Alastair Walton: Contemporary conversions - Art Collector

Issue 61, July - September 2012

Once a committed fan of moderns, Sydney collector Alastair Walton has recently learned to love contemporary art, writes Helen McKenzie. His enjoyment in making new discoveries is only matched by the fun he has had in commissioning new work from some of his favourite artists.

Alastair Walton’s collection comprises works that took moments to attain, works that were commissioned and one that required a decade of dogged patience. What all the works have in common, according to Walton, is that they have the ability to “knock me out”.

Walton’s home is located in one of Eastern Sydney’s finest harbourside streets. The property is entered via a cobblestone driveway, bordering a tennis court and flanked by an avenue of trees. As an introduction to the pitch and colour of the art collection, the court has a platform at one end that creates a stage for a dramatic canary yellow sculpture by Ron Robertson-Swann.

Architect Luigi Rosselli, with a nod to Richard Neutra, the 1950s American design icon, transformed the three-level residence eight years ago. Walton says: “The house was designed to look like a gallery. All the walls are white to give the art its own right.”

Walton is not long back in residence after five years in Rome and four months when he was self-evicted to make way for Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, his tenant while filming Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby. Once vice chairman of JB Were Goldman Sachs, Walton now runs his own investment bank BKK Partners. Not here to talk shop, Walton’s enthusiasm for art collecting is boundless.

“The collection that one would have seen here two or three years ago was a typical classic Australian modern, with an Olsen, Brack, Blackman and Coburn. In the past couple of years I’ve gone through a complete revolution,” says Walton. The change in Walton was brought about by his involvement with revamping the Goldman Sach’s collection when, with the help of Sally Dan Cuthbert, he was introduced to a range of contemporary artists.

Walton has since sold or stored most of his earlier collection and gone hunting. One of his first ports of call was Sullivan+Strumpf Fine Art on a quest for an early Sydney Ball work from the Canto series. This difficult request led to the artist visiting Walton’s home to discuss a commission and an agreed decision that the work would capture the sense of the speed of the harbour. According to Walton “I said ‘Syd,’ (here’s me, a bloody banker) ‘why don’t you go back to your roots on a bigger scale, back to the colour period you did in the 1960s.’ He did one first and then he did a series of larger modular works that have been acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. What’s cool for me is that Syd and I discussed it right here against an empty wall and he came up with it and it’s led to a whole new body of work.”

Buoyed by the success of the Ball commission, Walton has gone on to request works from Johnny Romeo and four from Samuel Tupou.

Commissioned work is one feature of the collection. The other is Walton’s lightning speed decision making. Walton talks about his purchase of an Adam Cullen work featuring Ned Kelly with a vivid red background. “I walked in to Martin Browne’s [gallery in Sydney]. Looked at it for 30 seconds and said ‘I’m buying it’. Most people think that investment bankers are bushrangers anyway. I bought it for the Hamptons house and the reaction from the Americans was so negative. I shipped it home. To Australians it’s an iconic figure; to Americans it looks like a deranged man with a rubbish bin on his head about to kill the horse.”

Equally rapidly and decisively Walton collected four works by Israel Birch and a Phil Price sculpture that is in perpetual elegant motion on the harbour’s edge.

His latest acquisition is a large commission from painter Neil Frazer. Walton takes obvious pleasure in the commissioning process, talking about how he took Frazer out on his cruiser one afternoon to look for inspiration for the commission out on the water. It came when the boat was perilously close to running aground, something Walton caught just in time by checking the boat’s depth finder. Frazer’s painting, a vast canvas of looming rocks, is appropriately named Depth Gauge.

Ultimately Walton did get his longed for Sydney Ball Canto series work. Dealer Joanna Strumpf tracked one down that was owned by the artist’s mother. Walton said Ball’s mother had “wanted it to go to a major collector who really wanted the work and Joanna said ‘How about someone who has wanted one for 10 years?’” Sold. •



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