Entrepreneur and collector James Perkins lives with his family at Aynhoe Park, a Grade I-listed, Sir John Soane-designed stately home in Oxfordshire. It’s a top party, fashion and wedding destination which has seen the likes of Kate Moss, Status Quo, Oasis and Take That pass through its doors and showcases James’s prodigious collection of taxidermy, natural history artefacts and contemporary art. James also produces his own work with James Perkins Studio and holds selling exhibitions under the name A Modern Grand Tour. Here he talks of the pleasures, do’s and don’ts of collecting, and what’s next for his famous house.
How did you get into collecting?
I’ve been collecting since I was 15, starting with pieces of plaster – I now have 4,800 pieces. I’ve been curating since I was 25 and creating in the last 10 years. It’s a compulsion or an obsession: it’s not about the name, I buy something because I like it. And I have far more in storage than in the house. How much? Sixteen 40ft containers plus another house load. Collectors don’t stop collecting because there’s no more space! As you grow one’s tastes flourish into different strands, and if I can’t find a piece I like I get it made, for example Gerald the flying giraffe.
Do you think you have a good eye?
Well, I sold my whole collection at Christie’s recently under the sale name A Modern Grand Tour and buyers included artists – Jeff Koons bought some pieces – collectors, designers and taste-makers from all over the world who used this house and its contents for inspiration. I think what people liked is the juxtaposition between old and new.
What is the concept behind a Modern Grand Tour?
It’s a contemporary take on the Grand Tour that people did 200 years ago. They’d come back with stories of strange parts and strange objects. My background is in music [James was a hugely successful rave promoter who set up Fantazia] and I always had this element of creating a magical fantasy world, from parties to album covers. It’s all about a journey where you can have ideas, create through a paintbrush, sculpture or taxidermy. One of the works we made for our last show, Out of This World, is a huge globe showing locations for a Modern Grand Tour of animals, with an exotic bird perched on top. Another piece, The Aynhoe Moon, is an edition of three, a large oil painting created by Mark Johnson.
You have one of the largest and quirkiest collections of natural history in the UK. What about the animal form inspires you?
It’s all about reimagining animals, turning them into something else – a fantasy creature, which is why I started creating my own pieces, for example Gerald the giraffe. It’s not about disrespecting or demeaning these beautiful creatures but is about the fantasy that is Aynhoe Park. I’m not interested in new taxidermy or hunting trophies. I like to take the dusty, moth-eaten, mouldering in a museum basement and give it a new lease of life. After all, taxidermy was first created to show off the abundance and beauty of the natural world. I am uncomfortable with the taxidermy of endangered species, and I think it’s disgraceful to kill an animal for ivory.
So your art comes from a place of creating what you can’t buy?
I get an idea and get it commissioned. I enjoy thinking about how to do it. For me it’s about enjoyment, not a struggle the way some art is about struggle. Am I an artist? I have the idea but I don’t make it. By that criteria, is Damien Hirst an artist? I create for myself, because I want to own the item.
Which artists inspire you?
I create my own look on A Modern Grand Tour but I love Kate MccGwire, Paul Fryer, Emily Allchurch. Fragmented Crack table/sculpture, created by Based Upon and Ian Douglas-Jones’ furniture, like his Black Crystal chair, straddles the space between object and art.
Do you have a favourite piece?
The whole essence of being a collector or creator is that whatever you’ve bought that month is the new obsession. At some point every single piece in my collection has been my favourite – or it goes.
How do you pull together a collection as diverse as this?
I collect from all over the world – auctions, house sales, I alternate between contemporary and British country house. It’s not about buying the most expensive thing or about letting someone get it for you. I really don’t care who made it and whether it’s valuable. At the moment I’m looking to build a collection of British buildings in architectural models. I’ve just bought a 5ft tall working model of Big Ben!
How do you start collecting?
You’ve got to be fascinated by the beauty of things. It doesn’t have to be an Old Master, it’s about finding something that is beautifully made. It could be a thimble! What you mustn’t do is start expensively, because your taste will change. Start in second-hand shops, refine your taste, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. There are far worse ways of spending money after all. Collecting is very much part of the British psyche, of going to a new place and coming back with something. There should be a story behind the object, and it shouldn’t be ‘it cost x amount’, rather ‘this is the character I met, this is what happened along the way.’
What do you think people get out of your art and the ‘Aynhoe Experience’?
My art, like my house, is meant to put people in a good mood. It’s about an experience, about enjoying yourself. It’s not meant to confuse. I like the idea that you’ve travelled on a great adventure and in taking one of my editions home you take a little bit of Aynhoe with you, but it also stays in my collection. Wherever the piece ends up it will remind them of the beauty of this eccentric house and perhaps the special weekend they had here.
What’s next for Aynhoe Park?
I’ve just got planning permission for three designer houses in the park, which is grade-II listed, Capability Brown. These are going to be like giant works of sculpture with a James Bond twist and I’m working with Mike Rundell Associates. It’s all part of a new phase embarking on restoring 200 acres of the park, which I want to use to promote British sculpture. I want to show that you can have a traditional country house – in a contemporary way. We don’t have to have a white box in the countryside. I want Aynhoe Park to be a baby Chatsworth. These stately homes had wonderful, colourful histories, huge parties, exciting movers and shakers passing through their doors, and that’s what we’re tapping into by opening our doors. It’s very much my home and my sanctuary but because my passion has always been visual it’s also home to a living, changing collection of contemporary art.