My Collecting — Leon van Schaik, 2019

“The writer is envious of the painter; he wishes he could make sketches, take notes, but if he does, he is lost” (Michel Proust)

In a way Victoria Newhouse has said it all in the title of her book: Art and the Power of Placement. Or rather I could parse this (and its contents) to make it stand for what I think I have been doing. I’d place the emphasis on ‘place’, on ‘placing’. Of course, something is being placed, and that is both me and the art, the architecture, the music and the writing that captures my imagination. The conversations too. No surprise to those who know my thinking about spatial intelligence and the way in which each of us develops spatial thinking from the workings of this intelligence, our shared capability, as it grinds up against the places that we inhabit and have inhabited.

Looking back rather more idly than concertedly, I recall images in places. The watercolour of haymaking made by my father on the fields of my grandparent’s farm, framed in pale honeyed oak to match the settle that my father also made as he pursued his love of William Morris England. Or the Hunting Prints in my grandparent’s house: “The Reverend Taking It Coolly” showing a portly body in red falling into a stream… framed in lacquered black and one amongst several in the white-washed dining hall, reflected in the French polished surface of the huge table… Or up in the mountain lodge, watching clouds sheath and unsheathe the cliffs, and poring over old copies of Country Life, marvelling at the image of two men in Oxford bags on the veranda of the Mount Nelson Hotel, the Lions Head visible beyond, captioned: “In Cape Town They are Saying that my next car is a Morris.”

These images, a handful out of hundreds, possibly thousands, are part of a collection in my mind’s eye that shaped the world, as I then knew it. My mental collection, still accessible.

Translated to Buckinghamshire there were new images for me to assimilate. Few of them outside major or minor monuments lived up to their forebears in Country Life or Field magazine. But, “Now as I was Young and Easy…” as I recited Dylan Thomas in English class, school brought about a new way of looking at things through the minutiae of nature: the Barbara Hepworths in the geometry of ‘swelling buds’ of Sycamore trees, the Henry Moore swaddled figures discernible in worm-castings picked up on the sports fields, the Grahame Sutherlands in the flints and hawthorn bushes, the John Pipers in Hedsor Church windows… It was rather looking at nature through the works of artists!

I escaped this tweedy craftiness by heading north, attracted by Richard Hamilton’s “Just what is it that makes today’s home so appealing?” With its satellite photo of the surface of the moon, its film-posters, its extendable hose vacuum cleaner and its Charles Atlas muscle man… Here, swayed by the camp glamour of Mark Lancaster and David Sweetman, I began a collection as such: a treasured work-in-progress print of a Hamilton work, a scattering of tiny Stephen Buckleys, and, on my twenty-first birthday, a large painting by Bryan Ferry. In London, I met Kate Heron, my first and enduring as it has turned out, work collaborator. A Patrick Heron Print and some Suzannah Heron jewellery, and an Ossie Clark dress came into the orbit of the partnership that Cath Stutterheim and I built and maintain.

Living my “life on a line” and in “remote occasions” (how often I humiliatingly misspelled this as ‘ocassions’) between London and Johannesburg for a decade mostly I crafted works that explored that experience, poems and coloured ideograms, exhibited at ArtNet in the early 1980s. The poems are in “Eidetics” a limited-edition artists’ book done with Peter Lyssiotis through his Masterthief imprint (2016), the ideograms are in private collections. During this time straddling two continents and thus, as Afrikaners had it, with my genitals in the sea, I was a ‘soutpeil’. Pivoting between cultures, part of neither perhaps, part of something else, a hope for betterment for people long disadvantaged. 

Then Australia. Melbourne. Reading my way in through Australian books. And thinking about how to ‘get’ a sense of being in this place and deciding to get it through the art of the place. Inverting Newhouse’s argument about how art is made or unmade by its placement, by making myself through my relationship to works that I put on my walls. I started insignificantly and small. Buckley small. A false start. Wrong to replicate a previous experience. As I realised this, Louise invited me to her studio. This was the result:


For some years the only wall big enough for it was over my bed. Not being very fond of Sydney as a city, it amused me that I was sleeping under its bridge, for which there was a quarter full-size model across the Tyne at Newcastle… Thus, the picture became part of my life-line…

All my collected works do something like this. Situate me here, then swing me on parabolas to other works and other worlds. They are magic carpets… grounding me here as do the few rugs that I have on my black floorboards; the Persian paradise garden mat on which I do my daily workout, palms down onto a pencil pine and a peacock, toes on a peacock and a pencil pine, both anchors me and floats me off into the history of gardens: as was said of Alcibiades: “… among Persians he matched his hosts’ luxurious tastes and love of gardens…”

Something of a garden in the undulating field of my next purchases from Louise, the first of which is in a folder in my mobile art storage unit, and the second of which lives with my coloured ideograms in Cath Stutterheim’s collection:



Before Male Yukata pattern, ‘Remembering Sydney’ was joined by


a lyrical work that had been on a tour through Asia and that transports me into the blue, so to speak. A more recent work of Louise’s in my collection is


This brings politics bang into the room, as it was sold to part-fund the Canberra memorial to this maritime disaster, a memorial arranged by SueAnne Ware, then my research collaborator here at RMIT. That disturbance takes me back to my work for the Urban Foundation under the directorship of Cyril Ramaphosa and Rick Menell, and my years of collaborating with Hope Ramaphosa. Working to ameliorate the conditions of the disadvantaged in and around Johannesburg.

And last year (2018) this arrived:


‘Solar’ glows across my writing desk, leading my thoughts to the construction cranes of this so rapidly changed city, in which I have a toehold…

So, I think, as is said of Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, each picture lifts me into a “particular affection for works – like my own – that appear personal but contain entire worlds.”

Each work – I could append a schedule, but will not – says to me, as Gabrielle Josipovici says of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings: “… this is life, this is what my life is; we can’t look down and understand (completely); but what a miracle to be alive.”

Sometimes late at night or early in the morning when the city is quiet, I sit and drift into the worlds that each of the works in the collection holds in its arms …

Later… the writer realizes that he … has been filling his notebook with sketches all along, without even being aware of it. (Marcel Proust)

Leon van Schaik AO, Emeritus Professor of Architecture, RMIT University, Melbourne


1 Marcel Proust, Cadenza, in Caroline Weber, Proust’s Duchess, Knopf, 2018, London, p 493

2 Victoria Newhouse, Art and the Power of Placement, The Monacelli Press, 2005, New York

3 Richard Hamilton, “Just what is it that makes today’s home so different, so appealing?’ 1956, Collage (260×250) collection of Edwin Jans Jr., Thousand Oaks, Calif. Printed in catalogue for exhibition ‘Richard Hamilton’, The Tate gallery 12 march to 19 April 1970, published by order of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, London. p21

4 Peter Green, ‘I want to be a star’, review of ‘Nemesis: Alcibiades and the fall or Athens’ by David Stuttard, 2019, Harvard, London Review of Books, Vol 41, No. 2, 24 January, London p 18

5 Andrew Martin, Personal Chile: review of Not To Read by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell, London, Fitzcaraldo   in New York Review of Books, Vol. LXVI No. 4 March 7-20, 2019, NY pp 8-11

6 Gabriel Josipovici, To be here, now: Pierre Bonnard and the dialogue of solid and fluid; review of exhibition, Pierre Bonnard-the colour of memory, Tate Modern May 2019 and catalogue, Matthew Gale, ed., in Times Literary Supplement, No. 6046, February 15,2019, London pp 20-21

7 ibid