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Wraps go off Webber’s ‘babies’

London, May 21: Andrew Lloyd Webber, who once said that he only wrote musicals so he could buy Pre-Raphaelite paintings, is to put his multi-million-pound art collection on public display for the first time.

The composer, who started collecting art when he was 15, has come to the rescue of the Royal Academy after its plans for a major exhibition of Egyptian antiquities in London this autumn fell through because of political fall-out from the Iraq war.

Lord Lloyd Webber has offered his entire collection, predominantly but not exclusively Pre-Raphaelite works, for a three-month exhibition starting in September as a replacement.

The academy has space for only about 80 per cent of the collection — normally spread around the composer’s homes — and will show about 300 items: paintings, drawings, tapestries, rugs, books and artefacts.

Though Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum have large Pre-Raphaelite holdings, Lord Lloyd Webber’s is far and away the largest in private hands.

It has been put together almost obsessively over 40 years with his dealer, David Mason, travelling the world and sometimes buying up virtually whole auctions of Pre-Raphaelite work. In one three-week period in 1994, the composer spent £10 million on paintings.

The academy said yesterday that it believed that the “gawp factor”, the chance to see the collection put together by a celebrity, could turn the show into a big crowd-puller.

Norman Rosenthal, the academy’s exhibitions secretary, said of the composer’s paintings: “It is to be understood as a serious collection and not a rich man’s toy. He is deeply knowledgeable about this period — it’s a real abiding and marvellous passion.”

Though the composer once planned to build his own public art gallery in London, Mason said yesterday that it was unlikely that the collection would ever go on public loan again.

“He can’t bear to be parted from it. He’ll be impossible while the paintings are away. He won’t be a happy man at all, he’ll be pacing up and down looking at all the empty spaces on his walls.

“I expect he’ll be in the academy most days looking at his own paintings. He regards his art as his babies.

“He’s the biggest hoarder in the world. Getting him to sell a picture is like trying to get an ice-cream off a child. You tell him that he hasn’t got space for anything else but he’ll always insist that he’s got space in some spare bedroom somewhere.”

The cream of the collection is made up of paintings by Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, Waterhouse, Alma-Tadema and their French contemporary, Tissot.

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