Howabout A Raffle...... Or Two?

As a rejection of the restrictions imposed by the Commonwealth ideology during the eleven years preceding the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the last thirty years of the 17th century saw an open display of wealth in every possible way. In dress, in furnishings, in pastimes and pleasures. The ensuing reign of Queen Anne saw some restraint across the board but by the 1740's upper class society can be seen to divide between those who chose to splash their cash and those who didn't, certainly in the way they furnished their houses.

This is reflected in the pattern books of leading furniture makers of the time such as Matthias Locke and Thomas Chippendale wherein designs for chairs and tables will show an elaborately carved leg on one side and a plain straight leg on the other. In costume, men's fashion was still glamorous by today's standards, with deeply waisted frock coats and brightly coloured waistcoats, but there was less lace on display and buckles had replaced ribbon bows on shoes. However, judging by contemporary group portraits some interiors are notably austere; a picture and perhaps a looking glass, a side table or small centre table and two or three chairs. On the other hand a similarly wealthy family - bearing in mind one had to have a certain standard of living to afford a portrait - can be seen to be surrounded by luxury and exuberance. Pictures, mirrors, mantelpieces and overdoors, chairs and tables all carved with the fancy version of Mr Chippendale's design. Importantly, the predominant style at this time is known as Rococo. Emanating in France and then to Italy it arrived in England in the 1740's and was everything theatrical, dramatic, fantastical and larger than life. Using pine as the base timber it incorporated all things botanical, with Stylised Flowers and Lattice Work, Rocks and Shells, 'S' Scrolls, 'C' Scrolls and Raffle Leaves, Water Falls, Pagoda Tops and Chinese Fencing, Cluster Columns, and  Garlands of every conception.  All of this decoration was often covered with gesso and then water gilded, the highlights being burnished for even greater impact.  Alternatively it was painted in pale grey or white and one of the finest examples of this is a mantlepiece in the British Section of  Victoria and Albert Museum and should be seen just for the fun of it. Sometimes such paint has been removed or the carver's work left plain and polished, as in the frame illustrated. 

Recent Interview

In this age of instant everything and shopping from your armchair, how does a 130 year old antiques business remain relevant in today’s market with a declining high street retail environment and seemingly laissez faire attitude to brown furniture?

Well from meeting the oldest and best known family firm the answer sounds just like it does in every other industry, knowledge is power.

“There has always been and will always be a demand for the best antiques and decorative arts and the key is knowing the difference between good and the best. There is only one way to learn and that is years of experience.” says John Bly whose CV is almost as impressive as his knowledge. He is quick to add that one never stops learning but having been in business for well over 120 years the Blys are clearly at the top of their game.

With some of the worlds best museums, grandest stately homes, biggest collectors and famous interior designers amongst its clients the firm of John Bly is synonymous with authenticity, quality and originality.

So why go to John Bly?

The Blys are important people in their industry and their combined experience is unique, they've seen more, researched more, bought more and sold more fine things than anybody. And they are well regarded by others in their field which is highly unusual for any industry. 

“We bring the past to life, deal in history and sell peace of mind” says James Bly, John’s son and the fifth generation to take the helm. It sounds light hearted but he takes it seriously. “It is the story behind the pieces we handle that make them astounding windows into the past; the social context of what was going on at the time a particular piece was made makes it all the more interesting and intriguing in this hi-tech world. Importantly everything we sell carries our guarantee of authenticity”.

(He recounts the history of the dumb waiter, a story worth visiting his gallery to hear!)

John and James Bly have spent their lives surrounded by and dealing with antiques and have an natural instinct about an item so if you want advice, help or guidance in this mysterious world they are the people to speak to. Viewing their stock is a history lesson in itself.

John spent a few years at Sotheby’s before joining his father and James trained as a cabinet maker before joining John, with these backgrounds it is easy to see how they can analyse pieces and spot exquisite details from 1000 paces.

“When you know how to make a piece of furniture you can appreciate the skills required for perfection especially in times when electricity had yet to be invented, hand sawing veneers by day and candlelight to within 1/18th of inch think is not easy!” 

As well as having a stock of provenanced museum quality pieces the Blys offer their expertise to the great and the good. This “service” can be authenticating a piece that the client already has but the majority of the time it is to source that special piece or pieces. 

Projects vary in size from single items to furnishing entire properties (residential and commercial) but the clients always know that they are getting the very best examples of their type with every piece carrying their seal of approval and certificate of authenticity.

And if you cannot get to them in the South East of England they will come to you and they are not limited geographically; with many collector clients in the USA they are across the pond several times a year.

Do they just handle furniture?

It seems not and there is much behind the dapper duos' elegant presence. They also provide a full interior design service if required and can build a team of experts as projects dictate. 

With complete workshop facilities at their disposal enabling furniture design and cabinet making, full upholstery and window dressing, lighting (from hidden LED tracks to 3m crystal chandeliers), and even designing, making and fitting a bespoke carpet, they can achieve anything.

It is not possible to categorize the Bly look as they work intimately with each client but the common thread throughout is the wow factor. “If the client isn’t totally blown away, bowled over and in awe of their own house by the end, we have not succeeded” says John who often gets wheeled in for the final stamp of approval.

Dare one mention mid-century modern and contemporary?

“Even in some of the more contemporary interiors we have worked in, the placing of one or two well selected antique pieces will have spectacular results, they can have a museum presence and we have been asked on occasion to frame and hang the written history of a piece for all to learn about. The pieces come alive when the stories behind them are recounted, it is about the history.

A cold room becomes cosy and white walls fill with colour when the combination is done properly.”

Let us not forget each generation of every stately home in England patronised the arts and modern style of their time; they inherited great collections of course but also had their eye on the latest trends and fashions. Just look at George III’s son, Prince Regent and latterly Chatsworth House and Blenheim Palace.

So the Blys are the go-to people for anyone serious about antiques.

Whether you are furnishing your house or looking for the finest tea caddy and need sound advice make sure you look them up.

“Buy from Bly, the most experienced and the best."

In the Right Place at the Right Time.

In the Right Place at the Right Time.

 The term 'occasional furniture' actually dates back to the period between1660 and 1740 when the gentry took advantage of social change and had multi-purpose furniture made to suit different requirements at different times of the day. Extending the dining table, or having miniature beds on wooden  wheels called 'truckles' to go under the main bed during the day were nothing new, but having small  adaptable furniture that folded down or opened up were new in the Carolean era.  Production of these pieces was made possible by improved methods of construction heralded by the introduction of a new craft and a new craftsman - the cabinet maker. His ability to create more finely cut joints, having access to more sophisticated hinges and of course the best long-seasoned quality timbers allowed him to create furniture that could be a serving board one minute to be quickly transformed into a table for gaming, needlework or tea the next.  At this time rooms were not set permanently as we have them today or indeed as they have been since the mid-eighteenth century.  Circular tables were made to tilt and long rectangular ones had disproportionately small centre sections from which two long flaps or leaves were hinged to be supported when horizontal by a framework rather like a gate, hence gateleg.  Once invented these in various forms never went out of fashion and followed the styles of decoration throughout the ensuing periods. Still the most interesting are surely the earliest examples, miraculously surviving over three hundred years of use.  Here the art of the wood turner comes into play, for now was the time when more than one person was responsible for making a piece of furniture. At first one can see just a single turned upright as in the table illustrated, but by 1700 the legs, stretchers and most of the gate were formed by the turner. An informal supper is over, let's fold down the table, tuck it away and dance.

From Spring to Winter

Of all the wonderful landscape paintings in the world it may seem strange to relate, on one of the warmest February days on record, the genre that appeals most to me is the winter scene.  From Andrew Wyeth to Hendrick Avercamp it's the silence that snow brings coupled with the sound of voices carrying over greater distance than they do in summer that captivate the imagination.  I know that seems a contradiction but when snow stops falling and has settled deep, there is a quiet unlike any other before all sounds are magnified. Laughter and shouting, the hiss of skates on ice or, in the case of Wyeth, just the wind cutting through a fence to create a musical note that changes according to the velocity. The grandest examples of winter landscapes are generally considered to be painted in oil, but I have a particular fondness for Gouache.

Gouache is similar to watercolour, but with a binding agent to make it opaque. This was traditionally gum Arabic but it is popularly known as 'water colours mixed with egg white'.  It requires an extra skill in its application because dries to a different hue than it appears when wet with lighter tones drying  darker and vice versa. The term, derived from the Italian guazzo, was originally applied to the early 16th century practice of applying oil paint over a tempera base, but however achieved the effect is of great depth and infinite detail. The example illustrated is by Paradyen, an artist at the Court of the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst-Dessau who lived at the Court of the Czar from 1741 until 1755. While there he was employed to paint portraits of the Czar's family in addition to many landscapes.  Several of his portraits hang in the Old Masters Gallery of Dresden and in the last years of his life he gained further recognition in Paris, and is sometimes referred to in catalogues as 'Le Parisien'. One additional benefit of many Gouache paintings is that they are small enough to hang even on a crowded wall. Oh thank goodness, there's a storm on its way.

What's Not To Like!

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.

Our feature in The Evening Standard Monday 7th January 2019

Entrepreneurs: Veteran connoisseurs John Bly Antiques on bringing rare finds into the 21st century

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.”

Click here to link to the Evening Standard interview