London’s hidden collectables

Lining London’s smartest streets and sprinkled around scenic Cotswold villages, Britain’s world-class antiques shops hold veritable treasure troves of collectable delights

LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair
© LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair

There are many reasons why people develop an interest in antiques. It’s a pastime that can be taken in many different directions, because the range of antiques is so vast: from fine art and furniture to ceramics, glass and textiles, along with other, sometimes rather obscure collectibles of pretty much any type, shape or size you can imagine. Many of these pieces are unique, the product of exceptional craftsmanship and artistry.

Britain is one of the best places in the world to spend some time developing a passion for antiques. From the most exclusive dealer in a smart London street to intriguing generalist shops scattered across the country and the variety of goods on display at antiques fairs and markets, there is something to excite just about anyone.

Antiques are popular all over the world, but in Britain they’ve become entrenched in the culture. Whether its a love of nostalgia, a general interest in history, the urge to collect or because everyone likes the idea that maybe some odd object, discovered in a quiet antiques shop off the beaten track, might turn out to be worth millions. It does happen: in 2008 Mark Lawrence bought an Italian painting in a Windsor antiques shop for £350. It turned out to be a Renaissance masterpiece by Palma Giovane, St Jerome in the Wilderness, worth £250,000.

That sort of thing is rare of course, but, as it happens, this is a good time to find a bargain. Economic troubles have hurt antiques dealers as much as any other retailer. “It is a much more competitive marketplace,” says antique jewellery specialist Terry Robert. “It is a great time to buy good antiques.”

Where to start? Well, several areas in London have whole streets full of delightful antiques shops. Perhaps the most impressive selection is in and around Kensington Church Street in west London, where you’ll find both general shops and specialists in, for example, Chinese and Japanese screens at Gregg Baker, Oriental porcelain and ceramics at R&G McPherson or Jorge Welsh, clocks at Raffety & Walwyn, or an intriguing mix of walking canes and antique armour at Michael German.

Adam Kaye works for his family’s business in Church Street, Butchoff Antiques, founded by his grandfather almost 50 years ago and a specialist in 18th- and 19th-century furniture. “In Church Street we’ve got almost 70 dealers, selling antiques right across the board,” he says. “We have some of the best Orientalists in the world, people like [porcelain specialist] Jorge Welsh, who are really at the top of their game, but we’ve also got dealers in fine paintings, silver, jewellery… It’s probably the biggest pool of high quality dealers in London.”

Pimlico Road, not far from Sloane Square tube station in Chelsea, is also perfect for a stroll among antiques shops and art galleries. This is a particularly good place to visit if you’re looking for something to add character to your home, like the vintage chimney pieces on offer at Jamb; or the antique chandeliers, lighting and candlesticks at Ebury.

London also boasts a number of great antiques markets. The biggest is a 15-minute stroll north from Kensington Church Street at Portobello Road, which offers another clutch of excellent antiques shops as well as the market, held every Saturday. Portobello also has some very good pubs, cafés and restaurants, where you can enjoy a leisurely lunch as you review your purchases. “Portobello is fun!” says Adam Kaye. “It’s got a bit of magic if you get there early on a Saturday morning. You can find some real gems.”

© LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair
© LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair

As well as whole neighbourhoods of stores, London has some great antiques centres, where small shops are gathered together under one roof. Alfie’s Antiques, in Marylebone is a fantastic place to buy 20th-century furniture and vintage fashion. Head south from here you’ll reach Grays Antiques Market, regarded by many as the best place in London to buy vintage and antique or ‘estate’ jewellery – among other things. Grays houses 200 dealers over four floors.

London is also home to some of the country’s biggest antiques fairs. They include the BADA Antiques and Fine Art Fair, which will be held in Duke of York Square off the King’s Road in Chelsea in March 2012; and two huge fairs held each year at Olympia in west London: the Winter Fine Art and Antiques Fair in November and the International Fine Art and Antiques fair in June, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2012.

Swedish travelling writing box, 1846
Swedish travelling writing box, 1846 © LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair

It’s the sheer variety of stock here that make these events so enjoyable, says Alex Inkin, who now promotes the Olympia fairs. “You have everything from the really quirky – we had a piece of Princess Diana’s wedding cake last year – to a Miro painting; and everything in between: furniture, lighting, glass, ceramics, jewellery, books. We attract everyone from ordinary homeowners to Oprah Winfrey, who came and had a good spree last year!”

There are smaller fairs too: the Art Antiques Fair, held in June inside a bright and airy pavilion in Kensington Gardens; the Masterpiece fair, in the grounds of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea; and the Decorative Antiques and Textile fairs, in Battersea Park on the south bank of the Thames, in January, April and October 2012.

Beyond London, the Cotswolds has long been associated with the antiques trade. This landscape of rolling hills, unspoilt villages and pretty market towns is full of great shops in which you can hunt for something special. Try Fenwick and Fenwick, in the village of Broadway, which specialises in furniture dating from the 17th to the early 19th century or Christopher Clark Antiques, in Stow on the Wold, which sells an intriguing collection of military campaign furniture. And Manfred Schotten in Burford is one of the best places to buy vintage sporting goods.

The small, deliciously picturesque market town of Tetbury, on the southern edge of the region, is also a brilliant place to browse for decorative antiques. There are a number of excellent shops crowded around the 17th-century marketplace, including Philip Adler, which specialises in ‘the English country house look’, and the English furniture specialist Breakspeare Antiques.

An early Piero Fornasetti magazine rack
An early Piero Fornasetti magazine rack © LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair

Travel further southwest from the Cotswolds and you’ll pass through a number of towns and cities with good collections of antique shops. It’s always a pleasure to visit the beautiful Georgian city of Bath, so why not do so in March, when the city hosts the Decorative and Antiques Fair, an important fixture for dealers from all over the country? Or if you’re on your way to the West Country, call in at the friendly market town of Honiton, in east Devon, where maybe the most impressive of many antiques shops is Yarrow Antiques, a great place to take a look at an eclectic mix of stock, with items from the Far East mingling with English art and furniture.

In northern England the premier centre for antiques is surely the genteel Victorian spa town of Harrogate. The best dealers here include Elaine Phillips, a specialist in 17th- and 18th-century oak furniture; and Ogden of Harrogate, a family jewellery business established in 1893 which sells some extraordinary historic pieces. Harrogate also hosts its own antique and fine art fair in May.
Finally, there are some first class antiques fairs dotted around the country. The largest (indeed, the largest in Europe) is the Arthur Swallow Show, held every two months at the 200-acre Lincoln Showground, in Lincolnshire. The Antiques Dealers Fair, created by Kent antiques dealer Ingrid Nilson, runs several Luxury Antiques Weekends at four-star hotels each year where visitors can enjoy more exclusive, relaxed access to a select group of dealers.

Whichever approach you choose, whether you’re searching for something specific or seeing what you might stumble across, you can combine your efforts with travelling around some very beautiful and hospitable parts of Britain.

Best for…

Browsing different shops in one neighbourhood Kensington Church Street, London
About 70 middle market to high-end dealers and specialists in everything from Regency furniture to Japanese screens.
Bargain hunting at a market Portobello Road, London
Get there by 10 o’clock in the morning to find the best bargains.
Porcelain Jorge Welsh, Kensington Church Street, London
Jorge Welsh and Luisa Venhais run internationally renowned galleries in London and Lisbon dedicated to Oriental porcelain. Genuinely amazing stock.
Silver London Silver Vaults
Near Chancery Lane, in London’s legal district, 29 antique silver retailers sell goods from inside the former Chancery Lane Safe Deposit, a facility opened in 1876 for the wealthiest citizens of Victorian London to store their silver and jewellery.
Vintage fashion Alfie’s Antiques, Marylebone, London
Dealers in this excellent antiques centre include specialists in classic British and American clothes from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s.
Sport-related art and antiques Manfred Schotten, Burford
Magnificent collection of sporting art and antiques, connected to sports including golf, fishing, hunting, horse racing, cricket and tennis.
Budding interior designers the shops at Tetbury
Enjoy some great shops in this exceptionally pretty medieval market town on the edge of the Cotswolds.

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