Who in 1964 started the first permanent covered antique market in the UK
As a lovelorn teenager I fell deeply in lust with the remote and unattainable beauties depicted in PreRaphaelite paintings. I would spend whole days in the Tate, the V&A and other galleries drooling over them. I studied the literature and began to collect the actual works. In those days - when almost all Victorian art was mocked - you could buy a Burne Jones drawing for a fiver and a painting for fifty. I bought several. The first, when I was still at school, was a wonderful pencil drawing paid for by my wages from a paper round.
Although it was the anaemic Burne Jones beauties who sparked my interest in antiques there were other sparks too. My father Alfie was a dance band drummer, but like many people in show business, he liked the security of a “day job”. For years he dabbled in antiques and bric a brac by running a market stall on Saturdays in Church Street, Marylebone, close to where we lived. Sometimes, as a child, I helped on the stall. I loved the crowds, the bustle and the bantering camaraderie of the street traders.
My mother, Solveig, had also been bitten by the antique dealing bug. In school holidays I used to go with her on buying trips to provincial auctions and antique shops. Years later she would become a respected specialist in Chinese ceramics. Later, by the 1960’s and like so much else in that decade, the antique business was changing fast. More people were interested in antiques, more people were buying them and more people were selling them, partly because of new TV shows like “Going for a Song” but also because people were beginning to realise that antiques bought today might be worth more tomorrow - in some ways a precursor to the house price spirals since.
Tastes were also changing. Until the mid 60s, the august galleries of Mayfair and St James's auctioneers like Sotheby’s and Christie’s usually dismissed anything made after 1837 [when Queen Victoria acceeded to the throne] as "vikky junk". But lower down the cultural pecking order people were beginning to recognise and value its merits. Insofar as Victorian art and design are concerned there was a little known earlier moment which triggered signalled its rennaissance, after 43 years in the doldrums.
One afternoon in the summer of 1956 there was a lecture in the Royal College of Art which was fashionably critical of 19th century sculpture, but when an image of the Albert Memorial was projected onto the lecture screen, much to the chagrin of the lecturer, there was an outburst of spontaneous applause from the students, including, so the story goes, David Hockney and a number of other art stars to be.
But back to the 60s - spurred on and promoted by perceptive dealers like John Jesse and Julian Hartnoll, Art Nouveau and Art Deco were also coming into vogue. As all this began to overlap with the exploding pop culture, it created a gaping hole in the structure of the antique trade. Where, apart from weekend street markets like Portobello Road and Bermondsey and a scattering of small shops, could the rapidly increasing number of art and antique buyers get to meet the just as rapidly increasing number of small time art and antique dealers? The answer was - hardly anywhere. This became increasingly clear as I wandered around the markets, talking to small time antique dealers.
Most of them wanted something more permanent than a street market but couldn’t afford to rent a formal shop in a decent location, so I set about looking for a cheap building in central London big enough to accommodate a number of small antique shops. It didn’t take me long to find an old printing works on a short lease in Barrett Street, just around the corner from where I lived in Manchester Square. It was ideal - seconds from Oxford Street, gritty, spacious and very cheap. I signed the lease, cleared out the old printing machinery and built 27 stalls like the ones in the Portobello Road. I called it the Antique Supermarket, and at £5 a week there was no shortage of takers.
On the first day of opening there were hardly any visitors. I remember Mr Wernick standing with folded arms in front of his collection of magnificent 18th century French clocks [today almost priceless] and bitterly complaining in a heavy Polish
accent - “So... Mister Gray.... where are the customers?”. At that moment I too was distraught, but he and I need not have worried - within a few days the media had picked up the story focussing on the incongruity of antiques in supermarkets and the buyers were queuing to get in. Within months the 27 dealers had become 80 and the Antique Supermarket had taken over the whole of the building with lots of deals being done on the pavement outside.
Most of the dealers were happy, because the market proved to be commercially fertile as they traded not only with each other but also with each others customers. In fact everybody was happy except for the established antique dealers in nearby Mayfair who were aghast that anybody should dare to invade their hallowed territory of galleries with their ankle-tickling carpets and cut glass accented staff. Their hostility was palpable. I got some quite nasty anonymous letters, which was unusual in those innocent pre-Twitter days.
At one point, and just for a few months, the Antique Supermarket became famous beyond the world of antiques. In March 1966, on the 50th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, the IRA blew Nelson’s Column in Dublin to smithereens, but the head of Nelson survived intact. It was promptly stolen and the embarrassed Irish Government's search for it was reported with much glee by the international media. When I read about this, I immediately flew to Dublin, and for 3 days and nights bought Guinness for every bar crawler in that city of bars. On the third day I finally made contact with the "guardians" of the missing head. On the fourth day I met three masked men in the sub basement of the Shelbourne hotel [a watering hole for Irish politicos] and paid for the head in cash. On the fifth day I got it back to London and put it on show at the Antique Supermarket. You couldn’t move for the crowds. Overnight we had become a cool destination - no small achievement for a bunch of small time antique dealers at the very peak of Swinging London.
A counterpoint to the success of the Antique Supermarket was my decision, soon after it opened, to become a dealer in Pre-Raphaelite art. I rented a nearby shop, installed cool surfaces and moody lighting, and called it the Pre-Raphaelite Gallery. But I couldn’t bear to sell the pictures which were really good, and nobody wanted to buy the pictures which weren’t. The Pre-Raphaelite Gallery sold nothing and folded within 6 months.