There’s a regular programme on the leisure and lifestyle channels – it deals with folk who tour around in historic cars, visiting various antique outlets around the country. They have to buy, scrounge, steal min of three articles – can be anything but must have potentuial to turn in a profit at a geuine auction house later in the show. Amongst the regular articles are china and prcelain, silverwares and quirky outdoor things like wagon wheels etc. The things they fall down on most often are unwise furniture purchases – things they’ve not looked into and are in bad shape. This is sad because it puts other people off going to auction houses to look at second hand and antique pieces. It’s often possible to pick some really lovely items at the local auction house. But for the serious antique furniture buyer, or someone just starting out, it is best to contact a reputable dealer – yes, more expensive but they’re unlikely pass on something they don’t feel is the genuine article and they are experienced at sourcing the right age and style of piece you seek.
Even modern homes feature in lists of heritage properties to visit, along side the established historic houses. Our coutry is blessed with thousands of fantastic houses and halls that are open to the public. For a very modest fee we can wander around – sometimes, and infinitely preferable, with a guide. These folk are experts at explaining various aspects about the property and can bring to life that odd looking tapestry up in the Green Bedroom, or the rather awkward looking portrait in the small Hall . . . . I have visited many such houses and as I help out by volunteering at a medium aged Hall, I now like to visit the more modern places just to bring myself up to date with what can be done to save them for the nation also. The architecture can sometimes jar on the senses but in every case, there is something very special or maybe even unique about the properties which have earmarked them for national interest. I’m personaly very grateful that we have such august heritage institutions – without them we would probably have no such properties to visit.
It’s a funny thing about opening up houses for showing through the summer months – it seems to take ages getting all the rooms set, with cleaning the furniture as carefully but thoroughly as their age and fragile state allows. We carefully take the dust covers off and brush each item down to ensure nothing can attract further dust as we move around. The wooden arms and legs of each are dusted and wiped with an e-cloth lightly moistened with furniture care oil or polish – it’s not soaked, just a very light touch to keep each piece looking and smelling tip top. The fabrics of each room have to also be gently shaken and a sturdy person on a ladder climbs up to the hangings to check they’re still rest free and able to move if needed. There are the orginal wooden window shutter in each room and these are closed every night after visiting is over – that’s an exciting task in itself. Buyt it is vital to preserve the rooms and contents.
The one thing that stands out in heritage properties must be an elegant stair case. I volunteer at one such property as a room steward and there is half a very ornate stair case going up from the side entrance of the house. Strangely, the property was never designed to have the main staircase visible from the great hall. Unlike so many big houses featured in romantic films or ‘upstairs-downstairs life’ serials that grab our attention now. No, this house always had this spectaular self supporting canilever staircase up to the guest bedrooms but there isn’t another one coming down the other side. There is a downward staircase but it is pretty plain and just functional. At the top of the show stopping stairs, there are beautiful pieces of furniture just within sight. A bureau and very antique chairs. The whole scene is almost a setting from a tv drams. We don’t have glorious stair cases in modern houses. They seem to have been dispensed with and in fact, some modest homes are now installing small lifts from lounge to bedroom, so as not to have to worry about stairs at all. A death knell sounding for the humble stair case!
One of the joys of volunteering at a country mansion house is the chance to really drink in the antique feel of the building and its furnishings and effects. When you visit one of these august old houses, you wander round just peering at walls, floors, room settings and it seems quite interesting, but at the end of the day, it is just museum to be looked at – you get no feeling for the families that owned it and lived there. I’ve come to realise this after a couple of years helping at a house that still had a family member owning it as recently as the very late 1990s. The huse was built in 1732 and had been bought and sold by three families during this time. The last owning family leased it out for some years to a redoubtable American heiress who came over with her husband for political reasons. She then spent vast sums of her own money making the house more comfortable with her own individual decorating style. Each room has been left with her inprint and huge numbers of visitors come to view various room settings just to drink in her very popular and well known style.
I have a friend who owns a village house in France. It’s way down in the south, near the spanish border in fact and they bought it the other year, having sold their previous rambling farm house in the next village along. From when they first embarked on this adventure en francaise, they have embraced everything they could about the joy of owning a french home. They used local labour for all the work to bring the property into this century – the plaster work is fantastic and of course, word gets around that the new folk at willing to use local. It helped them to make many friends and they are well respected. The country life suits them – they live six months there and the rest here in a village or at their other place – a smart apartment in London’s dockside. Knowing how to adapt to each location; how to furnish for the right setting and how to get the most out of suppliers in each location are talents my chum enjoyed by the bucketful!
I live out in of town, not totally in countryside but in a house on an estate backng on to a very old farm. The surrounding area was all farmland until a few years ago when housing developments starting popping up along the dual carriageways. I can’t complain – after all, my house was built on what was once prime farmland. Further out, in the more northerly part of the county, there are some fantastic stone villages – really beautiful places that go back hundreds of years, each hamlet or village with its own school and church – well, most of them anyway. I love visiting them – being invited into some of the old cottages and revelling in the seriously old furniture is fantastic fun. Getting hold of one of these properties is so difficult too. Hardly any ever come to the sales market as they are so sought after for their beauty and feeling of living in good old England!
For those folk lucky enough to own any pieces of antique furniture, perhaps handed down from earlier generations, then they may not feel especially blessed. After all, if it’s been in the family for centuries, it’s easy to just take it as an everyday job to look and tut! But looking after antiques properly is so well worth the time and expense. These wonderful peices of craftsmanship cannot easily be replaced and must be loved whilst we do so. And encourage the younger generations to also. The patina on the top surface of a piece buils up over many years – maybe after several hundreds of years. Even with old marks and damage, it is this that gives real charm and character – adding to the value of it and thus must be preserved. Good quality beeswax is the only product to use as modern aersol furniture cleaners dammage the delicate surface and can destroy this long developed patina in a matter of weeks.
I help out at a heritage property that has rooms set out in different eras – there is no family ownership now, the last was back in the 1990s, when it was handed over to the charitable trust upon their demise. So there is no one era for which the house is renowned. The rooms do contain a few pieces of furniture left from various owners and the last tenants – of whom was a real society doyenne and entertained in the Hall at every given opportunity. She had cocktail parties in the grand hall, so replaced the drab, if more historically apt armorial features with spledidly huge sofas and generously proportioned armchairs. The ‘chinese room’, and all historical houses have one of those, don’t they?!, has remarkable wallpaper which needs very special care – and her matching cocktail chairs are in stunning green fabric to match the hand painted lovebirds. It’s a delight to hear the visitors making enthusasiastic comments about these rooms.
Whilst waiting in the checkout queue of my favourite posh shop, I was amused by two couples in front of me – both live out in the sticks by the sound of it – seeing fields of white this morning, they jumped in their 4x4s and braved it to the store for urgent supplies. Amid gin, vodka, mixers, packs of lager and one or two food items were Country file and Country life magazines. Also in one trolley, tins of beeswax polish and some new e-cloths. Expecting to be snowed these were bought for their annual wood caring weekend – they do the lot in one fell swoop, and the couple expressed delight that all furniture is in really good shape and it smells divine for weeks on end. Turned out the furniture had been owned by the family back in the 1700s. Now that’s worth a trip to a posh shop for! Hmmm I wonder if you can use beeswax on non wood furniture ………..