Past Masters

13th May 2011

Jill Glenn reviews the recent Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair, held in Battersea Park, whose organisers like to describe it as ‘an extravaganza of unusual design ideas and objects to enhance the home and garden’…

The Decorative Antiques and Textiles Fair happens three times a year in a surprisingly substantial marquee in pleasant Battersea Park – and it is, I admit, a touch tricky to review. By the time you read this, or head off to the autumn fair (27 September – 2 October) there’s a good chance that many, if not all, of the pieces at the May event will have been sold… so I can’t say: this chair is lovely, go and buy it, or: this sculpture is divine, at the very least go and lust after it. It may be Just Too Late. That’s frustrating, for you and for me, but there are still plenty of observations that are, I hope valid and helpful.

The exhibitors are pretty constant, as it happens, so the essence of the occasion – the atmosphere and the underlying passion for period furniture and stylish design – do carry forward from fair to fair. Over time it has developed into an event that appeals to a wide range of decorators, designers, collectors and the general public alike. Even Andrew Lloyd Webber, noted as an art collector, attended on day one this spring, and made numerous purchases.

The Decorative Fair’s frequency means that dealers are always up with the trends: painted and country furniture is popular at present, for example, and there was plenty on show, and, in the 60th anniversary year of the Festival of Britain, 1950s pieces are very much back in vogue.

Good period furniture and original artwork can take a place in almost any interior scheme, so whatever you’re planning, whether you buy here or not, it’s a rich source of ideas.

You can browse idly – no-one will bother you – or make a beeline for favourite dealers or specialists in particular pieces or periods. By chance I find myself at the Black Ink stand, where a series of Joan Miró lithographs dated 1975 are on offer at £750 each. They are simple and rather splendid: one or more would certainly add quirky gravitas to a retro or modern design theme. It occurs to me too, that, if you have a small and directable child with a reasonably artistic eye you could arrange to ‘commission’ your own collection of pieces in the ‘after Miró’ style, personal to you. Treated with respect, and nicely framed, they’d look lovely. Of course, it’s not quite in the spirit of authenticity – but it does give you an option.

I pause too at the Antikbar stand, stopped in my tracks by a rather splendid highly-coloured 1930s travel poster: ‘Visit Java’, it encourages, ‘only 36 hours from Singapore’. I’m not convinced that it’s best use of £2,500 (linen-backing and excellent condition notwithstanding), but then I’m not a poster expert; certainly it’s bright and attractive, though, and it would undoubtedly look marvellous on an off-white wall in a suitably minimalist room.

It’s interesting to note how frequently old-style commercial material is recycled for contemporary home interiors. The theme continues at the Lascelles stand, where there is a fabulous selection of clocks, both stylish and kitsch, many with advertising slogans on face or rim: ‘Nestlé’s Milk For All Time’ and ‘Hovis – The Better Balanced Bread’, for example. Roger Lascelles has over 500 clocks, which he maintains in an old Wandsworth clock factory. He both sells and rents these; the antique clocks you see on film sets or tv dramas may well have come from him – his collection is second to none, and ranges from traditional grandfather clocks to external turret dials (now rehabilitated for home use, and running, like many of his working antiques on a single AA battery), from Bakelite mantel clocks to old French enamels. These are horological history, and a delight to see.

Whatever your interiors passion you can indulge it here. Chairs, especially in pairs, and sofas do it for me, so that’s my focus. The Ico Parisi ‘Comma’ sofa (above) brought to the show by Kiki Design is unbelievably beautiful in real life – and in seconds I am living an entirely imaginary life, in which long lazy days stretched out on said sofa with a book and a large glass of wine feature prominently.

It’s all about creating the dream, and the captions are as mouthwatering as entries on a high-class restaurant menu: ‘A pair of English tub armchairs, sized for a lady and gentleman, with arched backs, upholstered in sage and cream striped material; £1950’ or ‘A good late 19th century button back settee on turned legs; England c1880; £2,800’ or, for a complete contrast, ‘A very good late 18th century Windsor stick back chair in pale ash; England c1780; £2,950’. Pure furniture porn. I love it.

Many dealers have had their best pieces of furniture covered in beautiful quality fabrics, usually in plain colours, or plainish designs, allowing the chair or sofa to speak for itself – imagine, if you will, ‘A pair of mid-century Italian chairs reupholstered in pale blue velvet with contrasting piping, both by Lelievre, Paris;’: they are as lush and luxurious as the description paints them, shrieking (if that’s possible) understated elegance and timeless style. At £3,200, though, for me they’re likely to remain an object of lust and little else.

Some of the stands have been put together as mini room sets (great for ideas to take away and recreate) completed with lifestyle accessories for effect – the Telegraph crossword artfully placed on a side table; a copy of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge tossed on a rather smart red 1940s armchair.

Amongst all the pieces in excellent taste (even if you don’t like some of these items, it’s usually possible to appreciate them, and recognise their inherent quality), there are the occasional offerings that startle – such as a late 20th century medical skeleton, cunningly wired so that the eyes light up. “Stunning in a corner,” the dealer (Antiques by Design) observes. Not in any corner of mine, I think, although I overhear at least two people admiring it, so clearly there’s a market out there. Check your attics.

It’s worth going along to the Decorative Fair, I think, for vision, inspiration, ideas and fun. You may end up spending your money in IKEA, but if what your eventual purchase conjures up is a late 19th century French pull-out dining table in the Louis XV manner at £2650 then your trip will have been worth it.

The atmosphere is serene and relaxed, but there’s a constant buzz as well, with new items being brought out for display as others – sold – are packed up and shipped off. And a tip: once you’ve walked the fair in one direction, turn 90° or 180° and do it all again from a different direction. Like scouring the hedgerows for blackberries, it’s surprising what choice fruit you’ll find from a fresh approach.

What you’re getting here is not only a great day out, but access to around 135 specialist dealers, and the opportunity to acquire statement pieces that will help your home stand out from the crowd. The exhibitors want you to buy, of course, but in my experience it’s never a hard sell, and most dealers are usually keen to share their enthusiasm for a piece or furnish you with some little piece of knowledge even if you’re obviously only browsing. I pause to admire ‘a good early 19th century French cherrywood server’, gleaming beautifully in the soft light of the marquee. “It had onion skins and desiccated garlic cloves in the drawers only a few weeks ago,” says the dealer (Christopher Paul), observing that, although technically it’s a kitchen item it would work well in a dining room or hall… “great for anywhere, in fact.” He’s right, and it’s a good reminder that functional items can be beautiful, and that beautiful items need not be simply ornamental.

From shabby chic to sheer style, whatever you want is here.

For more information about the fair, see www.decorativefair.com

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