Chris Beetles

Chris Beetles: “I came into watercolours like Attila the Hun!”


Chris Beetles has been dealing in English watercolours, illustrations, cartoons, photography and oils for the last twenty-five years and for the last sixteen in the heart of St.James’s. If you want to buy a beautiful 19th century Edward Lear watercolour, an original Quentin Blake from a classic Roald Dahl book, an up-to-date Matt cartoon from the Daily Telegraph or a stunning Norman Parkinson photograph from the pages of Vogue, then this is the place to visit with everything just “waiting in the wings.” It is virtually impossible to enter this venerable, approachable and reassuringly British gallery without adding to your collection. This also makes it the perfect place to start one… It is in fact the very place where Renaissane Online’s editor Wol Balston started his.

Chris Beetles, ex-doctor, English watercolour expert, megalomaniac, dealer but still a collector at heart talks to Annabel Potter about how he started dealing, his passion for English watercolours, advice for new collectors and the state of the art market post-recession…


How and when did the Chris Beetles gallery come about and how did you become a dealer?

It was an imperceptible move from being a fanatical collector, a megalomaniac…it was a whirlwind romance. If you’re a serious collector you swap and trade-up, I became a merchant collector and turned into a dealer in the mid-late 70s.

How do you view yourself as a collector and dealer?

I remember that I started advertising in this anti-war magazine [in the 1970s] and John Steele who wrote for them said I came into watercolours like Attila the Hun! That world was so old-fashioned; watercolours were stuck in a time-warp of mediocrity – there were bad examples and there was bad scholarship everywhere in those days. It was very snobby…I remember writing an article about the market and new collectors and I ended it with “the snobs are on the run!”

How did you start your own collection and from there, how did you get into watercolours as a speciality?

I bought a few sticks of furniture from Phillips in 1972 and I got fascinated by the pictures; I starting researching the background and became obsessed by English watercolours… I read everything on the subject. It filled my every minute outside surgery hours and became my passion – in those days I was very energetic!

What would be your advice to a first-time collector; where should they begin?

Go with your eye and your heart. Be rigorous about condition and attribution. There are huge problems with forgery, it has become a criminal activity with potential for spoiling the market and there’s loss of confidence close to the surface so you have to be careful – be rigorous.

I would only advise them only if asked… I’m not very directive. But we have very good literature…active and new literature for our shows… we research and write them ourselves, they’re beautifully produced and thereafter we don’t seek to persuade people verbally. Not for us the Audi salesman technique!

Would you say it’s good to have some sort of theme and coherence to a collection or to simply collect what you enjoy? What is the secret to a great collection?
Don’t be trammeled by any pre-conceived academic ideas. If you just wander through…who should tell anybody what they like…it’s a matter of taste. Though [my] enthusiasm and megalomania pervade with people…I still have the heart of a collector! Taste does spread, they’re not fixed on one area.

With the recession in full swing are collectors being more selective and savvy; are they buying less and of better quality?
That would be the easy response… but there is great optimism of the market and watercolour scene. The middle ground is dropping off…everything used to centre around London (from the 70s to the 90s) and now you will find more elsewhere. It’s all gone out again [of London].

What works would you suggest appeal to collectors?
On the whole we’re a destination. If you’re serious about English watercolours, illustration and photography then you will inevitably come here. We have an ever-increasing loyal population [of collectors]. All of our stock; stock for the illustration shows, new material is just waiting in the wings.

There seems to have been new interest in watercolours, particularly with exhibitions at the Tate, the Courtauld and your own; why do you think this is? Is there an appetite for buying watercolours at the moment, more so than you’ve seen in the past?
Maybe…established galleries have realized what they’ve got, certainly the Courtauld has a wonderful tradition; the Tate of course has these things but couldn’t quite come to terms with it so had to go populist towards the end… they [the public] seem to be coming through the doors and lingering over the right things, in my opinion…they happily put that stuff in the last rooms so you could ignore it, it was an optional extra!

The Courtauld…I’m looking forward to seeing that, it sounds very good…anyone coming into London to look at watercolours, between three venues, can see over 1,000.

Contemporary artists seem to be experimenting more with watercolour, what do you think about contemporary watercolours?
We have a good group, used to have more but the contemporary watercolour scene is going through a nadir. It’s full of less good quality than pre and post war and 19th century…there has been a steady decline in watercolour exhibiting.

At the Tate, that wall [of 20th century war artists] is smashing…this is what watercolour can do…there’s nothing feeble, they’re very emotional and bleak. We’ve been trying to save for a few years on and off to do a war show…significant potential to show the use of colours as a technique; the immediacy, portability… perfect for the war artists.

Will watercolour prices go up accordingly with its popularity; what is the art market currently like?
It is all linked to the property market…people’s confidence in buying art is linked to the confidence in their property. The nest-making instinct does drive the market…when there’s a property boom the art market does well.

Steady is the word; in times of recession to remain steady is quite an achievement.

People are feeling more optimistic than the autumn of 2008; I take a very long-term view of things…I’m happy to wait a decade and if they don’t work then happy to show ten years later when the world’s agreeing with me!


The Chris Beetles Summer Show, celebrating 25 years at 10 Ryder Street, St James’s, launches on 28th June 2011 and continues throughout the summer, Monday to Saturday 10.00am-5.30pm

Above photograph by Nemi Miller