Distressing antiques

4-5 minute read

I once had an antiques stall in the Portobello Road; at least, that’s what I tell people at cocktail parties if the subject of antique shopping comes up.

It wasn’t exactly like that. Portobello, on any Saturday in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, was a lot more fun than it is today. For one thing, most of the dealers sold genuine antiques, instead of the plastic scrimshaw, reproduction ‘estate’ jewelry and ‘distressed’ pine country furniture you can find there today.

portobello-road-marketk4075bThe stalls began, as they still do, at the top of the street nearest to Notting Hill Gate tube station, and lined both sides of the road as they straggled down, finally becoming a fruit and vegetable market. There were small shops and boutiques along the street, too. I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet was a favorite. It did a roaring trade in second-hand officers’ uniforms like those the Beatles made famous on the cover of their Sergeant Pepper album. Since there were so many allegedly 19th century officers’ red jackets, with brass buttons and epaulettes, and yards of gold piping, I suspect, they may have come from the recently filmed Charge of the Light Brigade. An antique dealer we knew had claimed to have starred in it – as an extra, his boyfriend used to say. One of the Six Hundred.

There were bakeries, a butcher, a couple of off-licenses (liquor stores), a pub or two, and a place with three hanging balls outside, indicating it was a pawnbroker’s establishment.

My first husband, Robin, and I had married in 1968, and our son Adam was born a few days before my 20th birthday in January the following year. We never had any money, partly because my spouse was charming but decidedly work-shy. I picked up the slack by coding market research questionnaires at home, having negotiated a rate for each one. This meant I could take care of Adam, saving the cost of a baby-minder.

It was Robin who came up with the idea of the antiques shop.  We were living in a small affordable flat not too far from my mother; we’d had fun finding old items to supplement the hideous gray tweed semicircular sofa my mother-in-law was throwing away and insisted on giving us. Among our finds was a chest of drawers from the 20’s, which we stripped down to the bare wood. I still have it. Wearing heavy duty rubber gloves, we used a gel, made of caustic soda, to remove the layers of white, then pink, then faded apple-green paint to find the wood beneath. After that, we smoothed it with three different grades of sandpaper, before preserving it with button polish to produce a lasting sheen. It still has its mirror and the new brass pulls we put on the drawers.

In those days, young people wanted pine or bentwood furniture, either in a natural state or painted white. The cheap copies made in the Far East hadn’t yet arrived in Britain, so when we found an old bentwood hat stand in a junk shop, we painted it white and felt very smug.

“We could make money doing this,” said my spouse, as he lit another cigarette and took a swig of instant coffee. We were sitting across from each other at the small Victorian mahogany table given us by my great-aunt, Inez. Adam was sitting on my knee, chewing on a rusk and spreading the sodden result over the T shirt I was wearing.

“How could we do that? We don’t know anything about antiques.”

He had once spent a month delivering things for the gay antique dealer who’d starred in the movies, until I showed up at the store one day and he realized Robin wasn’t batting for the same team. With this wealth of experience under his belt, my husband, always enthusiastic about a new project, felt confident.

“Simple,” he said. “I go and find the stuff, we tart it up, and then we flog it at Portobello.”

I frowned. “But we’re going to have to spend money to do that, aren’t we?”

“Well, said Robin airily, “we can find things for next to nothing. And maybe your great aunt has some more items she doesn’t want.”

Now I flinched. The last person I would ask to give me her things would be Aunt Inez. She was fond of me and my sisters, having no children of her own, but she belonged to the Edwardian generation. She looked a bit like Queen Mary, with long strings of pearls hanging down her impressive bust, and wore gray lace blouses with matching calf-length skirts. This was not a person who would take kindly to us selling the family furniture.

“Out of the question,” I said.

“Never mind,” said my 23 year-old spouse, undeterred.

“Perhaps we should find out how much it might cost to rent a stall in the Portobello Road before…”

“It won’t be much,” he interrupted me, beginning to sound a bit irritated. He wasn’t a man who concerned himself with details. Which was part of the reason we had Adam and were married.

I knew when I was beaten. I would just have to let him try to do this, and wait, no doubt in vain, for the project to materialize. But to my surprise, he began to find bits of furniture and soon we thought we had enough to go into business.

The stalls turned out to be expensive, but we discovered Robin’s Hungarian mother had a cousin who knew a cabinetmaker with a storefront in a road just off the cheap end of the Portobello Road market. He worked at the back, so was willing to let us have the front half for a peppercorn rent, because we’d only need the space on Saturdays.

“Let’s call ourselves Adam Interiors – after Adam,” he added unnecessarily, “and because of Robert Adam, you know, architect and all that.”

I did know, as it happened, but forbore to mention that what we would be offering would bear no relation to the neoclassical grandeur of Adam’s designs.

He had cards printed. ‘Robin Coatsworth, Managing director, Adam Interiors’, they said. They were embossed, at a substantial increase in price, to my dismay, but he assured me that when customers ran a thumb across one, they’d be able to tell by the raised letters these were high class cards.

Unlike the furniture.

We didn’t sell anything the first week.  Nor the second. Adam, always a good baby, did his part by snoozing in his pushchair outside, but the foot traffic was negligible, because people seemed to be walking past the end of our street, between the markets. Since we were closer to the vegetables than the Wedgwood or the Welsh dressers and old knife sharpeners, it appeared potential customers simply never saw us.

loveseat antiqueRobin had given me a lovely birthday present a few months before, a small Victorian loveseat with a delicately carved back. The new upholstery in pale blue velvet contrasted beautifully with the dark wood of the frame. I loved it.

“We’re going to have to sell it,” he said, unabashed. I had to agree. We needed the money. This was our most expensive and attractive piece, so a friend stuck it in his van and drove it to the shop. I felt a pang. Still, the rent had to be paid. It sold immediately, of course, leaving our other bits and bobs languishing in the gloomy storefront while we gave up our attempt at commerce.

Yet we seemed to be scraping by. It wasn’t until I found a ticket in the pocket of Robin’s jeans, which I was checking before taking them to the laundromat, that I began to worry. I took the tube to Notting Hill and ran down Portobello Road to the pawnbroker. The bell above the door rang as I entered, and a young man came through a doorway from the recesses of the shop. I handed over the ticket.

“Sorry, ducks, you’re too late. It wasn’t redeemed in time, so it’s gone.”

“What was it?” I asked. The man looked surprised.

“Nice gold bracelet, linked chain, 18 carat, Central European,” he said, consulting his ledger.

My Polish grandmother’s bracelet. 

We were evicted from our flat a year or so later for non-payment of rent.



4 thoughts on “Distressing antiques

  1. Wonderful story. You’ve been doing some terrific writing, Gabi. Thanks for sharing.
    BTW, I liked browsing on Portobello Road but also loved Bermonsey market– we used to get up at the crack of dawn to go there. Still have many items I bought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Being a West London girl, Portobello was much closer, so I never got to Bermondsey. The last time I went to Portobello, my second husband actually bought a piece of plastic scrimshaw (a solitaire game)., but there was no stopping him because he liked the idea of it. Since I liked playing solitaire, I didn’t try too hard to dissuade him, though the price was ridiculous for a fake…


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