Visual Arts

Georgetown College exhibit plumbs the passions of an art collector

Bob Ridges, Decoy Duck Maker by Tom Coates is among the pieces in John B. Milward's art collection.
Bob Ridges, Decoy Duck Maker by Tom Coates is among the pieces in John B. Milward's art collection.

When John B. Milward bought his first piece of art, he didn't know that he would get bitten by the collecting bug and go on to amass a collection of prints, paintings and sculptures while developing friendships with artists and gallery owners around the world.

Milward, 60, is managing director at Powell Walton Milward, a fourth-generation, family-owned insurance company, and his collection is featured in A Passionate Pursuit: The Milward Collection, on exhibit through April 20 at Anne Wilson Wright Gallery at Georgetown College.

The exhibit is a collaboration between Georgetown College's art department and its galleries, which declared 2012 "The Year of the Collector" in their programming.

"The exhibition was conceived, originally, as a thematic survey of works that would address topics such as labor and leisure, markets and maturity, and cityscapes and landscapes," Juilee Decker, chair of the Georgetown art department and co-curator of the exhibit, writes in the exhibit's catalog. Laura Stewart, director of art galleries and curator of collections, co-curated the exhibit.

"As my knowledge of John's collection grew, it became apparent that these categories could not contain the extent of the collection," Decker writes. "The curatorial concept shifted from themes to chronology, aiming to chart the passion for collecting."

Displayed in a salon style, with multiple works hung close together, the show features dozens of key works acquired during Milward's 25 years of collecting and reflects his journey as a collector.

It begins in the far left corner of the gallery with a print by British sporting artist Sir Alfred James Munnings, a 1924 print reproduction of the 1921 painting Humorist and Donoghue Going Out to the Derby.

Equine art is popular in Central Kentucky, and the genre introduced Milward to the sport of hunting for rare prints. After a while, Milward wanted more.

"Greg Ladd had opened Cross Gate Gallery, which at the time was on High Street," Milward says, "and he started bringing some art over from England, particularly an artist named Tom Coates and also a resident artist named George Claxton, and I just really got taken by the fact that you could own an original piece of art, that there wouldn't be another one out there."

Milward made the leap to collecting original paintings. Some of his earliest acquisitions include works by Claxton and Coates.

Lexingtonians probably will recognize the setting for an oil on canvas by Claxton titled Patriot Market, which captures a snapshot of a downtown corner as it looked in 1992.

Milward's first purchase of an original might have been one of the smallest: Buskers at Covent Garden a small watercolor, was the first of many paintings by Coates that Milward would collect.

"It was small enough and I could afford it, which helped," Milward says, "and it was one of the first Tom Coates paintings I'd seen. It's just so painterly and effortless."

Coates' work prompted Milward to look at works by other British artists, particularly those of the New English Art Club.

Portraits, landscapes, cityscapes — subjects that look like what they are and are rendered with skill — are the kind of works that make up Milward's extensive collection.

He credits Cross Gate Gallery for helping him not just start his original collection but cultivate its growth.

"Lexington has been so fortunate to have Greg Ladd and Cross Gate Gallery here in Lexington to bring what I think is world-class artwork from artists from all over the world," Milward says.

"I've gone on and don't just collect there. I collect at auctions and galleries in London and outside of London and even on eBay now," Milward says. "But it probably wouldn't have happened on the scale that it happened without his help and without having a gallery like that here in Lexington."

Milward now relies on a large network of artists and galleries when hunting for new work, but when it comes to deciding whether to buy, he lets his instincts guide him.

"The painting just speaks to me," he says. "I'm not sure you can really answer that as a collector. Everybody likes different things, and it's really the painting that speaks to you that makes you want to own it and hang it and enjoy it, hopefully, for generations to come."

Milward's collection is valuable, but he isn't the kind of collector who chooses paintings based on potential profit.

"I think you make a mistake buying a painting because you think it's a good value," he says. "You should buy a painting because you love the painting, and you should also feel that the artist, from an investment point of view, has potential to increase in value over time."