Almost every interior – particularly those in the country – can benefit from some well-chosen antiques. The interior designer Nicola Harding of Harding & Read, whose projects are anything but trad, says, ‘I cannot imagine a scenario where I wouldn’t have some antiques. They anchor a room and add resonance.’ The dealer and decorator Robert Kime says, ‘One or two antiques take the newness out of a room.’
Old pieces bring atmosphere, interest and tell stories. But since 2000 the antiques world has suffered a dramatic downturn and for many people ‘brown furniture’ has come to be seen as old hat and stuffy. In the pages of this magazine, however, we see designers and tastemakers creating exciting, interesting rooms using plenty of antiques. These interiors may be rooted in the traditional, but they feel very much right for now.
What is changing? As the antique dealer and interior designer Max Rollitt points out, gone are the days of the checklist by which you set out to find a sideboard, a sofa table, an over-mantel mirror and so forth, all similar in quality, style and period, which is far too prescriptive to be interesting. Gone, too, is the desire for highly polished, unblemished pieces, that, in the words of another dealer, ‘have been restored to death’. ‘It is about finding things that stand on their own and don’t require the rest of the cast,’ explains antique dealer James Graham-Stewart.
The twenty-first-century approach is to mix different periods, styles, materials and even origins in a single room. ‘The enemy is bad design, not period or age,’ says Will Fisher of Hawker Antiques. Robert Kime says he has no rules and will happily place a rustic piece alongside finer antiques. ‘Each improves by sitting next to the other,’ he says of putting elegant Georgian chairs around a country dining table. While antiques should feel right for their space, Robert advises that grand pieces do not necessarily need to be put in a star position. It is too obvious. ‘The mix of qualities is what makes a room interesting.’ Nicola talks of the energy that comes from the clashing of periods and styles, ‘It is a real alchemy to do it well.’ Reassuringly for those of us who may be feeling nervous about getting it right, James echoes the words of Nancy Lancaster when he points out the need for ‘a bit of ugly’ in a room. It is fine – even good – to have something that looks a little bit off.
Designers like Ben Pentreath use a lot of antiques: ‘It is a really good way of furnishing a room, as they are well made and nicely designed for not too much money.’ He tells of a client who had an aversion to anything old. Ben eventually convinced her to buy a late-Georgian secretaire and an Empire chest of drawers for her drawing room by showing her that, for her budget, something new would have been quite ordinary-looking and was unlikely to stand the test of time. It is worth bearing in mind that every antique is a one-off and that new things of good quality can be far more expensive.
Today’s setting for antiques is also different. Ben may use plenty of antiques in a room, but his use of colour and pattern feels modern and fresh. Roger Jones, a director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler who is in charge of its antiques department, talks of toning down the decoration for a client who had particularly grand antiques – plain curtains on poles, matting on the floors and simple upholstery. The rooms are less cluttered as a result.
So what to buy? ‘I’d always put money into a good fruitwood table,’ says Roger. ‘Its undulating surface and ring marks show that you are eating where others have before.’ If furnishing a country-house drawing room, Will says ‘a significant scale bookcase, a mirror with lovely trashed mirror plate and original gilding, a console table and a chimneypiece’ would be on his wish list. Max looks for ‘purity of line, beauty and a little quirk – pieces that are not stale and boring, but rich and well patinated’.
Patina is indeed very important, so do not be afraid of it. Overly restored pieces lose their soul and this may be why brown furniture has acquired such a bad reputation over the past decade or so. Will looks for ‘dry and untouched’ furniture – some of the pieces in his shop are surprisingly beaten up, but they command hefty price tags because of their beauty and rarity. The dealer-turned-designer Adam Bray, who uses mostly Georgian and Arts and Crafts furniture in his colourful schemes, talks also of being drawn to Edwardian ebonised furniture. Caroline Percy of Hotspur Design, who offers an antique-finding service, cites George III furniture as particularly easy to use in today’s interior, as the lines are straight and the shapes light. She recommends using small Georgian bachelor chests as bedside tables.
Obviously, there are the top dealers for rarer pieces that have interesting provenances. Yes, they are expensive, but, as James says, ‘I look at thousands of pieces every week and might buy one.’ Good things are scarce, and you are paying for the dealer’s experience. At the slightly more affordable end of the scale it is about getting your eye in and being prepared to search. Tetbury in Gloucestershire is a good place to start, with lots of dealers in close proximity, including Brownrigg in Long Street. Across the road is Lorfords, which also houses 48 dealers in two aircraft hangars outside the town. Lillie Road, SW6, is home to several London dealers with interesting pieces.
Antique fairs, such as the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair in Battersea Park, SW11 (October 2–7), are a good place to start a dialogue with dealers. There are fewer country-house auctions now than there used to be, but Adam has had some triumphs at Mallams Auctioneers in Oxfordshire. Ben buys a lot of antiques online from Decorative Collective and Sellingantiques.com. For more expensive pieces you can ask to borrow before committing. Following a recommendation by Rita Konig, I now follow a band of antique dealers on Instagram who post their latest finds.
It is a little daunting for the uninitiated, but unless you are buying from the top-notch dealers – in which case you are in their capable hands – the prices tend to be good enough to make it worth the punt. And you will reap the rewards – something old, with pleasing lines, will have a soul and presence in a room well beyond its size. Much of it is about going with your gut.
Experts reveal their antiques sources
RECOMMENDS ‘Gallery 131 (01584-875146) and 55 Mill Street (01584-877200), both in Ludlow, Shropshire, and Brightwells auction house in Leominster, Herefordshire. On Instagram, I follow Tim Smith-Vincent (@timsmithvincent) and Circus Antiques (@circus_antiques), which don’t have showrooms.’
RECOMMENDS ‘Charles Mackinnon in Ryder Street, SW1, who specialises in English fine furniture. Another good dealer is Philip Adler in Tetbury (01666-505759). They both have great pieces and are totally trustworthy.’
RECOMMENDS ‘Georgian Antiques in Edinburgh, which is an incredible spot to find eighteenth-century brown furniture, mirrors, lighting and more. The five-storey warehouse is full to the brim with interesting pieces.’
Mary Graham of Salvesen Graham
RECOMMENDS ‘Drew Pritchard in Conwy for architectural salvage with a sense of humour – wonderfully eclectic pieces from different eras sit side by side. David Bedale Antiques in Cheshire is good if you need large furniture for a big country house. It is always our first port of call for Welsh blankets.’
Caroline Percy of Hotspur Design
RECOMMENDS ‘Patrick Sandberg Antiques in Kensington Church Street, W8 for elegant George III and Regency furniture. Bushwood Antiques near Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire has reasonably priced brown furniture. Windsor House Antiques near Oundle, Northants is open by appointment and also sells online.’
RECOMMENDS ‘Lee Wright Antiques & Interiors in Husbands Bosworth, Leicestershire. The showroom is open by appointment and you can see some of Lee’s stock of fine European antiques online.’
RECOMMENDS ‘Alexander von Westenholz in Lillie Road, SW6 for what I would call gents’ furniture. Gardiner & Gardiner in Cromarty always has wonderful glass, china and textiles.’
RECOMMENDS ‘Julia Boston Antiques in the King’s Road, SW6 for glamorous and charming French furniture. I also love the weird and wonderful collection at McWhirter Antique Furniture & Works of Art in Langton Street, SW1. Its owner James McWhirter is the unsung hero of the antiques world.