CAMBS: New book covers 50 years as art dealer

BORN in the year three Windsor Kings ruled the British Empire, Great Gransden’s Peter Johnson is celebrating over 50 years as an art dealer with the publication of a new book.

Peter, 74, started writing the 47,000-word tome Heart in Art: A Life in Paintings in Denver, Colorado, after a hip-replacement operation – while his wife of 43 years, Gay, went skiing – to celebrate a career in fine art that began in 1958.

He was the third generation of art dealers, following grandfather Percy, who started the family tradition in the 1880s, and father Oscar, with whom he went into business in 1963 after an early career with Leggatt Bros.

He finally sold the business in 2009 but continues to dabble. Neither of his two daughters has followed in his footsteps. But he hopes his three-and-a-half year-old grandson, to whom he has given a copy of the book, might take the hint.

“I’m not name-dropping,” he told The Hunts Post, but his list of clients includes early-1960s Prime Minister Sir Harold Macmillan, early-mid 1990s Prime Minister, the former Huntingdon MP Sir John Major, 1960s US President Jack Kennedy’s First Lady, Jacqueline, and legendary actor Rex Harrison.

A keen rider, who won the Hemingford point-to-point in 1962, Peter loves paintings of horses. So it is little surprise that one of his first sales was of George Stubbs’s paintings Haymakers and Reapers to the Tate Gallery.

“The person I sold them for bought a farm in the West Country with the proceeds. He told me afterwards he’d have been better off keeping the paintings.

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“A lot of the pictures I’ve sold have been of horses, including several by George Stubbs

“More recently, I sold a Meissen vase to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge – luckily not one of those that got smashed – then a marvellous picture by George Romney.”

Writing the book, with its introduction by art historian Charles Saumarez Smith and its 41 illustrations, had been great fun, he said, and it includes a lot about the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon.

Artworks he has sold have ranged in price from �100 to thousands and millions of pounds – such as the Stubbses and a portrait of another Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

After President Kennedy’s assassination, he sold a drawing to his widow Jackie for �150. She subsequently re-sold it for �32,000.

A former fine arts adviser, Peter was involved with the statue of yet another Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, which was unveiled by The Queen Mother in 1990.

“Apparently, I’m also the biggest collector of maps of Huntingdonshire,” he said. “John Major bought a map with William Clinton under it, which he presented to President Bill Clinton.”