CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Surrey Life today CLICK HERE

Chris Ingram - Woking schoolboy to millionaire football club owner and art collector

PUBLISHED: 08:43 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 09:14 18 March 2015

Chris Ingram with Goggle Head (1969) by Elisabeth Frink (Photo The Elisabeth Frink Estate. Courtesy JP Bland Photography)

Chris Ingram with Goggle Head (1969) by Elisabeth Frink (Photo The Elisabeth Frink Estate. Courtesy JP Bland Photography)


When Surrey businessman Chris Ingram was approached by Woking Council about making a financial donation to the town’s Lightbox gallery, he went one better – he loaned them his entire collection of modern British art...

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2015


What to do when you have netted £435m from the sale of your business? Buy a football club? Create an art collection? Chris Ingram did both.

When he sold his media agency, Chris Ingram Associates (CIA), in 2001, he found he had the time and money to satisfy his two great passions. So first he bought Woking Football Club, the hometown team he had supported since he was a boy, rescuing it from near bankruptcy. Then he decided to indulge what has since become an obsessive hobby – art collecting.

He talks about his discovery of art as if it were a cultish conversion, admitting he was a “complete oik” when, working as a junior at an advertising firm in the 1960s, he was invited to what was then Leningrad on a work trip.

“One evening, we were told by our tour guide that we were going to the Hermitage,” he recalls. “I hadn’t a clue what that was. Then we entered this room full of the most amazing Impressionist paintings and that was it – I was hooked. Being a fairly obsessive person, I started reading up on art and whenever I went on business trips I would slip off to, say, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Prada in Madrid.”

When he sold his business, the multi-million pound windfall nudged him from being a part-time enthusiast into a full-time collector, although he began focusing on British art almost by accident.

“I was looking at some British work in Sotheby’s during a lunchbreak, and thought it was very good, but couldn’t understand the prices in relation to the others. So I approached a specialist and said: ‘Can you tell me why they are so low?’ And he said: ‘It’s called modern British art. You’re right – the prices are low, because it’s sort of unfashionable. You could build a nice collection for about £1.5m.’ That was it. I bought two works, and never looked back.”


A new home

Chris soon made his mark, outbidding dealers and paying top prices for artists whose work has since become much more expensive. But by 2002, he had a problem. He had such an abundance of art – much of which his wife found “miserable” – that the collection had outgrown his home and was left languishing in storage.

Salvation came from an unexpected quarter. At around the same time, the local council was planning a new gallery for Woking and asked if he would consider a financial donation. His response – “I won’t give you any money, but I could give you a first-class art collection” – knocked them for six.

The result was The Ingram Collection – believed to be the largest privately-owned, publicly accessible collection of modern British art – the bulk of which is now either stored or displayed at said gallery, The Lightbox, which opened its doors in 2007.

Since Chris made his remarkable offer, it has scarcely staged an exhibition that has not drawn on what is an unheralded but extraordinary collection of 600 works in oil and on paper, sculptures, installations and videos. In fact, the Ingram Collection is now so closely connected with The Lightbox that many think it is Chris’s own private gallery rather than an independent, publicly-funded museum.

The collection has been lent on what he describes as “a rolling medium-term loan”, and the presence of this substantial resource has given The Lightbox some serious bargaining power in terms of borrowing exhibits from other museums, which might well wish to borrow in return, and a new-found status.

Indeed, almost 100,000 people visit this angular construction of glass, concrete and timber, wedged between a dual carriageway and the Basingstoke Canal, every year – not bad for a town with a population of 63,000.

And this is particularly heart-warming for Chris, who lives near Woking with his wife Janet, with whom he has two children and five grandchildren. His ties with the area date back nearly 60 years, when he arrived at the local grammar school aged 10. At 16, he left to become a messenger boy in an advertising agency, becoming a board member at the age of 26, before setting up his own media agency for campaign planning in 1970.


Passion for soccer

Since selling his business, he has thrown himself into the life of his hometown, although he no longer owns Woking FC outright: “I’m now the landlord, owning the stadium and the ground, and the ground around it,” he explains. “When I stepped in, in 2002, they were in a real financial state. They’d been having a lot of successful cup runs that had brought in extra money, but had started working on the assumption that they’d always have them, and had continued spending at that rate. There’s now a trust in place and an effort to return the club to the fans, which has been largely successful. I’m not nearly as involved as I was.”

Although he continues to invest in and advise new digital and online businesses in London and New York, you sense his ever-burgeoning art collection is what really makes him tick. He follows his gut instincts, ignoring art market trends and often pooh-poohing the recommendations of his advisers.

“I have very simple views on art: anything I buy, I want to be able to look at again and again. I have also started buying almost as a curator, with exhibitions in mind. For example, our recent show, The Impact of War, staged to coincide with the centenary of the First World War, explored the response of artists in the collection to conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

The main focus of the collection is the art movements that developed in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, with a particular emphasis on the post-war period. The works show artists’ responses to the existential anxieties and challenges of the contemporary world, and their search for new visual languages to express them.

It features a broad base of artists, with particularly strong groups of works by Dame Elisabeth Frink, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Geoffrey Clarke, Lynn Chadwick, William Roberts, Edward Burra, Keith Vaughan, John Tunnard, Kenneth Armitage, John Craxton, Richard Eurich and Dame Barbara Hepworth. The 1940s’ work of the Neo-Romantics is especially well represented.

“My interest in art started very conventionally with the Impressionists and then moved on to the Post-Impressionists and German Expressionists, and I still love several artists from these later periods,” says Chris. “I was totally dismissive of British artists at that time, but then I discovered that some really compelling things had started to happen just before the start of World War I, that continued in our own idiosyncratic British way right up to the explosion of talent in the 1940s and 50s.”


Waterloo to Woking

But despite the quality of the collection, he believes it doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. “Art critics aren’t sniffy, but, boy, do they think Woking is in the sticks,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to get them to visit. We’re just a 26-minute train journey from Waterloo, but you’d think we were in the provinces.”

It seems that not everyone in the local community is a convert either. “When, in a happy twinning of my two enthusiasms, we staged a football-themed show featuring the work of modern British artists to coincide with the Olympics, several people said, ‘Now, this is more like it. I don’t think much of your other stuff, Chris, but this is great.’ So I can’t pretend Joe Public is holding its breath, waiting for my next modern acquisition, but that’s one of the reasons we mix radical art with ‘softer’, more accessible work.”

A new element of the collection reflects Chris’s growing interest in contemporary and emerging artists, as well as the work of outsiders and disadvantaged groups. He doesn’t look for new artists at auction, but sticks to graduate shows.

To give just one example, at Chelsea School of Art, he walked into a room full of flashing lights, steam, noise and a saucepan overhead. It was so weird, he decided he had to have it and approached the artist, who presented him with a menu of prices for various components. When he said he wanted the whole thing, the artist thought for a moment and replied, “Ah, you want to buy my orchestra.”

Since then, Haroon Mirza has won the Northern Art Prize and the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale 2011, and is one of the rising talents on the British art scene. Meanwhile, his orchestra still sits in a cardboard box in the safe room behind the WC sign at The Lightbox. Chris pats it fondly, waiting for the right day to unleash it on Woking.




• The Lightbox, Chobham Road, Woking GU21 4AA is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am to 5pm; and Sundays, 11am to 5pm. Closed Mondays and bank holidays. General admission is free or £5 for an annual pass to the main gallery and exhibitions. Tel: 01483 737800. Web:


More from Surrey Life


Historic Royal Palaces and IMG have announced that Kylie Minogue is the first headliner confirmed for Hampton Court Palace Festival 2019. These will be her only London shows of summer 2019.

Read more

Whether you're looking for fine dining, pub grub or exotic dishes, eating out in Surrey has something for everyone. Here's our guide to the best local restaurants and pubs

Read more

Enjoy this linear rail to ramble section of the Thames Down Link route taking the short train-ride from Box Hill & Westhumble to Ashtead before walking back

Read more

Great things to do in Surrey this weekend (16, 17 and 18 November): art exhibitions, walks, concerts, theatre, places to visit and other events and ideas.

Read more
Friday, November 9, 2018

We round up 10 of the most beautiful photos of Surrey shared on Instagram this week…

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

It’s that time of year when our beautiful countryside is alight with the colours of autumn. Here, we pick out some of her favourite spots to enjoy the seasonal splendour – as well as some perfect places for a post-walk refresher

Read more
Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Found on the stretch of the River Thames between Weybridge and East Molesey, Sunbury-on-Thames is blessed with a village feel where it meets the water. From antique hunts to the joys of river life, here are a few of our favourite reasons to visit

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

Verity & Violet are Loui and Jess – a singing duo from Surrey who specialise in blending vintage classics with modern favourites. The two have achieved success in the capital, but are now hoping to attract an audience closer to home

Read more
Friday, November 2, 2018

With the Christmas celebrations seemingly starting earlier every year, it all feels a little too ‘soon’ sometimes, but what if you want to look your best for Christmas & New year celebrations and are considering having cosmetic non-surgical procedures? The Bella Vou Pantiles Clinic offers surgical and non-surgical cosmetic procedures and treatments from a purpose-built private clinic in the heart of Royal Tunbridge Wells

Read more
Thursday, November 1, 2018

Living in England’s most densely wooded county, it’s always a pleasure to witness Surrey donning its autumn finery. Here’s some of the best places to do just that - plus a few pub pit stops to enjoy on route!

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

From Santa’s Grottos, to Victorian Christmas markets and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in Surrey this season

Read more
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

We are regularly reminded of the high cost of housing with statistics revealing that only one in three millennials will be able to afford their own home during their lifetime and that most will remain in the category known as Generation Rent

Read more
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Year 5 pupils at Reigate St Mary’s School (RSM) who designed and carried out a community project as part of a UK wide Make a Difference Challenge, have won the London area competition for their stunning scrapbook record of their project

Read more
Tuesday, October 30, 2018

We round up some of the best events and things to do across Surrey this month

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Follow us on Twitter

Like us on Facebook

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search