The art of inspiration

Stormy scene over water with light breaking through

The Lighthouse, by Jessica Owen @ Northern Makes - Credit: Jessica Owen

Buying art for the home is usually the final step in a décor scheme, but how to choose – and what if investment is your aim? 

It could be argued that your choice in art is the most intimate revealing of your personality. Art is wholly subjective, what one might adore another may loathe. Landscapes thrill some and leave others cold. Abstract art triggers often extreme reactions, often revolving around disbelief that someone might actually pay for it. Portraiture splits opinion too, yet Sky Arts’ show Portrait Artist of the Year garners over 700,000 viewers per episode – not exactly huge, you might argue, but still an interesting number, when that’s definitely not all friends and family. It’s strangely gripping, it must be said, and every viewer has their own opinion of the best painting, which rarely coincides with the judges’ view. That’s the whole joy of art in a nutshell – you see it, you love it, or hate it, or don’t understand it, but you definitely have a response. Sofas and curtains rarely have that effect. 

‘Art’ is of course readily available, from Ikea to John Lewis and an abundance of online sites, a homeowner can find something that they like and that matches their décor, from photography to posters to prints. But what if you want something a little more personal, a little less likely to be found in your neighbours’ homes? This is where independently owned art galleries come into their own, offering a selection of art produced as one-off, unique pieces, or in very limited edition runs, by artists the gallery owner believes offers both aesthetic and financial value to the buyer. 

Portrait photo of Martin Heaps, with a Theodore Major in the background

Martin Heaps, owner of Collect Art in Lymm - Credit: Collect Art

A long-time collector himself, Martin Heaps established his Lymm gallery, Collect Art, in 2002, with a very clear purpose in mind.  

‘I focus on artists from the 20th century to today who have performed over the years in Bonhams, Christies, Sotheby’s and well-known provincial auction rooms. My main strategy is looking for time-served artists with a proven track record of auction results, it’s almost like buying a blue-chip share, yes, they move up and down with the market but over a length of time they will increase.  

A horse race, in tones of browns, with green and black

The Race, by Geoffrey Key @ Collect Art - Credit: Geoffrey Key

‘Take for example Salford-born artist Geoffrey Key, in 2004 one would cost you £1200 for a 20” x 24” now they are £11,000.’ 

Martin believes that anybody who buys art should actually like what they buy, it must please them and be something they want in their home. 

‘The number one thing is that they actually like the picture. Second comes the investment aspect. There’s a huge risk when people suddenly decide to start buying art and expecting it to be an investment. I call it ‘going shotgun’, buying pieces from galleries without any true understanding of how it might perform in terms of value as the years go by. It’s really important that if you want to buy art that you want to hold, or increase its value, you work with a specialist, someone who really knows the business.’ 

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Martin’s stock market comparison is an easy one to follow through.  

‘Let’s continue with Geoffrey Key as an example,’ Martin says. ‘Like Lowry, Geoffrey has produced more than six thousand works. This number of works mean that there are many collectors over the years, people who own one or multiple paintings. When Lowry was alive the paintings were relatively expensive, just like buying a Key today. Once Lowry died they continued to rise as the number of collectors increased but the supply became finite, therefore increasing the competition at auction and ultimately increasing the values. 

A dark and sooty scene of chimneys pushing smoke into a dark sky lit through a break in the cloud

Industrial Scene at Wigan, by Theodore Major, @ Collect Art - Credit: Theodore Major

‘The skill lies with spotting those artists where this might (there is no guarantee, just as with stocks) happen. At Collect Art we work closely with potential buyers to help them understand the risks, the potential rewards and the options available. We will take an hour to walk through the gallery, explaining the art and the artists’ history, explain where they are today and where they started from. It’s an invaluable and interesting hour and helps clients relax and stop feeling out of their depth. People are as likely to decide it’s not for them as to make a purchase, and that’s exactly how it should be.’ 

But what about for those who want an original painting or sculpture, but don’t necessarily have the funds demanded by a Key? 

Jason Oakes founded his Bollington gallery, Northern Makes, with his partner, artist Jessica Owen, in 2017. 

portrait photo of Jason Oakes, in his gallery, in front of painting The Lighthouse by Jessica Owen

Jason Oakes, owner of Northern Makes gallery in Bollington - Credit: Ella Dixon-Hood

‘Jessica is an established artist and sold her work from a shop we had in the Northern Quarter. Just before our daughter was born I had done a seven-month stint working in Dubai and came home feeling quite burned out. I decided to take a sabbatical and look after our baby, and Jess suggested I work with her in the shop. The rest is history.’ 

Wanting to establish a gallery closer to home, the duo found a space at Clarence Mill in their home village of Bollington. 

‘We carry a mix of artists here, from emerging to award-winning to well-established, Royal Academy recognised. Not only does this allow for a constant refresh of what we have here, but it results in a real mix of price points too. Accessibility is really important to us, it helps people not to feel too daunted about buying original art and helps us open up the conversation about why people are buying and what they’re hoping to find or achieve.’ 

A nude, from the rear, with the sitter holding their hands behind their back, resting on their buttocks, head tilted forward

Withold, by Angela Reilly @ Northern Makes - Credit: Angela Reilly

Recently Jason has seen a surge in interest in and buyers of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) An NFT is, in cold terms, a unique piece of digital art, a one-off that can never be repeated or copied (legally) and as such can be traded in the exact same way as a physical piece of art. As an example, Damien Hirst recently released a collection of NFT artworks, each one wholly unique in its digital form. At the same time he released a series of physical artworks, each one a match to an NFT version. It caused a bit of an uproar in the art world – a leap into the unknown that had fascinating repercussions. 

‘They sold out immediately, both the physical and NFTs, but the NFTs quickly gained greater financial value as they were traded. Technology has moved to support the trade, and now NFTs can be created, exhibited and sold through physical galleries like ours in the same way as physical art. 

‘An NFT can be anything – a static piece of art, a GIF, a video, a short film... That’s what makes it so exciting. You could collect any number and have them on a rolling display in your home.’ 

It’s a huge market and won’t slow down anytime soon. Last March, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsay sold his first-ever tweet for $2.9 million. After the purchase, buyer Sina Estavi posted on his own Twitter page, likening the potential value of Dorsay’s tweet to Da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa. It’s not art, perhaps, but it’s a piece of history much like the first telegram ever sent or the first photo ever printed – a step-change in the progress of mankind that needs to be protected. 

The Empress Garden, Merano, by Diane Nevitt, @ Northern Makes

The Empress Garden, Merano, by Diane Nevitt, @ Northern Makes - Credit: Diane Nevitt

‘We’re a young gallery,’ Jason says, ‘and we like to stay edgy and on point with the emerging markets of the art world, but what’s really important to us is that anybody who visits here feels immediately at ease. People can often feel intimidated entering a gallery to buy original art, but everyone can buy and should never feel that way. I love what I do. It doesn’t feel like a job, I adore it. When people come here, we immediately have something in common. I only stock artworks I personally like, and people will only ever buy art they personally like, even if that’s for a couple of years as an investment.’ 

Owner of ICE Gallery in Wilmslow, Graham Finch, entered the art world almost by accident, when taking a director role with an art retailer and publishing house. He absolutely understands the unwillingness many people have for crossing the threshold of a gallery.  

‘Fifteen years ago I too would have said that I wasn’t a ‘gallery person’. I would have felt completely out of my depth in a gallery, intimidated by my own lack of knowledge and a fear of feeling stupid. That's such a shame, as what I know now is that independently owned galleries are possibly the nicest places to visit on the high street. You generally get to interact with the owner, and that person is always very happy to talk about the art you’ll find there, share all their knowledge and excitement, because they chose it and they like it.’  

Graham opened ICE Gallery fewer than 12 months ago and is still building his understanding of the local market and what buyers here love, want and buy.  

Grid lines with some blocks filled in with yellow, dark or pale grey

Assembly of Square Forms, a lithograph by Barbara Hepworth, at ICE Gallery - Credit: Barbara Hepworth

‘I have worked in the art world for fifteen years now, over that time building a strong network of connections with artists and agents mainly in London. I can see what’s happening there, what is catching people’s attention, and I am able to bring that to Wilmslow, and see what works. I have a mix of original artworks, sculpture, etchings and lithographs.’  

Lithographs are a fascinating art form in themselves and a way for non-oligarchs to own something created by some of the most famous and influential artists in history, at the fraction of a cost of an original painting.  

‘A lithograph is a highly complicated and time-consuming process that allows an artist to create prints of their own work, using a flat stone which they draw onto themselves and which then forms part of a quite complex print process. The artist then hand-signs each print from the stone to show their approval and claim ownership. 

‘A lithograph by Picasso, for example, costs from around £5,000 to say £50,000, depending on the complexity of the picture and the number of prints made. What sets it up high is that it was directly created by the artist, with a printer, and is signed by the artist. Only a very limited number can exist, which is detailed on the lithograph (10 of 70, for example) and 70 may no longer exist, perhaps destroyed or lost in intervening years. These, while never reaching the tens of millions, should never drop in value and are likely to keep increasing – and the owner gets to have the great pleasure of their own signed Picasso (or Hepworth, or Chagall, or Bacon...) on the wall of their home.’  

A pop art rainbow ice-lolly resting on its tip, melting a little, with a blue sky behind

Rainbow Popsicle by Sarah Graham, @ ICE Gallery - Credit: Sarah Graham

Graham also works with established artists and those he believes to be on the cusp of fame.   

‘I have an exhibition for Sarah Graham at the end of March, showing some of her fabulous pop art pieces. She’s already caught the attention of collectors worldwide and continues to make a name for herself in all the right places. I think her work will really appeal to our customers.’