Michael G. Wilson and his wife Jane began assembling their magnificent, A to Z collection of photographs – now about double the size of the renowned Sam Wagstaff collection owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum – in 1978 around the time he began devoting his attention to his family’s James Bond franchise.
Unlike Wagstaff, whose collection is strictly image based, the Wilsons have collected the history of photography in depth from the beginnings of photography, as we know it from William Henry Fox Talbot to a full-house contemporary collection.
Most of the collection resides at the Wilson Centre for Photography in London, which was founded in 1998. The Centre hosts scholarly visitors and seminars, and makes international loans to museums and galleries. The most recent large-scale loan was to the exhibition Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present at the National Gallery of Art in London.
“I feel that when you have a collection like this you have a responsibility to use it, not to hoard it,” says Wilson, “So that’s why we make loans, organize exhibitions and produce books. It’s a working collection.” In addition to the National Gallery, the Wilsons maintain strong ties with the Tate Gallery, also in London, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Those works not on loan or stored at the Centre hang on the Wilson’s walls in their London residence and their secluded retreat in Topanga, once an artists’ colony and former hippie enclave near Los Angeles, which is also home to inspiring stands of native California oak trees.
“Live oaks are survivors,” says Michael Wilson pointing out a magnificent specimen, “This tree burned in the December 31,1958 fire, but the roots survived and it grew new bark around the charred limbs.” Fifty-four years later this broad limbed oak has returned to its original glory.
The Wilsons have taken up propagating live oaks in Topanga just as they are supporting projects by contemporary photographers in England. But, they remain fascinated by the principle of longevity.
“There is a difference between the instant appeal of a media image and a work of art which takes more time to digest,” says Wilson, “If I had to offer a single piece of advice for the novice collector, it would be: think about the 19th century, which, at the moment, is the most undervalued area to collect.”
Peter C. Jones