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Box of delights

The seemingly sleepy county town of Bedford hides a treasure trove of art, discovers William Cook

Behind the humdrum high street of an unassuming market town, a new gallery has just opened, built to house one of the country’s best collections of British art. If it was anywhere else in Britain, this treasure trove would be impressive, but here in sleepy Bedford, it seems downright surreal, rather like finding a huge stash of old Masters in a drab suburban semi.

On the top floor of this two-room gallery are landscapes by Constable, Turner and Sisley, alongside a royal flush of pre-Raphaelites: Millais, Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt and Ford Madox Brown. Bedford Gallery has a rich array of British modernists (including Graham Sutherland and Patrick Heron), a still-life by Walter Sickert and a hypnotic portrait by Lucien Freud, all squeezed into the same room. If you could do a supermarket sweep through Tate Britain, this is what would end up in your shopping trolley. It’s like the Tate in miniature, a potted history of the past 200 years of British art.

Downstairs there are more superb pictures by David Hockney, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, alongside their American counterparts, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. On the opposite wall are works by Picasso, Munch, Bonnard, Goya, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, plus a trio of German expressionists: Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Otto Dix. Incredibly, this is just a fragment of the complete collection, embodying a tantalising glimpse of things to come. There are hundreds more masterpieces packed away – from Canaletto to Kandinsky – awaiting the revamp of the original gallery next door.

This compact gallery is just the start of this new exhibition space. When the main building (currently closed for renovation) reopens in two years’ time, Bedford will be able to exhibit a complete cross-section of Britain’s greatest artists, from William Blake to Howard Hodgkin, from Stanley Spencer to Elisabeth Frink. The continental roll call is even more impressive, a virtual A-Z of European art. So how on earth did the good burghers of Bedford manage to assemble such a remarkable collection? And what on earth is it doing here, tucked away down a quiet backstreet in this modest county town?

The fact that Bedford has a collection which would flatter a city ten times its size is thanks to a canny local brewer called Cecil Higgins. When Higgins died, in 1941, he left his collection of ceramics to his hometown, and £100,000 to buy more artworks to go with it. Shrewdly, he stipulated that all future purchases must be overseen by a panel of experts from blue riband museums like the V&A. But what did these boffins know? Quite a lot, it seems, for since then they’ve amassed a collection worth £100m.

The way these art buffs made a 100,000 per cent return on Higgins’s investment was by doing exactly the opposite of modern bankers. They bought things which were first-rate, but happened to be temporarily out of fashion. They bought prints and watercolours, rather than more expensive oils. They snapped up pre-Raphaelites when the school was out of vogue. And they made the odd howler. A sketch purchased in 1965, purportedly by the 19th-century pastoral painter Samuel Palmer, turned out to be the work of the notorious (and prolifically talented) forger Tom Keating. Yet since Keating’s forgeries are now attracting decent prices, even this slip-up may eventually prove a sound investment. If only Fred Goodwin and his pals had been so astute.

Like a rolling snowball, this collection has attracted bequests from other collectors, keen to give their treasures a good home. The artist Edward Bawden donated the entire contents of his studio, more than 3,000 items, which will form the basis of a major retrospective this autumn. Bawden’s relationship with Bedford began when he designed a tapestry to mark the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Bunyan came from Bedford and wrote his nonconformist classic in the local jail, where he was banged up for 12 years for preaching without a licence. His church, museum and library are all just across the road.

When you start to nose around, you realise there’s more to Bedford than meets the eye. Bedford Contemporary Arts, on the high street, is a lively, modern gallery, and for a few years Bedford was Britain’s cultural mecca. During the Second World War, the BBC broadcast from here (“Somewhere in England,” said the announcers, furtively) after the corporation was bombed out of London and Bristol. Thomas Beecham, Adrian Bolt, Malcolm Sargent and Glenn Miller all played the local Corn Exchange.

In the afternoon, between the press launch and the private view, I went to visit Parvez Akhtar, a Conservative councillor in Queen’s Park, a multiracial district on the other side of town. Parvez’s father came here in the 1960s, and his Kashmiri family is part of Bedford’s constant cycle of immigration: eastern Europeans, then Italians, then Asians and West Indians, and now eastern Europeans again. Bedford is one of the most ethnically diverse conurbations in the country, and as we sip fruit juice in his tidy living room, Parvez talks enthusiastically about the integration between local Christians, Sikhs and Muslims. Yet it’s telling that while he’s on really good terms with the local vicar, he’s yet to visit his local gallery. Like a lot of galleries, Bedford’s gallery has much to do to reach the people who pay its bills.

Back at the gallery that evening, I meet Stephen Deuchar, the director of Tate Britain. He’s travelled here from London to open this new exhibition space, and this exhibition. It’s a super little show, but this is really just a taster. It’s frustrating that Bedford has so many fine artworks, and still so little space to show them. Even so, it’s a start, and when this ambitious building project is completed, Bedford will finally have a gallery worthy of its splendid works. In the meantime it’s a treat to marvel at the greatest hits of the Cecil Higgins collection, and toast a brewer with the good sense to leave his money in the hands of people who really knew a thing or two about fine art.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom