An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 223

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 6, 2023 - Issue 223

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

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

The trek around the antiques trade in London--who to visit--was usually defined by geography, particularly if I was walking. If I was visiting Norman Adams on Hans Rd., it was then a five minute walk over to John Kiel's shop across the Brompton Rd. where both Kiel and another dealer, Alastair Sampson, had galleries. Alistair's inventory was more country style furniture including oak and elm and as that wasn't my particular interest (although I will always buy great color of any era) I usually headed to the Kiel establishment. The manager of John Kiel, Michael Hughes, was  the reason for visiting the shop as John seldom made an appearance and Michael would always lead me on a tour of what was new. He also liked a good chat about the trade which was often way above my head as I was only just learning all the players, meaning the buyers and the sellers of English antique furniture at that time. Michael has since become a great friend and we have driven about 7-8,000 miles of Canada and America over the last ten years.

The Kiel inventory was, like the Norman Adams and Hotspur inventories, focused on high end English furniture and was laid out in the basement and ground floor. There were a few pieces up by his office on the first floor, but generally, everything was displayed on the two main floors. The shop was always arranged beautifully with fine gilded or mahogany settees flanked by Pembroke tables with a sofa table at the back and possibly a pair of Gainsborough open armchairs flanking the settee, with a breakfront bookcase or secretary bookcase on the various walls. In a way, it was a manual for how a sitting room in a well appointed flat in London should look as well as a manual for how a good shop sells great things. You couldn't help but be impressed by the layout and feel at home once you were given a cup of tea and sitting down on one of the settees for a chat with Michael. (Years later, Michael opened his own shop on the Fulham Rd.)

Another dealer in the Chelsea/Fulham area was Jeremy and I would visit their premises, first on the King's Rd. and later in Lowndes Square, close to Hotspur. The firm was founded after the Second World War by Gerald Hill, and I first knew it when it was manned by the father and his two sons, John and Michael. The shop was modeled on the Hotspur concept of having a few select items, well lit and well displayed, on each floor of their multi-floored premises. When they moved to Lowndes Square, the model was different as the shop had a basement and ground floor for display. By that time, Gerald Hill had died and the two sons were far more relaxed than when I first met them. If Kiel, Norman Adams and Hotspur were soft sellers, Jeremy was the hard sell. They would hone in on their client and then, if the client was in America--it didn't matter what city--they would fly to the U.S., often several times in a year, and show photographs of their latest inventory, This aggressive approach paid off handsomely as Jeremy, particularly after their NY debut at the International Fine Arts and Antique Dealers Show in 1986, became one of the top London dealers and almost a household name in New York. I remember bumping into Michael Hill and Robin Kern (Hotpsur) on a flight from New Orleans to Philadelphia where we both had gone to see a remarkable set of chairs which Hotspur and Jeremy purchased together for over $600,000. Jeremy and Hotspur both closed their doors before their joint sale in 2008, as did Norman Adams who I mentioned last week. Kiel had closed a decade earlier. These were all clear signals that the salad days of English antique furniture as a decorator staple were over.