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Collecting Art that’s a Fit for Father’s Day

An appreciation for the fathers in one’s life is all too often marked with novelty socks – such fun! – or a comical tie about which he may be ambivalent.

Artist Robert Strange, however, has taken his collection of wonderfully-cheerful ties as inspiration for his art, squashing 85 into a case and recording them for posterity. Robert explains that although he loved teaching art in a secondary school, he disliked having to wear a tie whatever the weather and to amuse himself and his students, he wore increasingly bright and gaudy ties that would stand out in assembly, a set of novelty designs that students enjoyed adding to with end-of-year gifts.


Drawn with a rainbow of coloured pencils – and Robert has gathered every tone imaginable – the picture is an impressive flattening of these three-dimensional objects, a process which, for each of the pieces of this type he creates, take several weeks.

Throughout June (until the 24th) The Abingdon Museum is hosting a lively exhibition of Robert’s drawings that illustrates how the ‘rubbish’ other people throw away can equally be described as art, each surprising the viewer with large, fresh and cheerful pictures depicting series of objects that have been discarded or out-served their purpose including old pencils, beach toys, golf tees, gun cartridges and sets of soft toys.

The ‘Squashed’ series, which includes an illustration of one of the largest sweet wrapper collections in the country, can be seen alongside his paintings, prints and a display of some of Robert’s acquired objects, in this playful show where the practice of collector and artist meets.  

As a child Robert Strange filled his pockets and drawers with odd bits and pieces documenting his finds in scrapbooks and illustrated diaries, his disparate groups of ephemera having no use other than as reminders of his childhood experiences. And yet, his many collections stored in dozens of boxes and glass jars now line the walls of his immaculate Harwell studio and serve as a basis for his current artistic practice, and some are on show in Abingdon this month.

There’s always something to hand to inspire his next work, and each choice brings forth an accompanying story. “Once squashed into their boxes,” explains Robert, “every collection seems to take on a whole new lease of life, as if they have their own tale to tell.”

“Most recently I have been drawing a collection of ninety-two finisher’s medals for my brother in law who has run lots of marathons and took part in other events all around the world in his long-distance running trainers. Each and every medal is a precious memory for him, and as a collection it is an absolute treasure trove of places visited and races run. The medals are all different shapes and sizes with ribbons in all the colours of the rainbow and you’d need a whole wall of a house to display them individually and so I have boxed them all and drawn them to create a single picture, a perfect record of a sporting lifetime of endurance racing which in one frame encapsulates all that means to any competitor.”

In a neighbouring frame, dozens of collectable bubble bath bottles line up in the style of a school photograph and as Barney Rubble searches for Fred Flintstone, Bart Simpson can be seen doing something naughty at the behest of Dennis the Menace.

Robert has also been working on a new series of rusty objects – the sorts of things you’d find in an old shed or workshop: decaying old tools, rusted hardware and worn garage items that have served a lifetime. The rusty surfaces are richly coloured and textured which makes them a real challenge to draw and yet the realism Robert achieves is remarkable. “I’m doing a series like the Partridge in a Pear Tree,” he smiles, “but with a difference: one lock, two nuts and bolts, three hinges and so on. I’ve drawn tools, horseshoes and seven Georgian gutter brackets which I found in a reclamation centre. A friend of mine unearthed twelve metal buckles from fields locally with a metal detector and I’m including those too.”

Although best known for the extraordinary detail of his pencil drawings, Robert has also painted a series of small oil pictures of old toy cars, evocative and battered matchbox cars, many of which have a real family history. “I’ve picked up a few intriguing ones from junk shops and other places, he explains, ‘ but mostly the toy cars were mine as a child and then my children played with them and now they come out for my grandchildren. They’ve been much loved for a very long time.”

Robert’s sense of fun is on show in a collection of pencil sharpenings, curled and colourful, that form interesting shapes and swirls, and which he has used to create small varnished and boxed ‘sharpening flies’ – like miniature butterflies collected for perpetuity. “I pretend they’re a whole new species,” he laughs, “and for children, we are telling their life-story in the museum too - how the pencil tip is like a colourful egg, a small piece of pencil is like the caterpillar, and them from a pile of shavings stuck together, like a chrysalis, these beautiful art-butterflies emerge.”

Although this is an exhibition inspired by junk and expendables, all art is inspired by the era in which it is created, the environment, social history, and popular culture of the time. An eccentric collection of transitory items may be of no monetary value, yet can still generate a strong response in the viewer evoking memories of their own childhood or recent history. McDonald’s toys, for example, are ten a penny on online auction sites yet together reflect the changing cultural interests of families and children and provide a record of our time that museums may yet squash into glass cabinets. Robert is, perhaps, one step ahead as with imagination and creativity he brings discarded goods back to life and marks their moment in history in this fun exhibition and, depicted with a light-hearted touch and an enviable neatness, his collections bring to life this light airy gallery in a way that all ages can enjoy.

The Abingdon Museum opens from 10am-4pm Tuesday – Sunday. Admission is free. Please note this exhibition is located on the museum’s first floor up 37 steps and is not lift accessible.