Of all the useful and attractive pieces of antique English furniture belittled by the name it must surely be the What-not. When seeking to find its derivation any dictionary will provide two explanations.:- (1) An indefinite or trivial thing or (2) A stand with shelves for small objects. The curious thing is the first record of the number (2) version is in Messrs Gillow's Cost Book of 1795. There is no mention of such a piece in Sheraton's Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 and the first published reference is in 1808 within the leers of Sarah, Lady Lyttleton. So it does beg the question what had previous generations put their little bits and pieces on during the preceding hundred years. Whatever, it is clearly apparent that this sometimes charmingly designed artefact did not appear in the fashionable house until the beginning of the 19th century and by the 1860's it was being mass-produced to the degree that no house was complete without one. The first examples were elegant and sometimes enriched with gilt metal mounts as in the pair at Southill in Bedfordshire, the home of Sir Samuel Whitbread, but as the fashion for them caught on, most were plain and their date clearly identifiable from the form. The earliest had square supports, with three shelves sometimes with a drawer below the bottom one. A variation at this time was of taper shape in pyramid style, but these are rare. By 1810 the supports were turned, changing from slender and elegant to wider in common with table and chair legs as the Regency period developed. In the time of George IV some what-nots had end supports in the form of lyres, but the big change came with the introduction of machine production coinciding with the fashion for barley sugar twist turning. By the 1860's the Victorians were demanding multi-purpose pieces and the what-not was combined with a music or magazine stand. No longer restricted to square or rectangular, ovals, rounds and kidney shapes were made to suit all tastes. In whatever style you choose, the what-not will for ever be a most useful and attractive piece of furniture, and surely far from indefinite or trivial.
Antique furniture might sit just below DVD players and (meat) sausage rolls on millennials’ shopping lists but veteran antique dealer John Bly and his son James are on a mission to change that.
The Blys, fifth-generation antique experts, run a richly stocked emporium of 18th- and 19th-century pieces on King’s Road in Chelsea, attracting everyone from Kylie Minogue to Rod Stewart with its offering of Georgian bookcases and mahogany armchairs.
Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts is another regular who pops into the shop on occasions, perusing antique silver.
“He is the smartest around,” says John Bly. “He has the most beautifully cut coats and jackets and I said any cast-offs, you’ve got to let me know.”
The father-and-son team, who opened the store in 2013, are keen to hook in younger buyers, with their Etsy, eBay and Ikea-shopping ways, to the lustre of antiques and attract wealthy types in Tech City and Canary Wharf.
They plan to host a programme of workshops for people “not interested” in the topic to help open their eyes to a different type of luxury brand.
Bly the elder, a sprightly 79-year-old who has the ringmaster’s charm of someone comfortable on TV (he was a regular on BBC Antiques Roadshow for many years), gives me a lesson on cabriole chairlegs and the history of the dumb waiter. It’s part design course, part social history.
James Bly, who joined his father’s business in 1995, says: “There is a generation of people who went antique shopping that had a vague understanding of antiques but that has skipped two generations now and part of our job is to put that right.”
The Bly business turns over more than £1 million a year and is as much steeped in the social history of England as some of the goods it sells.
Started in 1891 by Bly’s grandfather but with roots stretching back to the 1820s, it originally sold rare items of furniture and hard to find imports to the Rothschild family, who had their Tring Park Mansion in the Blys’ Hertfordshire village (the family workshop, where Bly was born, sat opposite the banking family’s country house).
The firm moved to London in 1991 with a small showroom — “located conveniently and expensively close to Wilton’s restaurant” — due to another major social shift of the period: changing dining habits.
The business had originally served middle-management types who had to furnish their country homes but rapid gentrification in London during the late Eighties meant more pied-à-terres and people eating out rather than entertaining at home, ending the need for fancy dining tables, chairs and sideboards.
They increasingly tapped into the influx of wealthy European elites and put their wares on the High Street for customers to browse.
Bly senior, dressed today in a double-breasted jacked and colourful cravat, says the antiques business is all about “theatre”, comparing it to going to a “good restaurant” and saying it’s “fun” selling to buyers who like to haggle.
He lets me sit down in a £68,000 chair from the 1740s while giving me a quick social history of chairs made in China during the 18th century, offering a glimpse into his art of the deal.
At the same time the antiques business is much like any other retail industry, prone to swings and tough times.
American buyers — the biggest cohort of antique shoppers — dried up after the Gulf War and 9/11, and the firm was forced to leave London and regroup in Tring in 2005 due to rising rents.
Sales can also be unpredictable and the Blys confess that trading in the industry at the moment is “patchy” despite picking up a bit towards Christmas and then there’s online.
James Bly, who is driving many of its new initiatives, sells through antique portals like 1stdibs.com and onlinegalleries.com but maintains getting people through the door is still the key.
“It comes down to enticing people into the gallery. Nobody has the story or the stock we have,” says the 45-year old.
Rare antique shopping isn’t immediately obvious as a must-do weekend activity compared with a trip to Westfield. Has it gone out of fashion?
“You could argue that,” says James, “but again this comes down to a generation of people who have not been immersed in antiques shopping.
“Even if you have a modern interior one or two antiques would look spectacular. A London wharf apartment, one or two bits would stand out and look amazing.”
There is nothing in the world to equal candlelight to create a magical atmosphere anywhere and at anytine throughout the year, but at Christmas time it is an obligatory addition to every festive occasion and display. Even more so when seen through a cluster of cut crystal glass lustre drops, prisms, icicle pendants, faceted spires, branches and festoons hanging from chandeliers and candelabra. It is the latter which have the most immediate effect, for as they stand at eye level on tables and shelves the ever moving reflections create a constant changing sparkle. The use of such cut glass ornamentation really came into its own with the combination of developments in the decorative glass industry and the fashion for what we call 'classical' form, both of which occurred during and after the 1760's. Candle holders of some significance suspended from the ceiling - later known as chandeliers -have been recorded in inventories from the 14th century being made of wood, brass and other metals, but it was not until the eighteenth century that important examples of glass appear. On the finest the wood was carved and gilt, the brass cast and also gilt and by the the early 1700's several dozen branches held the candles. The Coronation Banquet of George II was illuminated with 1,800 candles plus those on tables and all were lit within three minutes. Candelabra with two or more branches made for the tables of the gentry are rare before the mid 17th century and were mostly of silver. However, by the end of the 18th century they were made with bases of marble, semi-precious stones, malachite, Derbyshire Spa otherwise known as ‘Blue John' and fixed with up to four or five branches of gold, silver, ormolu and of course, glass. Whereas any fine eighteenth century light fitting is as expensive now as it was when made, those of glass can be the best value in terms of glamour and effect, and because of their visual appeal they have never been, nor are they ever likely to be, out of fashion or demand.
In conversation the other day one of the group asked why do we say 'sleep tight' as a form of best wishes at the end of the day. In Elizabethan times and before, beds were made with several layers of mattresses filled with an amazing variety of materials and placed on a rope stretched and interwoven across the open frame rather like a safety net. In time the rope sagged, and if you required a firmer support you tightened the rope, hence the expression. So it is nothing to do with going to bed after a session in the ale bar. There is a marvellous example of such a bed in The Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In the Elizabethan section of the British Galleries the Great Bed of Ware is shown in full splendour with an explanatory display to one side clearly showing the construction and method of ‘making the bed’. From Tudor times and earlier a bed was considered the most important piece of furniture in the house; its opulence reflecting for all to see and recognise the social standing of the owner. The most common term for these status symbols has become ‘four poster’, alluding to the four pillars that support the ceiling or canopy that covered the entire mattress area, but as the proper term for the canopy was ‘tester’ the correct description is a ‘full-tester’ bed. During the 17th century a modification using a shortened canopy that covered only the head part became fashionable. Instead of the two posts at the foot end, the half canopy was suspended from the roof of the room. This model was known as a ‘half-tester’ and remained a popular option until the end of the Victorian period. Some years ago I attended a country auction with an antique dealer friend, a real wag of the old school. When the auctioneer announced “…and now ladies and gentlemen Lot 315…a truly magnificent half-tester bed” there followed one of those total silences. It was broken by my pal who shouted out “How do you half test a bed Sir?” Always safer to stay with a four poster, like this one.
Ah, the very word Broadway. To me it brings immediately to mind my times in New York's Theatre Land, buying tiny cowboy boots for my three and four year old sons in a shop called Tepee Town and being allowed to watch the Woody Herman Big Band rehearse in the afternoon before their Top of the Bill concert at Radio City. The beginning of this theatrical legendary area began in the 1750's when Walter Murray and Thomas Kean opened a theatre on Nassau Street. So it is comparatively new compared to the other Broadway which holds equally fond memories for me. That's the one in the Cotswolds. For it was there that I first travelled with my father to visit antique furniture dealers in that most beautiful and ancient town. Dating back to the Mesolithic period (9,600 -4000 BC) Broadway in Worcestershire is now equally known for its charm as its centre for the Arts and Crafts movement. In the town itself is the Gordon Russell Museum, where the history of Sir Gordon Russell and his work is most fittingly displayed, while in nearby Chipping Camden one of the original artisan workshops, Harts Silver, is still being run by the founder's family. Currently they have a truly inspirational Exhibition in the Aylesbury Museum, on display until December. An absolute must visit for silver of the period enthusiasts. But nearby Broadway is an architectural Folly. A structure that my father took me to see as a lesson on the inspiration of Capability Brown and the designs of James Wyatt for the Countess of Coventry which was built for her in 1798 – 9 as a tower from which she could view her vast estate. The mirror illustrated is a great example of how architecture influenced some of the more avant garde patrons of the English Regency period in their quest for novelty in their furniture. Amongst their favourite makers was one George Bullock (1777 - 1813) to whome this is attributed. So mirror, mirror, on the wall, is it the reflection or the frame for which we fall?
Caption: Regency period Bird's-Eye Maple and Mahogany Mirror in the Gothic Taste available at John Bly.