June 5, 2013

TS Eliot’s widow’s handsome art collection to be auctioned–all thanks to Cats


Some of the greatest names in modern art, looked over by one of the biggest names in modernist poetry

The art collection of Valerie EliotT.S. Eliot’s widow who died last year, is to be auctioned for charity. The art collection, which includes pieces by John Constable, L.S. Lowry, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, will be auctioned at Christie’s in November, with proceeds from the sale going to the charity Old Possum’s Practical Trust, a charity established by Valerie Eliot in order to support young poets and artists.

But how did Valerie Eliot amass such a mesmerising art collection, which has been described as “one of the finest collections of British art to come to the market in generations”? Only yesterday we reported the not-so-secret fact that poetry, by and large, isn’t commercially profitable. Can it be that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Four Quartets bucked that trend and brought in the millions required to acquire these major artists? Not really. Of course, in poetry terms, Eliot’s star shines bright, but in the mass market world of commercial appeal, one of Eliot’s works outshines him: the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical adaptation of  Eliot’s 1939 collection, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, or as its known in the West End, just Cats.

Although Valerie Eliot was renowned for being particularly protective over Eliot’s work, she surprised everyone when she gave Webber the rights to adapt the poetry collection. The production ran in London for 21 years; on Broadway for 18, and toured the world many times. Few associate the musical with the Nobel prize-winning poet. A deputy chairman of Christie’s, Orlando Rock, commented:

“Christie’s is delighted to be entrusted with the collection. Valerie’s devotion to her husband helped her form a particularly enlightened collection of British art, which she knew he would have applauded and cherished.”

Valerie Eliot first became aware of T.S. Eliot when, at 14, she heard a recording of ‘The Journey of the Magi’, after which she declared she would marry the poet, then 50. She went to work as a secretary at Faber, where she kept the courtship between herself and Eliot a secret until they were married. Through the collection she acquired, it seems that, even after his death, Valerie Eliot continued to pay great consideration to Eliot’s tastes and interests. And now, after her own death, the money raised from the auction will ensure that Old Possum’s Practical Trust continues to support future poets and artists .



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.