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  • Photography by Ms Linda Brownlee
  • Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER
  • Words by Mr Nick Compton

Mr Robert Devereux, 58, is part of a generation of bell-bottomed entrepreneurs who managed to combine we-are-stardust idealism and wanderlust with turning a tidy profit, adding open mindedness, perhaps, to the traditional brass neck. He sold "loon pants" to friends that he ordered from an ad at the back of the NME while still at school (Marlborough College in Wiltshire, should you ask) and started a door-to-door insulation business as a teenager.

Mr Devereux restrained his commercial instincts long enough to complete a history degree at Cambridge before joining Macmillan Publishers' graduate management scheme. "After about a year I thought I could run the business better than they could and decided to open my own," he says. "The arrogance of youth."

However, he wasn't so arrogant that he wouldn't seek out advice on his new venture. He asked a friend (and future brother-in-law) who had started his own record company and was enjoying some success. His name was Richard Branson, head of Virgin Records, already the alpha hippy tycoon intent on empire building. "He just said, 'Why start all over again when there is so much to do here? Why don't you come and join me?' And he is a very persuasive chap. So in 1979 I joined Virgin to run Richard's publishing company, and one thing led to another. From there I got involved with film, television, post-production studios, cinemas and radio stations."

It deepens your appreciation if you meet the artists - they are fun to hang out with, for the most part

You might imagine that leading (and investing in) the Virgin Entertainment flank of Sir Richard's charge would have provided stimulus enough. But Mr Devereux had outside interests. He had started collecting contemporary art in his early twenties and when his now wife, Ms Vanessa Branson, opened a gallery in Blenheim Crescent in Notting Hill in 1986, Mr Devereux had more reason to indulge his passion. "I would buy from her to support the gallery. I was part financing it in a way," he says.  

Mr Devereux quickly became a serious collector, even if he prefers the term buyer. He likes to get in early, visiting graduate shows and spotting artists at the start of their careers and developing a relationship. "I like to start collecting without having met the artist. But then it deepens your appreciation if you do have a chance to meet them. And for the most part they are fun to hang out with. It's part of what makes it such an interesting way of spending your time. It isn't just about the specific object; it's about the whole package."   

Unless he has good reason, Mr Devereux rarely sells, citing one particularly regretful experience: "Well, I bought a piece by the Scottish artist Stephen Conroy at his graduation show back in the 1980s. A very clever dealer knew that I had it and that it was a really good work. One day he called me up and asked me if I would sell it and I said absolutely not. I had bought it for £200 or something and he basically offered me the exact price of a new swimming pool, which I couldn't afford at the time, so I said yes. Which I regret. I'd rather have the picture than the swimming pool."

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In 1996 Mr Devereux left Virgin, "According to the press release to 'read, write, garden and spend more time with my family'", he says. "Well, I spent more time with my family; I read a lot, failed completely to write, and didn't do a lot of gardening.  

"I didn't really intend to work again but I couldn't really help myself. So I helped set up a couple of dotcom businesses and got involved with Soho House [he served as chairman of the members club empire for eight years]." Mr Devereux eventually did take some time out, and it was then that he experienced a life-changing trip. "My road-to-Damascus moment was when I went on a trip; a return to my hippy roots. I took a rucksack and a very modest sum of money and travelled up the east coast of Africa. And that was the moment at which I thought this is a place I want to spend more time and invest more of myself in."   

He inevitably checked out the local art scene. "It is what I always do, whenever I go anywhere. If I have a spare moment I go to the art galleries, museums; that's how I spend my time. As soon as I knew I was going to spend some time in Africa, I knew I was going to spend time with the arts."

Mr Devereux suddenly had a new mission. He visited artists and arts organisations and started to collect African art. He saw the struggle of many African artists with the practicalities of making a living, finding materials and studio space, let alone gallery representation. "In East Africa there is very little in the way of art schools or galleries or studios - no art councils or government money. All the stuff we take for granted is not there."

In 2010 he sold two-thirds of his collection of post-war British art at Sotheby's - 329 paintings, sculptures and prints including works by Messrs Frank Auerbach, Antony Gormley, Patrick Heron, Lucien Freud and Julian Opie (including the latter artist's famed portrait of Blur front man Mr Damon Albarn). The sale raised £4.73m, and Mr Devereux used the money to set up The African Arts Trust, which gives grants to arts organisations across East Africa. He is careful to ensure that this is more than a personal indulgence; the trust doesn't buy art or support individual artists, but is about the development of sustainable arts infrastructure in countries where that is almost non-existent.

He is also aware that such philanthropy can let governments off the hook. "Yes, that is a concern here. You effectively provide funds for things that should be the government's responsibility. But I think that you just have to be realistic. African governments have so many other priorities, so many calls upon their scarce cash; realistically they are not going to put a lot of money into the arts. If the private sector doesn't do something about it, nothing is going to happen."

The challenges are huge, of course, and Mr Devereux understands that his particular patch of East Africa, even as some of its economies enjoy massive growth spurts, isn't likely to experience the sort of art boom that China and India have. "I never thought that African art would be on the same trajectory. Collecting and connoisseurship haven't been part of African culture, but it has been part of Chinese and Indian culture. This first generation of wealth creators probably aren't going to go straight to the visual arts to spend their disposable income. They have other priorities. You have to be patient."

Mr Devereux also acknowledges that the Chinese, who are investing heavily in Africa in other areas, are not going to kick-start a boom. However, international interest in African art is growing, with auction prices beginning to rocket. "In the past five years, three or four galleries in London selling African art have opened," he says. "The Tate now has its African Acquisitions Committee [which Mr Devereux chairs].  

"There is a lot happening," he says. "Far more importantly, there is a lot happening in Africa - a lot of saplings that could become big oak trees."

The day after our interview, Mr Devereux is leaving for Africa again, as he has interests there beyond the arts trust and is chairman of a sustainable forestry company with offices in Johannesburg. But he also has a position that keeps him at the heart of the British contemporary art scene: the chairman position at Frieze, which runs Frieze magazine and the Frieze Art Fair, which turns London into the art world's global HQ every October.  

There is a lot happening in Africa - a lot of saplings that could become big oak trees

Frieze co-founders Ms Amanda Sharp and Mr Matthew Slotover brought Mr Devereux in as they looked at ways of expanding. Frieze is one of the world's most prominent art fairs alongside Art Basel and its Miami offshoot, but ensuring the world's super collectors keep coming - with some commentators complaining about the onset of "fairtigue" - leaves no room for complacency.

Last year it launched Frieze New York and added Frieze Masters, dedicated to pre-millenial art, to its London dates. Both were huge successes and while Mr Devereux isn't claiming all the credit for Frieze Masters, its reception was much better than even he had hoped for, with sales and visitor numbers way above expectations. This year further emphasis will be on making a visit to Frieze's Regent's Park tent a more civilised affair (it had become anything but that) with higher ceilings, wider aisles, more natural light and, crucially, better food - with pop-ups promised from some of London's brightest young chefs.

London's art scene has been transformed since Mr Devereux's wife opened her gallery almost 30 years ago, and he welcomes its new status as a global art hub. "The whole ecology has just changed out of all recognition. It is extraordinary. But it's great; it's great for the artists, great for the city, great for the economy." And crucially, beyond the idling Bentleys on Bond Street waiting for oligarch-ettes who buy art like they buy handbags, the VIP openings and the art bubble's stubborn refusal to burst, there is, Mr Devereux insists, good art. "Oh yeah, there is an incredible amount of wonderful work being made."

theafricanartstrust.org
friezelondon.com