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.
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.
My parents were both dealers and so from a very young age I spent a lot of time going to auctions and antique shops with them. I have to confess that I hated it and always swore that I would never become an antique dealer. Yet I always enjoyed listening to my father explaining how things were made and was sucked in by his passion; without realising it my eye gradually became accustomed to these things around me. So when I went off to university and saw a watercolour I liked in a shop for £15 – I bought it instinctively and that was it really… I continued to buy small things when I could until I realised I wanted to become an antique dealer after all and joined my parents’ business trading at Fairs.
That was a long while ago and I have come to realise that what I enjoy most about these objects that I buy and sell is that feeling of connection to a world that was seemingly so different. The connection can be obvious: finding a name written in pencil hidden away, or letters in a secret compartment, carefully tied up. Or it can be less obvious: the realisation that a chair with a puzzlingly low, but comfortable, back was a dressing chair in which men sat to have their wigs dressed, tells you something about the world in which they lived that you had never thought about. Like a door opening it makes you realise that, of course, they wanted to be comfortable while their hair was done just as we do. Looking at these objects not just as old things to be collected and venerated, but as things that still have something to say to us about ourselves and how we got here is what keeps me doing this.
Oh and I still have that watercolour.