Cluff, who turned 79 last month, is a collector of pictures and books. He clocked up a 50-year business career running stock market listed companies in the oil and mining sector.
This month he is stepping down as chairman from North Sea oil exploration company Cluff Natural Resources, where he had been the chief executive until last year.
During the 1980s he owned the Spectator magazine and Apollo and before his business career he was a British Army Guards officer serving in west Africa, Cyprus and Borneo. He now plans to spend time collecting, writing books and promoting his new charity, The Remembrance Trust (see below).
ATG: How did you get the collecting bug?
Algy Cluff: There are two prongs to my collecting: I am the honorary librarian of The Royal Yacht Squadron so I collect for them. But I buy for myself too.
I bought my first pictures in 1957: six hand-coloured pictures of The Peninsular War (1807-14) by W Heath (1794-1840). I bought them in Chester and I still have them in my study. My first oil painting was a marine picture painted on slate by Thomas Luny (1759-1837).
I had no coherent plan for a collection. My father used to collect and he was in wine shipping and bought only pictures of people drinking. But I do have one rule: I only buy pictures that either have a nude, a palm tree or a moon in them, and preferably all three. I like pictures depicting Africa and the Far East and I like the Daniells [Thomas, 1749-1840, William, 1769-1837, and Samuel, 1775-1811], in particular pictures of Oman and India.
In terms of books, I have been buying since I was 15. I like books from the 19th century up until the Second World War. I very much like crime novels written between 1920s-50s – you know the type, a dead body in the library and no sex.
I like Freeman Wills Crofts who was a railway engineer and wrote in the 1940s-50s. I also collect anything about war and biographies and autobiographies of military figures and I love books on the Far East and Africa.
The only novels I read are by PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Contemporary fiction is so miserable.
“Not only are books a mental stimulus but they give great character to a room
Do you ever sell any of your collection?
I have sold things to improve my collection and to pay the tax man occasionally. But I don’t buy to sell.
If I can buy another better condition copy of a book I have then I may sell one.
Why do you collect books?
Books become old friends. Not only are they a mental stimulus but they lend a great character to a room.
Interior designers don’t seem to understand that. You hardly ever see a book in the rooms of glossy magazines.
I do have some sentimentality with books and especially the lower-value ones – I like to write my name and when I bought it.
Books are also great because burglars tend not to steal them.
Your library at home should contain books you haven’t read. You should be able to go there and it be full of surprises, something you haven’t read yet.
Another virtue of collecting books is that you can stumble across something wonderful for very little money. It’s the thrill of the chase. You can’t really do that with furniture or other items often.
How much do you typically spend?
I frequently buy books for around £100 but I probably wouldn’t pay more than £500.
For paintings you can build a great collection spending less than £5000 a picture.
Where do you buy?
I mourn the passing of Christie’s South Kensington. I bought so much there. There of course are other places and I also go to Bonhams in Knightsbridge and Chiswick Auctions. But I do miss Christie’s. I thought it was an unfortunate business decision.
There are fewer bookshops than there were too. Of course they are online, but I love to browse and see the books. I like Marrin’s [Folkestone, Kent], and Adrian Harrington Rare Books [Tunbridge Wells]. In London there is Heywood Hill [Curzon Street], John Sandoe [Chelsea] – these are both outstanding rare book shops.
What do you expect to happen to your collections in the future?
I am lucky that all three of my sons read and love books. They don’t spend all their time looking at screens. They are widely read: one is an expert on TS Eliot and my middle son Philip is writing a book on [Portuguese statesman] António de Oliveira Salazar. Our house is full of books, not just mine.
What is one thing we don’t know about your collection?
I have four oil paintings of myself – one for each of my children and a spare. You can’t get away from me in my house.
Now you have retired from your career in oil, gas and mining, how are you spending your time?
I am writing and promoting my books: Get on With It, Unsung Heroes… and a few villains and my latest, By the Way…
I am chairman and founder of The Remembrance Trust [see website below]. I set it up to find and, where possible, restore the monuments and graves of military personnel worldwide of those killed prior to 1914. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission only takes care of graves from 1914 onwards. There is no one organisation that takes responsibility for graves and memorials before this date.
I recently donated one of the pictures from my collection to the charity: a portrait of Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts.
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