the gentlewoman

The Reader

Here’s a treat: the first member of The Gentlewoman Club to be interviewed as reader of the month is art collector Valeria Napoleone. As striking as the Modigliani figure she resembles, Valeria has amassed a world-class personal collection of many of contemporary art’s most exciting female artists. Nestled in an exclusive enclave of Kensington, London, Valeria’s home features provocative pieces by Goshka Macuga, Lily van der Stokker and Lisa Yuskavage. Such unabashed visions of femininity may scandalise the occasional visitor, but Valeria’s kids don’t seem to mind, she tells Richard O’Mahony.

Valeria Napoleone

Richard: Wow, your home is spectacular! How did you start your collection?

Valeria: Well, I think it has a lot to do with how I grew up in northern Italy. My parents collected antiques, so I was surrounded by furniture, beautiful tapestries and carpets. The first piece I bought for myself was a black-and-white photograph of soap bubbles by an artist named Carol Shadford. It’s a small piece, but if you look closely you see that in some bubbles there is a face or a figure of a woman. The moment I bought it I decided to collect female artists only.

R: Why only women?

V: It sounds a bit pretentious doesn’t it, after just one artwork? But I was living in New York at the time, in the early ’90s, and I was exposed to works by Carolee Schneemann, Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman. They were all using their bodies and domestic things to create art, and I was fascinated by it. The Guerilla Girls were quite active at the time, and that was also very exciting. I’m a woman, I’m a feminist, so I thought, “This is it.”

R: Isn’t that limiting though? Don’t you ever feel like, “Oh, I would love to buy that piece by a male artist”?

V: No, not ever. It’s a collection that reflects my personal taste, it’s what attracts me, what I believe is good. I want it to be the best.

R: You sound competitive.

V: Well, I want my collection to be the best! It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. I was never acquisitive as a child, but I do crave things now. I wake up at night and think about the works that I really would like to get, how to get them, and when the best time would be. It really gets into your dreams, your thoughts, and it’s beautiful. It’s the thrill of the chase!

R: Have you always lived in this house?

V: Yes, since we moved to London in 1999.

R: Did you choose it specifically to house the collection?

V: Absolutely. It wasn’t my cup of tea at the time – it’s late Victorian, by Philip Webb – but I looked at its tall ceilings, the vast walls and the Gothic Revival features, and it really captured me. Plus, my home is really to be shared with creative people, and I need space for that. Cooking for people I adore; putting people in touch, that’s when projects happen.

R: Would you still collect art if nobody came to see it?

V: I think... I would – it’s difficult. It would definitely cut out half of the pleasure that I get when I share it with others and when I do my patron things – helping young artists and institutions like Studio Voltaire.

R: How many children do you have, Valeria?

V: I have three children – two boys and a girl.

R: The collection takes up such a big part of your home, don't they mind? What does your husband think of the more confrontational pieces?

V: Well, they’re a little bit assaulted by it, I guess! Sometimes my husband doesn’t really agree on things that I buy, but I tell him, “You don’t really need to like everything; what’s important is the message each piece gives you.” Also, if you live with an artwork you will like it eventually!

R: Aren’t you anxious about those pieces on the floor? Are you one of those collectors obsessed with order?

V: Ha! I’m not fanatical – actually, I like a little bit of disorder. I mean, you should see the state of my wardrobe, it’s pathetic! But I do like my artwork displayed in a specific way. It’s not that they have to be perfect – I’m not looking for perfection. I’m just looking for something that makes sense to me.

Valeria Napoleone was interviewed by Richard O'Mahony on the eve of Frieze Art Fair in London. The photograph is Valeria's own. Would you like to be our next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!