Rob Diament & Russell Tovey on collecting

By Farah Shafiq

6 minute read

Zooming in from Margate and London respectively, Rob Diament and Russell Tovey couldn't be more enthusiastic about what we're gathered to talk about: collecting.

“Collecting is an addiction, an unrecognised addiction,” Tovey says, deadpan. “I’ve always had that thing where I wanted to be surrounded by stuff. It’s a psychological thing that collectors have. There are people that collect and need stuff, and people that don’t.” 

For the people that do, Tovey and Diament founded their podcast Talk Art, a weekly discussion with artists, gallerists and collecting enthusiasts of all kinds. Tracey Emin, Sir Paul Smith, Yinka Ilori, Pierce Brosnan… the list of talent goes on. When lockdown first hit in 2020, their listening figures doubled – now with over 120 episodes, it’s a veritable treasure trove in its own right. 

As a result of Talk Art’s success, the pair also have a book published this May: Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask. The question Tovey and Diament were afraid to ask? “There’s a fascination in the art world – largely built by the media – with pricing,” Tovey says. “There’s a fear that it’s something you shouldn’t ask, but it’s also something you want to know. I always like the performance when you ask a gallery representative, ‘How much is that?’ And they look at you and say, very straight faced, ‘Well, that’s two-and-a-half million pounds.’ You’re both talking about these values of money that are insane, trying to be professional. I love that performance,” he laughs.

And it’s not just art that the pair collect. “I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of books,” Tovey confesses. Before passing the buck: “What else do I collect Rob?”

“Well, you collect loads of things!” Diament returns, with an extensive list. “You collect ceramics, not just art ceramics, he has all kinds. He’ll find them in second-hand shops and they’re always beautiful and I’m always jealous. He has a really good eye for spotting things, even when they’re only £10, it’s annoying!”

“He also collects interior design. He’s got me into that, too. I always struggled and found it quite anxiety making – the idea of having the right pot to put a plant in, or even the right plant. Eventually I realised it’s the same as art. You just have to ask yourself, ‘Do I like it?’ If you love it, then it will work in your house. Because your house is a reflection of who you are.” 

As galleries start to reopen this year, the duo have an exhibition planned, too. Curated by Tovey, Breakfast Under The Tree will hopefully open to the public sometime this summer, at the Carl Freedman Gallery in Margate, of which Diament is a director. 

“We have all the work ready to go, it’s 16 artists and it is going to be an amazing show,” Diament says. “It’s about how we live now and our interactions as humans; there’s so many different types of work included. It’s going to be so needed – and really fun.” 

As Tovey’s dog, Rocky, gently snores in the background, we delve a little deeper into their shared obsession with collecting.  

Early obsessions

Talkart Podcast Russell Tovey Jiurnal May21 Pr
Top: Russell Tovey and Rob Diament of Talk Art; photography Christine Ting Above: Tovey and Diament with Tracey Emin; photography courtesy of Talk Art

Early obsessions

RT: My first piece was a Tracey Emin edition that I got from my parents for my 21st birthday. They asked, ‘Do you want a watch? Do you want jewellery?’ and I said, ‘No, I want this Tracey Emin edition called Dog Brain.‘ 

My parents have always been very encouraging. For my eighth birthday, for example, I asked them to take me to the annual Rock & Mineral Society convention. We were sitting there in this room full of old people who had been chipping away at rocks, just loving it. My parents never made me apologise for that enthusiasm.

RD: My mum used to work at the National History Museum, so growing up, I used to go behind the scenes there, discovering the dinosaur artefacts. I think that really informed my early understanding of preserving and understanding the history of things. We were given a replica of a dinosaur’s claw and that was one of the first objects that felt super charged and magical and powerful. I remember being obsessed with it. 

I also used to collect memorabilia of bands and musicians – Madonna, Prince, Kylie Minogue – I was a gay child listening to pop music! I’ve always had this strange need for perfection and to have a complete collection that’s cared for and in mint condition. 

Honing the collector’s eye

RT: I started by discovering the world of editions, before moving on to original artworks when I started to make more money. And when I felt brave enough, it felt terrifying because it’s so much money. To spend any money on a work of art is always daunting, you always second guess it. 

When I first started collecting art, I felt people might judge me. When you’re working out who you are, it’s quite a vulnerable place – your interior becomes your self portrait. 

RD: I used to really worry about what people thought of me. When I was in my early 20s, I ended up working with Banksy before he was famous on a few projects for Greenpeace. Through that association we ended up getting to know all the street art people in London, so I had about 40 prints from all the learning graffiti artists at the time. 

I didn’t buy them because I loved them, I bought them because it was a way of decorating my flat with bright colourful things. But, I learnt that there’s something about having a piece that’s signed and numbered by the artist… In 2007, I sold all of those prints through a Banksy forum online to different private collectors, and made enough money to then buy the art that I realised I loved. 

My initial collection was focused on women, a lot of YBAs and some American artists. Because I didn’t have a huge budget, I bought works on paper and that became a major obsession. I remember always feeling like ‘the poor man’s collector’, because the art world was so elitist – but a work on paper is where the soul is, it’s the artist’s hand. It’s about the expression and the essential self, the romance of that and the idea of the artist’s story and autobiography. 

Finding space

London, Uk. 26th Apr, 2021. Russel Tovey And Robert Diament (both Pictured) Of Talk Art Join With W1 Curates To Present A New Installation On Flannels In Oxford Street To Launch Their New Book. The Podcast Show Is Presented By Robert Diament And Russell T
'Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask' by Russell Tovey and Robert Diament is out now; photography Guy Bell/Alamy

Finding space

RT: I have serious storage. I’m doing up a house in Margate, so I can finally bring some pieces out of storage and get them framed up. Then that house will fill up and we’ll have to find somewhere else – I can’t see how it’s ever going to end!

RD: When I moved to Margate from London (before Russell!), I filled the whole house with boxes of artworks. Carl, who I work with at the [Carl Freedman] gallery said: ‘What are you doing? You’ve just renovated a house, it’s now full of all this stuff, which isn’t junk but looks like it!’ So we took it to the gallery’s storage and hand-picked bringing art back into the house that represents how I feel now. 

I felt this real obligation to these objects that I’d bought. It’s been quite a long time now, 15 years or so of seriously buying stuff. Even if you still like the artwork, it might not sit with you right now. 

One of the photographs that I had, I still love but it’s giant, 6ft by 5ft – it was so imposing in the kitchen. I thought to myself, yes I love this artist and I really respect her work, but I don’t know if I want to live with this anymore. So I called the artist up, Anne Hardy, she agreed and we donated it to the Tate. It feels great to know that there will be a whole new audience who will now be able to see it.

A new digital democracy

RT: The art world and the internet world are still so readily available for excitement and new experiences and discoveries; digital art is a new way of seeing the world and of treating art. 

We’re of a generation that grew up without the internet, but for people who’ve always had it there, it makes complete sense. This is part of our reality, we are androids basically. For older people it’s just about trying to get your head around it, but isn’t that what it’s all about? 

At every moment in art history there’s been an art movement that has moved the dialogue forward, from conceptual art all the way back to pre-Raphaelite. At every point they’ve been told this isn’t art, and they’ve pushed through and become part of art history. So I think we’re seeing something now that is yet to reveal exactly what it is and the effects it’s going to have. 

RD: It’s important to realise that digital art is a valid art form and it is going to be something that will start to exist more and more as different artists start to work within that realm. There seem to be some structural issues at the moment, concerning equality and social disparity, but that does happen in all kinds of worlds. Ultimately it is a new way of creating art and something to keep your mind open to. I’m not convinced that there’s been a great artist in that field yet, but it’s ripe for discovery. 

That said, I do really like standing in front of a painting, I’m quite old school like that. But then again, Talk Art is a digital platform. So, I’m all for digital technology – if you can democratise things through the use of technology it’s a brilliant thing. 

Read more of Rob Diament and Russell Tovey’s advice on how to start a collection, here. Meanwhile, their book, Talk Art: Everything you wanted to know about contemporary art but were afraid to ask, is out now.

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