Until about 1830 Fournier Street in Spitalfields was called Church Street and in a spare moment last year I googled my address as it was then: 30 Church Street. To my surprise a result from a trade directory was first on the list, referring to Richard Ball, weaver, living here in 1794, and a resident of the building previously unknown to me. Unable to find any further information on him, I filed it away as another piece in the jigsaw of who has lived here for the past three centuries.
In an extraordinary coincidence a few months later I picked up a second-hand copy of ‘Life and Death in Spitalfields 1700 to 1850’ written about the excavation of the crypt in Christ Church and published in 1996. One of the vaults examined was the Ball family, specifically Mary and Martha who died in 1819 and 1821, aged 47 and 70 respectively – but no Richard. I assume, however, that these were his wife and daughter. I have since discovered that Richard Ball seems to have been in partnership with Stephen Sorel, forming the firm Sorel and Ball, weavers and silk merchants of Church Street, which was active c1770 – 1790.
So I am very much looking forward to the talk taking place on the 16th April in Christ Church on these excavations, part of the Huguenots of Spitalfields festival (8th – 21st April). Not that I think the Ball family will feature, but I’ll know a bit more about their lives in Spitalfields as I imagine them weaving in the attic here. The photo is one of the plates from Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness, 1746 and shows weavers with their tall looms, the cut-out for which was found during the work that took place here ten years ago and which survives to this day in the attic ceiling.
I bought these 19th century wine cups from Hungary recently, attracted by the wonderful patterns and colours and by the obvious years of use. I always fall for blue and yellow and especially stripes. One has been so cherished that the words ‘ restored in 1963′ have been carefully written on the base and I have visions of this being handed down, father to son as a family heirloom – apparently they are still treasured today. It makes me think of the inns and smaller drinking places that form such a colourful part of the long lost world of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s extraordinary travelogue that captivated me last year, a world of rural life that probably ended each day with one of these in the hand.
This is a cabinet of curiosities that isn’t. It is a bookcase into which I placed some smaller items of stock when I was moving things around for the arrival of the coffee machine earlier this year. Small objects, more self-consciously curiosities, had been in it previously and sold, but this time I was in a hurry and in need of somewhere to put things. So instead of selecting and arranging carefully I just put the things in: all have been moved around several times for various reasons, each time in a hurry. Yet the odd thing is that it doesn’t seem to make a difference to how people view the cabinet, mostly finding it fascinating, which has made me wonder why.
Placing the objects in a cabinet seems to take them out of context and makes us look at them in a new way, as though in a museum. There are some animal or mineral curiosities in there, but most are man-made and when I look at the photograph many are, to our modern eyes, slightly curious: a tea brick made for transport by sea, a pocket globe for carrying around, an unusual money box or a snuff box. Rather than being curiosities of a strange new world these are curious because they belong to a past world that is completely unfamiliar, rather like looking at an old faded photograph that initially looks recognisable and then being surprised at how much has changed.
In the past these cabinets were created to display to their audience wondrous man-made or natural objects of a world that was still being discovered. Now, perhaps, the wonder in looking at this lies in how much we have changed.
Saturday was cup cake day in the shop. We gathered at 10.30 to be taught how to decorate them by Lisa who has a passion for making them and baking in general. She supports the Spitalfields Crypt Trust and we offered a donation to the charity in return for a day’s tuition in cake decorating. I have a collection of 18th and 19th century hand written recipe books, which we are going to use to make the cakes to serve with the coffee arriving downstairs in the kitchen area of the shop in about a month. So cup cakes seem like a good idea too: there is something irresistible about these brightly coloured jewels. In the space of three and a half hours we made and decorated nearly two hundred of them and if you had told me at the beginning that we would be able to decorate the cakes that are in the photo I would have laughed and told you that it would be completely impossible. Nevertheless there they are and they created quite a stir as they appeared in the window of the shop so that by 2pm we had a queue forming and by 5pm we had sold out and raised nearly £200 for the charity. Thank you if you bought one and thanks to Lisa, we had a lot of fun.
I set off early on Wednesday morning: up at 5am in France (4am as far as I was concerned), to go with friends to the ‘brocante’ at Le Mans. I hadn’t been to it for a long while– it’s not much fun going on your own, struggling up at that time of the morning, driving for an hour and a half and then fighting for a parking space in the middle of a muddy field, so I was looking forward to going with the others. Of course once we arrived and had a quick cup of espresso to warm up, it was down to work and then you’re on your own: unspoken etiquette demands that you separate and go your own way to avoid the difficulties of everyone wanting the same thing. So it’s first come first served until the initial rush is over and then everyone meets up for another coffee and to compare notes.
I’m told that I’m very fussy about what I buy…..and there were lots of attractive things which, on the whole, weren’t as outrageously priced as I had expected. But it has to be something I love, for one reason or another and this dish from Provence was one of them. Partly it is the shape; I have two plates in the shop at the moment with the same glaze, so I was pleased to find a serving dish. Then there is the colour: such a suggestion of summer warmth against which any food would look good. But one food sprang to mind as soon as I saw it – asparagus. It’s not only that English asparagus is delicious, but the fact that it is only around for such a short time heightens my anticipation. And it is soon followed by broad beans, peas and all the other harbingers of summer. More than anything else though, it is the fact that asparagus would look perfect against the warm yellow of this glaze. If I haven’t sold it I’ll take a photograph to show you.
I bought this painting of a ship the other day, partly because I always respond to naive art and partly because of the glorious blue. But it puzzles me, because it’s one of those paintings where there has to be a connection between artist and subject. Of course there are many artists who just paint in a naive style, but they don’t usually paint things to which they have no connection and there are many ship portraits, but they are usually much more sophisticated. So I googled the name potosi inscribed faintly on it and discovered that this was indeed a ship: she was built in 1895 and had a black hull and was red below the water line, which fits. But she also had five masts, whereas this ship has three masts and two funnels, but despite that somehow she looks like the Potosi in the Wikipedia photograph. Then from nowhere came a memory of the CS (cable ship) John W McKay, which used to be moored in Greenwich off the Standard Telephones and Cables site, where I was a project manager for submarine telephone systems once upon a time. She was built in 1922 and one day I was given a tour of this beautiful ship, still with her wonderful 1920’s wood and brass interior. For some reason one of the things I remember most clearly is my guide telling me that funnels on ships in the 1920’s slope slightly backwards. So I think that this little portrait is of the Potosi from the 1920’s when she must have been modernised by the removal of some masts and the addition of two funnels. And here is someone associated with the ship recording that change for us to see now……. so this is what antique dealers do: find the stories and make the connections.
Some of the things I buy have a real sense of personality about them, but none more so than lay figures. The faces help of course, although these are often very rudimentary, but in general I think the sense of a person stems more from the very human postures. This one is different however, as it has an extraordinarily individual face that must date the figure to the early 20th century and the height of Modigliani’s fame and influence. As in many paintings and sculptures the maker, whether consciously or not, has created a face that corresponds perfectly to the period in which he or she lives. Think of the rather cipher like faces of early portraiture, the heavy cheeks of the Baroque, the solid reality of Georgian gentleman and the sentimentality of Victorian women and children. Usually each era has its own facial and body type that is considered beautiful and which is invariably reflected in the art of the time.
I was thinking about this after my visit to the Leonardo exhibition recently, because his faces must have been completely extraordinary to his contemporaries. Almost for the first time in portraiture these are real people, capable of living, breathing and feeling, no longer ciphers depicting status or some desirable quality or other. What is even more extraordinary is that in his exacting search for the perfectly beautiful face Leonardo created timeless faces that transcend the fifteenth century and remain as beautiful to us now as to his contemporaries five hundred years ago – the essence I suppose of his enduring appeal.
(To see just how human lay figures can be, have a look at the website of a New York dealer who came in to the shop recently and who specialises in lay figures: www.marion-harris.com)
I couldn’t resist this watercolour when I saw it: there is something incredibly appealing about the five of them standing there in a row, waiting for their portrait to be painted (I imagine they probably didn’t stand still for long), and feeling very important and special as children do even now when they are waiting for their photograph to be taken. You can just imagine the youngest one needing to have her hand held and them all wanting the toy horse to be included, except perhaps the oldest, who looks as though she may want to distance herself ever so slightly from it all. Whoever owned this was as proud, because the vivid colours suggest that it has been carefully put away for much of its life. Sometimes you find inscriptions on the back of paintings of children recording their names and ages and, although there is nothing on this, the image is so strong that you get a real sense of this family without needing to know anything else about them.
For me this is the power of ‘naive’ art, the very immediate connection with ordinary people who wanted to record something in their lives that was very special, whether children, dogs or farm animals. This was not meant to be high art, but were paintings done by journeymen artists as records of people’s lives until this gradually died out during the 19th century, to be replaced by photography. If you think of those early photographs of Victorian men and women standing stiff and straight before the camera it’s the same: everyone likes to feel special.
‘Since my first visit to the shop a few months ago my perceptions of it have changed greatly; from working here I have seen how the display and changeover of stock is a well thought out process: something which has a greater than expected affect on the way in which a buyer interacts with their surroundings. The space available at Town House means that not only is it an antiques shop in the most obvious sense, but it is an experience to walk around – you enter the first room, a showroom, and from here you discover the basement kitchen, a place where the objects for sale surround you as they would if they were part of the original kitchen. However, one thing that stops Town House from existing solely as a shop is the gallery space beyond the courtyard outside. During my time here it has housed three artists’ exhibitions and served as a showroom for paintings and studio pottery for sale. The versatility of this space and how it adapts for each purpose is demonstrative of the way in which the shop is able to stay up to date with its surroundings and within the changing climate of the antiques trade.
This internship has shown me that the antiques trade is ever-changing and, arguably, in decline. However, it has also taught me how enjoyable it can be – the process of discovering something rare or valuable is extremely rewarding, not for the value of that object, but for the sense of achievement it brings with it. Fiona’s extensive knowledge and passion for her business and the month long exposure to the trade has taught me a lot.’
I have been buying 50’s and 60’s books on design and decoration recently because I find the photos incredibly appealing. The slightly sparse interiors mixing modern art with antiques, the use of strong monobloc colours and a feeling of modern geometric forms all seem to be exactly ‘the look’ that has been around in the interior design magazines since things moved on from white minimalism. This photo is from ‘L’Oeil du Decorateur’ published as part of a series in 1963 and looking through it has made me realise how much of interior design we see around us now is prompted by re-visiting the past for inspiration. This shouldn’t be a surprise I suppose, if you look back at 19th century it’s littered with updates of old ideas: the Egyptian revival, Chippendale revival and Tudorbethan styles are all examples, but I think now we tend to associate the word design with innovation so it’s a surprise to discover how strong an influence the past can still have. Maybe it’s a comfort blanket, something easy and familiar as a respite from the shock of the new. Whatever the reason I love how modern some of these 50’s and 60’s interiors feel.