An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 165

Clinton Howell Antiques - January 24, 2022 - Issue 165

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The East End of London was an interesting place, but it is not where I went hunting for things to buy and sell, at least not in the early 70"s. The best places to look were in second hand shops, also referred to as junk shops. As it happened, there was quite a good second hand shop just down the road from where I lived in North London, close to the Gospel Oak train station. The owner of the shop was a man, probably in his early 50's, wiry and short with attitude aplenty. He always seemed to have fresh stock and he ran his shop like a well oiled machine always endeavoring to keep everything visible to those who dropped in regularly. (Most junk shops just piled things up endlessly.) What was hot in the early 1970's in London was stripped pine and this fellow installed a strip tank with a heater--the heat would keep the caustic burning through numerous layers of paint. My brother and I purchased an extensive amount of panelling from a pub that was being torn down and I took it to my friend to strip and the paneling  turned out to be quite fabulous, probably from around 1820, the panels were fielded (meaning that they were raised) and made of wide pine boards that were knot free. We used that paneling on a wine bar that we constructed in Eton.

My purchases from the local junk shop usually worked out pretty well. The dealer came to recognize my ability to sell stripped pine and I would drop in to see him two or three times per week to see what was new. I remember once finding him in the local beauty salon getting a perm with a group of ladies, completely unselfconscious and reading a magazine. (He liked his hair to be curly for some reason.) I purchased all sorts of things from him including pine benches, tables and a curious set of boxes that were like Russian nesting dolls (only they didn't nest, just graduated in size) that ranged from about four by four by eight inches up to twenty by twenty by ten inches, all beautifully dovetailed--there must have been six boxes, I don't really remember, but I sold them straightaway. Interestingly, I sold them to a dealer on the King's Rd. and not too long afterwards, brought him some clients who bought a table. He became a ready client for what I sold after that since he believed I would both supply him with goods and bring him customers--an antique dealer's dream.

You could run across junk shops anywhere, but Peckham in South London had a good junk shop. I lived so far away that I had to be lucky to find something as it was visited early and often. The game was to chat to the staff about anything new that was coming in. But the very best spot to pick was the Furniture Cave on the King's Rd. That was where all the out of town pickers would go at the end of the day if they hadn't been able to sell what they'd brought to sell to the London trade. The owner of the Furniture Cave would buy all kinds of furniture--there was something there for just about anyone. I was once heading into the cave when a picker offered me a 1755 mahogany serpentine chest of great quality for seven hundred pounds outside on the sidewalk. That was one that I let slip by--actually there were probably many more--I just hadn't learned enough to know what had value. It is, of course, how you learn, or one way at least.