“That was a study for a big painting, and in the big painting, he was that size. That little sketch has been done in order to get the big painting right. But I’d rather have that, you see, than the big painting. It’s super, isn’t it?”
Percy Barkes is an art collector and seller based between York and London. He is the owner of The Japanese Print Shop in York, where he also sells Russian paintings. I met with Percy to discuss his collection and the shop in York, which was founded in 1976. It soon became clear that I was talking to a prolific and passionate collector – a man who wishes to share and spread the work he discovers first-hand. A self-described Image Man.
Percy lives in York bi-weekly, in a house just behind the Minster in the heart of the city, just far away enough from the main streets to avoid the hustle and bustle. We arrive there: sitting on the sofa, I am faced with a large canvas on a vast old easel. The painting is by Igor Shipilin – a dazzling combination of concrete and delicate blossom amidst mist and cool waters. This work appears older than its years; the creation of a learned and accomplished painter – a master. Little painting studies and exquisite drawings are dotted across Percy’s living room. The space is one of a collector-seller: it appears as though constantly shifting, orderly and homely yet impermanent, due to wrapped objects reminiscent of moving day.
Percy studied art at A-Level and went to art college in Newcastle in the 1960s. After a year on a foundation course, Percy realised he wasn’t good enough to be an artist. “I knew it wasn’t for me, so I didn’t fancy continuing with the course…I packed it in”.
For around four years Percy worked in advertising related to exhibition design. This went well, but when Percy became drawn into marketing, a change of direction was soon on the horizon. “That’s when I started to buy and sell paintings. I got a little stand in Camden Passage in Islington. It was open air. When I was there for a couple of years I realised that the things that sold the best were the Japanese prints”.
“In 1973 I came up to York. We got the York shop for £5.00 a week. Including rates. It was a fantastic opportunity for me to start – you know, £5.00 was next to nothing then. So I’ve actually had the shop for 38 years now”. Until 2002, Percy worked with his brother, John, as Barkes & Barkes, selling paintings in Camden Town. He and his wife also exhibited at Liberty London for almost thirty years.
“Right through until 1995 it was purely Japanese prints. No Russian paintings – one or two paintings but hardly any. In 1995, following the fall of Communism in around 1991, I went to Russia and found that I could buy very good paintings, very cheaply. That was the start of me dealing in Russian paintings. The Russian economy was in a terrible condition. The average wage in a factory then was $120 per month. So if I gave somebody $120 for a small painting, that was like a month’s work in a factory”.
“The reason the art is so good is because they are so well taught at art school – they are taught how to draw and paint – they are really brilliant technicians at what they do. It is the same today – the art college training there is the old academic training. They study for at least seven years. They can begin to go to art school aged 11 – they specialise in it, go to art college, and then to the Academy. It’s years and years of training”.
“I tend to sell items to people who have never bought pictures before. I try to make things as cheap as I can in order for as many people as possible to start collecting Japanese prints or Russian paintings. That’s an endeavour of mine really, to try and get people to start collecting. Once somebody buys a painting they don’t stop. If they buy one painting, they will buy other paintings. But if they don’t start buying, they’ll never have an original painting in their house! It is really satisfying to sell a print or painting to somebody who has never bought an original work of art before – they go out thrilled to bits that they’ve bought one. That’s one of the things I love about the job. A house with original paintings looks different from a house without original paintings”.
“I now go to Japan once a year, though I used to go much more. I know a group of people in Japan who look out for the things I am interested in selling. They all know the series of prints that I’m looking for – if something turns up in Japan that I’m interested in, I’m likely to be able to buy it. These are people I have known and bought off for years – they know what I want, so they can email me and send photos”.
“They had the problem in Russia with the war in Ukraine – for years and years I went three times per year to St Petersburg and once to the Crimea. Because at Liberty we had to buy and sell a lot of paintings, I was buying around 250 paintings per year. Fewer now, because the York shop doesn’t sell many”.
“We sell around one painting per week – everyone in York knows my shop as a Japanese print shop, but it’s nice introducing the paintings. It’s an unusual combination – I think it’s the only shop in the world which sells Japanese prints and Russian paintings. I hear people outside, ‘Russan paintings? – why Russian paintings in York?’ – I can buy and sell them, that’s why!”
I ask Percy what qualities he looks for in Japanese prints today. “The prints are nearly all old. There are hardly any recent Japanese prints – the prints I buy and sell are really from about 1880 through to about 1940. They are created by artists who are no longer here generally. I have to actually choose Japanese prints that I consider will sell. Luckily my taste tends to coincide with the general public’s. If I select a kind of series of prints and I’m pretty sure it will sell, it will sell. That’s my skill. It’s like an intuitive guess, really, that these prints will sell. That’s my knack. Some people are good at the piano – I’m good at searching for paintings and prints. That’s what I like doing and I’m good at it. I worked out that I have this skill, so I’ve developed it”.
Percy actively avoids the type of Japanese prints most people deal in.“They are so expensive that I wouldn’t be able to sell them in York. So what I have done, I have actually decided that from the period of 1880 to about 1940, I can still buy the best of that period – I can’t buy the best of the period before because it’s too expensive, so the reason I am buying 1880-1940 is because it is still under-valued. In 100 years’ time they will be just as expensive as the things that we can’t afford now. And they’re more available”.
“I am the opposite of an avid researcher. I am an image man, so what I am looking for all the time is the really best image. The academic side of it I don’t follow. I’ve got all the reference books but I only really use them to identify prints. Of course I’ll have information available about all the history – biographies too”.
“I went to Russia with my brother first of all, who deals in Russian paintings as well. The great thing about going to Russia was, because of Communism, when you went to an artist’s studio who was say 70 years old, he still had paintings in his studio from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, because they never sold them. There were no galleries selling paintings in the Communist period. All the artists were employed by the state and all the work that they did belonged to the state. So what would happen is that the artists union that governed the artists, they would say to ten of the artists, ‘we are opening a new tractor factory and we want seven big paintings of the tractors in the factory’ – so they did huge paintings”.
“When I went to Russia I didn’t buy these great big paintings – I bought their studies – all their sketches. They were taught to do sketches of anything that they did, so I immediately bought these sketches. Because they were instant – they were done from the heart – they weren’t stylised. By the time you got the big one it was all stylised and not so good, but the small paintings – the sketches – I always went for”.
“The great thing about the Russian escapade for me is that there were hundreds of artists who had studios full of paintings going back fifty years. So I was buying really beautiful works from these artists and because the economy was not doing well, when I offered them 100 or 200 pounds they were thrilled to bits. They were never disappointed. They needed the money anyway and to them, these studies would have just been on the floor”.
“You can’t buy them anymore. It was a period in history which was perfect for what I did. I could buy superb paintings cheaply. I could pass them on cheaply to the customers as well. It was great to be able to sell a hundred and then go and buy some more. I really enjoy finding the paintings. I’m going there on the 8th October for the first time since the trouble started. I’m going to St Petersburg. I’ll see twenty, maybe thirty artists on the trip. But I’ll probably buy fifty paintings, that’s all. I don’t buy a lot, I’m very very particular. Out of 200 paintings there might only be 1 that I buy. I go alone, very occasionally my wife comes with me but she’d prefer to go to Japan – I think you would too!”
Percy and I look at the shop website and we arrive at the work of a contemporary Russian painter. “This is one of the artists that I’m really trying to, not make famous, but I’ve got a feeling that he is going to become very famous. At the moment I can actually buy his work. Every time I go to Crimea I buy as many paintings as I can. Andrei Orlov. He’s in his thirties; he’s got a group of young artists in their twenties who see him as a leader. They really think that he’s an important man and they are all learning from him. All these old guys I met before – there’s nothing in those studios now for me because I bought things. Forty of them have died”.
Orlov’s work is dispersed in little bursts around the shop when I arrive. These are invigorating and dreamy pieces. The artist seems intent on exploring textural qualities of the painted surface and the immediacy of colour transition. I can see why Percy believes he will go far.
“In St Petersburg there is Repin Academy. It’s a postgraduate place like the Royal College of Art in London. When they’ve been at the Academy for five years they have to focus on one painting for a year. They spend all year on it, it’s called their Academy painting”. We go upstairs to look at a work by Aleksandr Kuzin – this is his Academy painting. “It’s a magnificent painting. Look at the colour – the way it’s different from there to there. Fantastic”.
A second Shapilin work sits upstairs. Percy brings it downstairs, into the light, and energetically describes the work:
“See, the sun’s over here and is going down, but it’s still striking it there in the background, it’s still striking it there and there, but that bit’s in shadow. Because the sun is so low. And here, [the cars,] they’ve got their lights on”.
We look at more works on the shop’s website. “That little tiny one is by the door – look!” he laughs. “It’s a super little painting that one actually. That’s expensive”. We walk back to the shop.
The shop in York is very small. “I like it,” Percy says, “because it’s easy to make it look good and I can change the paintings very easily, so the shop looks different all the time…if I change five paintings in the shop it looks completely different. York is an absolutely brilliant location for the shop. I think York has got something like 7 million visitors a year. All those visitors will go and see York Minster, and my shop is 50 yards away, so it is an unbelievable place for my business”.
“Everybody knows I’m not in it for the money. The Russians say that I’m ‘not an entrepreneur’. Now that’s a big compliment in Russia – they know that I like the paintings, you know. Other people who buy paintings for them, they just want to make money”. Percy’s aim at the shop is to ensure visitors are relaxed. To allow them to look quietly at the things and decide whether they want them or not. “We’ll reassure them, that’s all”.
The shop is, as mentioned, really small, but this only makes the combination of Japanese prints and the occasional Russian painting even more striking and affecting. It works beyond being merely intriguing. Once you listen to Percy describing the way he seeks out these artworks, travelling and spending time with the Russian artists and Japanese collectors, you realise that this is beyond being a day job or a pastime – it is a story, a life’s work. This is a man who has found something he is passionate about and skilled at, and has made it the work of his lifetime.
For more information please see: www.russianpaintingsandjapaneseprints.co.uk
Katherine A. Caddy, 22.09.2014