How does a retired company executive who worked most of his adult life in Cairo occupy his mind and time when, his wife deceased and his children grown up, he goes home to London? Without ever consciously setting out to do it, Rodney Searight, who is one such man, found himself assembling what is today probably the finest privately-owned collection of Middle Eastern art anywhere. Mr. Searight had begun by purchasing the odd picture for the blank wall. "Formerly my money always had to be used for practical purposes, like educating children," he says, smiling. "But then I realized that over the years I had put together the nucleus of what could become a fine area collection."
That it has. When the best of his hundreds of watercolors and drawings were shown publicly for the first time at Leighton House in London some time ago, the show prompted the usually conservative Daily Telegraph art critic, Terence Mullaly, to observe, "A fascinating collection . . . We gain insights into the rich heritage of a region fast being transformed by oil and the march of history." The exhibition concentrated on the work of those adventurous British and European artists who went to the exotic East in the years 1750 to 1900, when a palette or a sketch pad seems to have been as much a part of the traveler's luggage as a camera is today. The strong Anglo-French military rivalry in Egypt brought battalions of troops maneuvering up and down the Nile, often with artists in their wakes. On his campaign, Napoleon took along a whole band of artists and scholars.
At least one artist represented in Mr. Searight's collection is an American, Lieutenant J.B. Dayle, a member of the U.S. Navy's 1848 Jordan River expedition (Aramco World , March-April, 1967). Dayle illustrated the book published by his commanding officer, Lieutenant W.F. Lynch.
Mr. Searight's taste is eclectic. The collection displayed in his home includes dramatic, large-size panoramic oil paintings of historic events as well as artists' preliminary sketches, formal portraits, architectural renderings and natural history illustrations. In all a remarkable record of several centuries in a colorful, diverse region of the world hangs now on the walls of Mr. Searight's Kensington flat: one man's personal gallery.