Will Ramsay is looking at a forlorn, human-sized frog slumped on the floor.
‘He’s sad because he’s waiting for the princess to turn up,’ says Will. ‘But I think there is hope for him – hope is an important thing right now.’
The Frog Prince, a sculpture by Kate Williamson, is one of the many weird and wonderful artworks that fill Will’s glorious 1785, ten-bedroom stately home in the Scottish Borders. Will is the mastermind behind the Affordable Art Fair, which just celebrated its 20th year and has 14 events across the world annually with 250,000 visitors.
This year has been unexpected and difficult for Will, with his events being rescheduled or having their formats adapted. Will’s artworks, many of which have been bought at the fair – which aims to democratise art collecting – have helped Will through extended periods at home, as well as the stress of the unknown. A bit of hope has certainly come in handy.
‘Looking at my artworks is a stress relief,’ he says. ‘I look at the art in different ways now.’
Will points out a giant sculpture that sits in his garden that reads, ‘Give Us A Smile Love’.
‘Art can change your mood and make you happy,’ he explains. A road sign (seen overleaf) in the huge landscaped garden is created by Daisy Delaney and reads No hard feelings for 400 yards.
‘Anything that makes me smile is good – this one is a real mood-lifter.’
Will and his wife Natasha inherited the property, which had been handed down from his grandfather, Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay, who originally bought it in 1938 and was the man responsible for organising the Dunkirk evacuation two years later. His portrait stands in the dramatic pink-themed living room and co-habits happily with edgy contemporary artworks.
In the dining room is a portrait of Will’s grandmother flanked by one of a few pieces of cutting edge video art, showing, among other things, footage of skips by YukihiroTaguchi.
This room is also treated to distinctive William Morris-esque floral wallpaper that pops colours in a modern graphic way, all the while being in keeping with the sumptuous, traditional interiors.
It is this celebration of the old and the new that Will says typifies his style. Nothing is left to chance – he has trialled many things in the house including a large camel that ended up in the greenhouse – but overall it is a perfectly pitched menagerie of different styles and eras.
A lot of the pieces in the house are inherited antiques but with updated touches, such as the armchairs recovered in electrifying pink. The animal print rug was sourced from an antiques shop and the lights were picked up on a trip to Amsterdam.
‘Pink is fun. It’s uplifting and I could never have gone pastel or a dark colour. And fun is important. The art world shouldn’t be too serious.’
He continues: ‘I love combining old and new. It’s important because a lot of people want to make their houses apt for them. What granny liked may not be suitable for us but we are a bit hasty with rejecting the past and there is a way of mixing the two. A lot of contemporary artists are inspired by the past so we should celebrate it.’
The house was in a good state when Will and Natasha took it on but it was old-fashioned in design with a lot of pokey rooms. They opened out the layout and took out a lot of unnecessary rooms to create the grand spiralling staircase that cuts through and links the four-floored house, which they then filled with artworks and curiosities.
The Laughing Cavalier, cleverly mounted on mirrors to give the effect of floating in the middle of the dining room is actually a photographic portrait of Will created by Maisie Broadhead.
‘I like the trickery of trying to encourage people to look beyond the surface and look at things carefully,’ he says.
‘When I go to someone else’s house, I try to ask questions about it because if they are anything like me and my wife they have thought about why everything is there, why it is in a certain place. If you don’t ask anything it’s a shame because you haven’t learnt any new stories or got to know someone better.’
The blue room – called the Smoking Room because Will’s grandmother used to chainsmoke in it – is slightly more serene than the pink room but still utilises a bold pallet. The Zoffany turquoise wallpaper gives a pop art makeover to a traditional, hunting-lodge feel. On the wall are traditional marionettes from China.
‘We have given the room a zingyness’ says Will. ‘A couple of the cushions were re-covered in the same colour, too.’
The family bath is, naturally, not exactly what you might expect – it is outside on a balcony above the front door. Imported from India it features a wood covering designed by Will and is the perfect place for him to unwind.
‘I always had a dream to have a bath that comes out on two railway tracks at the touch of a button, like in old warehouses. I didn’t manage to fit it to railway tracks, but it is a working bath with a hot tap.’
Not everything in the house is quite so chirpy. Hidden away in the old stove room at the back of a Georgian greenhouse — a semi-basement that Will calls a ‘temple-cum-dungeon — is a creamy white sculpture. At first glance it could be a Madonna and child but it’s Jodie Foster from Silence of the Lambs by Maria von Köhler.
‘It kind of has an innocence but there is of course an edge to it. My wife said: “No way is that going in the house,” so now it’s in an outbuilding.’
Also in the garden is a piece by Rob Mulholland, an eerie mirror of a figure that also demands another look.
Will says he is unlikely to ever sell the house, but even if he moved he wouldn’t sell any of the art.
‘I spot my pieces and I remember the story of them. Often you get to share a moment with the artist through the artwork. An art collection is a journey of discovery: not only do I love learning the artist’s story about each artwork, but also each tells my life story: when and where I have bought each artwork.
‘The fact that I can pull them together from the four corners of the world into one home, and take them with me wherever I live throughout my life, is special.’
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