Hidden away until recently in a large and beautiful six storey townhouse in Fitzrovia, is one of the most impressive collections of 20th century art in private hands in England. The collection includes works by Vanessa Bell, Eugene Boudin, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Maurice Denis, Duncan Grant, Amadeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Lucien Pissarro, Matthew Smith, Graham Sutherland and Alfred Wallis. 

Portrait of Mattei Radev.
Portrait of Mattei Radev by Robert Medley. Medley was the first person to suggest that Mattei frame some of his pictures when he had not long arrived in London as a refugee from Bulgaria.

The Collection is testament to the lifetime friendship of three very special and discerning men and their involvement with the greatest artists of their time. They were Eddy Sackville West, later Lord Sackville, Eardley Knollys and Mattei Radev. They all had a love of art and a very keen eye for quality in their purchases: Eddy liked Surrealism and modern cutting edge art, Eardley favoured the Post Impressionists and the Fauves, and Mattei bought from the artists that were his friends and clients. Eddy, who died in 1965, left his collection to Eardley, and on his death in 1991, it passed to Mattei, who died in 2009.

The story starts in 1920 when Eddy and Eardley, two young men born at the turn of century, met at Christ Church Oxford, on their first day there. They were briefly lovers at this time, but remained friends for life. Eddy went on to become the most respected music critic of his generation, famously championing the work of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, while Eardley (described by Harold Nicolson in a letter to his wife, Eddy’s cousin Vita Sackville West, as “that Hellenic vision with scented amber curls”) ran the famous Storran Gallery at 5 Albany Court Yard for eight years, showing works by Picasso, Utrillo, Monet, Renoir and Gauguin, later working as a consultant to The National Trust, and pursuing his own career as an artist.

Meanwhile, in the early 1950s, Mattei Radev, a handsome and resourceful young Bulgarian from a small rural community outside Plovdiv, the ancient capital, whose parents had resisted the Communists and had their lands seized, realised that he would never survive in Bulgaria under the new regime.  He hatched a daring and desperate plan to escape to the West, a true tale of derring-do. This dangerous venture involved swimming across a river, avoiding armed border guards, to neighbouring Turkey, thence to Istanbul, where the authorities wanted to send him to the US or Canada.

Keen to go to England, he and a friend stowed away on the British Merchant Vessel, The Preston, they had spotted in The Sea of Marmara. His friend was discovered and sent back, but Mattei hid in a lifeboat for two days, sustained only by a little chocolate and bread. When he finally revealed himself, he managed to claim asylum, worked on the ship, and was taken to Barlinnie Prison by police when the boat docked in Glasgow.

Mattei ended up in London, at the famous Doss House, Rowton House in Camden Town. Finding work as an orderly at the Whittington Hospital, he met the celebrated eye surgeon and pioneer gay rights activist Patrick Trevor Roper, who found him accommodation in the tank room at the top of an elegant Crown Estate house in St Andrews Place, Regents Park. Only a few hundred yards away from his former digs, but worlds away from the company he had become used to.

He blossomed in his new milieu, and flourished here for 12 years where he met the cream of London’s art society, including not only Eddy Sackville-West and Eardley Knollys, with whom he had a short relationship, but also Robert Medley, John Piper, Raymond Mortimer, The Sitwells and many others, not to mention the actress Margaret Rutherford, who lived next door, and insisted on anglicising his name to “Mr Radford” whenever she greeted him. Young Mattei was strikingly good looking, with a shock of jet black hair, as witnessed in portraits by Robert Medley and Maggi Hambling, self effacing, unpretentious with a dry wit, and was completely taken under the collective wing of this distinguished company, many of whom became lifelong friends.

Encouraged by Medley, he served an apprenticeship with famous gallerist and picture framer, Robert Savage, in Chelsea.  Ambitious to start his own business, Eardley loaned him the money to set up a framing shop in the lower part of the Fitzrovia property that Mattei eventually owned, lived in, and housed the extensive collection of paintings he inherited. The framing business prospered with a clientele that read like a who’s who of Modern British Art. Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland, John Banting were frequent visitors. Fitzrovia was home to a host of furniture makers, craftsmen and framers at this time, due to its convenient location, close to the West End galleries.

Mattei took a second workshop in Bourlet Close, off Riding House Street, and employed up to 16 people. It was a very convivial atmosphere where customers, including Princess Michael of Kent, then an interior designer, would frequently stay for lunch or dinner.

Such was the reputation of his framing skills that Mattei received commissions from The Queen’s Gallery and was offered the Royal Warrant, which he politely refused, as he thought it might alienate his more modest clients.

The framing business continued until the early 1990s when it was sold and moved, and the workshop reverted to a home for Mattei and his art collection.

The collection is on a domestic scale and the Fitzrovia house, though stylish and elegant is not grand. When I visited, the supposedly best pieces had already been cherry picked for the touring exhibition described below, but even the remaining pieces were spectacular, and looked so at ease in their surroundings, a true Bloomsbury house. A Gaudier-Brzeska bronze of a naked female dancer (posed by notorious Fitzrovia artist Nina Hamnett) was casually placed on a side table below a luscious Vanessa Bell still life in the drawing room; naïve Albert Wallis seascapes and a Francoise Gilot (wife to Picasso) in the kitchen. It is hoped that a permanent home can be found for The Radev Collection, where it will be on public view, in its entirety.

An exhibition entitled “Bloomsbury and Beyond”, of selected works from the The Radev Collection, many of which have never been on public view before, is currently on an ambitious nationwide tour.

The Collection arrives in London at the Redfern Gallery at 20 Cork Street, W1 from August 13 to September 5.

An informative website about the collection, its origins and the men who built it can be found at theradevcollection.org

This article first appeared in Fitzrovia News 129, summer 2013.