And they’re quite intimate stories. You might have modified a record by listening to a song again and again because you idolise the artist, and then want to embellish the sleeve. Or because you hate the artist. Or you might have borrowed it from a little brother or sister, or your parents, and indulged in corrupting the record in some way, whether destructively or with irony, or whatever.
There are many different motivations for modifying records and sleeves, or in some way “remaking” them, because you get both. There are records that have been entirely modified on purpose – adolescents sometimes try to create their own work of art – and I find these just as interesting as works of contemporary art. In fact, there’s an interesting link there between the world of contemporary art and that of l’art brut, or primitive art. Because, whether someone makes rudimentary changes, or adds a moustache, like Marcel Duchamp did on the Mona Lisa in 1919, when people do that in a spontaneous, naive, or rebellious way, there’s always “intentionality” there.
The ones I find interesting are when the real sleeve was lost or torn and so someone makes a whole new sleeve, so it’s like a whole new design and their idea of what the record sleeve should be. Have you ever met anyone who has actually made one of these sleeves?
Sometimes, at garage sales or flea markets, you can meet the owner, but when I ask them about it, they can be a bit embarrassed or awkward. Some might say, “Yes, I made it”, because what they’ve created is beautiful, but others are disparaging about what they themselves have made. It’s funny, some people are very proud of their creations, and others a little ashamed, saying, “I was young, I did it without thinking”, and so they have no interest in it. I’ve met some people who would modify record sleeves almost systematically. That all changed with the arrival of CDs, because then there was the plastic case. So it’s all about the vinyl records that were bought between the 60s and 90s.
And do you have your collection on display chez vous, or is it kept somewhere separate?
No, the complete collection is in my home.
Do you have a particular favourite among the record sleeves you own?
My favourite sleeves are those modified by my children when they were young, they made some sleeves for me!
Interview translated by Hildegarde Serle
Good Pop, Bad Pop by Jarvis Cocker is published by Vintage (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.