An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 66

Clinton Howell Antiques - February 18, 2020 - Issue 66
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
I am beginning to believe that the single most important thing we can be endowed with is curiosity. I mean the kind of curiosity that leads into discovery as well as the kind of curiosity that doesn't ever really allow us to get comfortable with the status quo. The most interesting essayists that I have read are always pushing the boundary to get us to see differently. To this end, I was interested, upon being loaned a book of essays by the former "New Yorker" writer, A.J. Liebling, to find out how he came to love Paris. His perspective runs through food and drink and, more precisely, restaurants. Most of us would mention food, of course, but were I asked what I loved about Paris, I would likely say the museums and then the layout of the city, and lastly food--important and wonderful as it is. Liebling focuses on food and the personalities that create the food and the intense dedication that goes into the preparation of even the most basic of dishes. He dislikes pretension and pierces the veil on value, as he first discovered eating in Paris as a student in 1926-27 where he had, before receiving his monthly parental stipend, moments where he would eat well on very little money.

It is discovery, and often felicitous discovery, that allows a city to reveal itself. The country is largely about nature and there will always be another wonder to discover in the country. In a city, these wonders are created by people who are here one day and gone the next. I mentioned Portobello market in my last column--well Portobello is largely clothing and high end "life style" shops now. I mourn the loss of that collegiality of dealers and realize that this is the natural order of things. Westbourne Grove, which crosses Portobello Road, used to be antique shops for a solid mile. Now there is only one shop left. This concerns me as an antiques dealer, but it doesn't concern me in regards to the life and soul of London. Yes, a little bit of the grittiness of dealers hawking their goods is gone, but it will pop up somewhere else. The second hand market is too valuable to die altogether. It is just being re-located.

Back in the early 1970's, new markets were still being created for antiques and old things in general. I heard that a market was starting in a place called Camden Lock and booked a booth for the very first market. If I remember correctly, it started in January of 1974 and it was cold and wet, as it was every January in London. I was selling items that I purchased at junk shops, old tools that I bought with my brother that were "doubles" of tools we already had (wooden moulding planes, for example) bread boards that we made from timber we were given by the kilners (wood driers on the Isle of Dogs) and lots of other stuff. It was a small market, but there were advantages in that the stall holders all knew each other. If someone was looking for something in particular, you could direct a customer and there was a great camaraderie. We all bought and sold from each other as a rule, paying up at the end of the day and hopefully selling what we had bought at a profit. There was also a farm stall that cooked and made their own sausage sandwiches. I would also try and go listen to the musicians jamming at Dingwall's, a pub that was next to the market. It was an exquisite experience of London life, the cold and wet notwithstanding. I am not sure I should mention this, but this market, like Portobello, has been taken over by clothing lines, not as high retail as Portobello, more of a place for jeans, scarves and the like. And it has expanded to be enormous. I would like to think I am borrowing a line from A.J. Liebling when I say, plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, but I am fairly certain that he did not see things this way. As regards London life, I do see things this way, as to the role of antiques markets in London life, I think they can only ever be anything but a side show in the future. Quelle dommage, but the curious will inevitably make their way to find them.  

N.B. I mentioned that the Cenotaph was on Fleet St. It is on Whitehall.I might add that it is 100 years old in November.