London's Best Vintage Shopping
When William Faulkner remarked that the past is not dead, that, in fact, it’s not even past, he didn’t go far enough. I am walking down Portobello Road and the evidence of the past is glowing, vibrating, bouncing all around me: frames and fountain pens, toys and tortoiseshell, watches and walking sticks, pewter and perfume bottles—something for every collector’s taste including my own, which runs to, among other things, Victorian jewelry, girly tabletop bibelots, and, I am ashamed to admit, 100-year-old working-class dolls that, in most cases, have seen better days. I’ve been coming to Portobello since I was a teenager searching for Victorian velvet dresses that cost $1.50, and as my tastes have grown more refined I have only found more and more to enchant me. The sheer range of collectibles in this small corner of London is astonishing enough, and then there are the vendors—from thrillingly erudite to downright nutty—who expand your knowledge even as they shrink your budget.
Day 1: 1,500 Dealers Await
It’s 8:30 on a clear Saturday morning, the earliest I can manage to get here, though friends have urged me to arrive sooner, since they say the serious trading is over by now. This is the first outing of a long weekend dedicated to antiquing in London that I’ve been planning since the days the pound soared; by the time I amble down Portobello, past the plaque on George Orwell’s old house, the exchange rate is more favorable, an unexpected bonus but not something I’d counted on. In truth, I always find bargains in London on quirky antiques and curios I could never come across in the States.
These three blocks are near to paradise for me, and I’m swimming in the ecstasy of anticipation when I see my friend Allen Ward, a jewelry dealer who’s been setting up at Portobello for 15 years. I tell him I’m heading for the Central Gallery, where the fanciest jewelry is, and he crinkles his nose. “Too rich for me in there,” he sniffs. So we make a plan to meet at our mutual friend Vanessa Williams’s stall in a few hours.
At the Central Gallery, the narrow middle aisle is thronged with shoppers. And if offerings are hardly bargain-basement, they are exquisite and well worth the prices, which are at least a third less than they would be in New York. Between this place and the Crown Arcade, where high-end jewelry people congregate in the back, my budget is rapidly expanding upward. Instead of a self-imposed $500 limit, why can’t I spend $1,000 for that 19th-century bracelet dangling a mine-cut diamond heart?
To distract myself, I contemplate the offerings at the Portobello Print & Map Shop and am sorely tempted by a drawing of two lady golfers in sporty ensembles (circa 1910) for $28. I wonder if I need a frankly fake horn- handled magnifying glass, for sale at an outdoor table, or an authentic print of Babar the Elephant for $12, from a stack at a stall in the middle of the street.
By the time I get to Vanessa’s booth, in Rogers Antiques Gallery, an arcade with a wildly eclectic range of merchandise, the diamond bracelet has become an obsession. “Why can’t I spend $1,000?” I wail. Vanessa laughs and shows me what’s new with her. While she’s unveiling a stupendous diamond bird in its original box for $2,200, a Japanese fashionista in a vintage coat is mesmerized by a long silver-and-crystal necklace from the 1920’s marked $78. A calculator gets whipped out to figure the yen-pound conversion. Vanessa whispers that she can’t keep these chains in stock.
I wish I wanted an Art Deco chain. But I don’t. I want that bracelet. I keep pining until Allen comes by and takes me to 91 Portobello, the arcade where he sets up. He introduces me to Jacquie Borsberry of Jacquie’s Costume Jewellery and her extraordinary collection of Czech glass bracelets, Egyptian-Revival pendants, and 1960’s Pop Art flower brooches that could have been plucked from Twiggy’s boudoir. “What recession? Jacquie’s here every Saturday in her little shoppette,” the proprietress laughs.
By 1 p.m. the street is thick with tourists. It suddenly occurs to me that Mycal Tupper, my diamond-bracelet guy, may be packing up early, so, heart racing, I rush over, and though I have nowhere near $1,000 in English money and he, like many dealers, is loath to take credit cards, we find a way—he accepts an American check and the deal is done. Oh well. At least I make him throw in a nice vintage box to conceal my shameful deed.
Day 2: The Alexandra Palace
Some people wouldn’t relish wandering around a 600-dealer show after having done the same thing the day before, but, as Rose says in Gypsy, some people ain’t me. Like a gourmand planning a fancy dinner while still savoring lunch, I simply do not tire of antiquing. On Sunday morning I head out at the civilized hour of 10 a.m. to a vast show at the Alexandra Palace, or the Ally Pally, as it’s familiarly called. The Pally, a spectacular Victorian pile, is reachable by taxi but I’d recommend the Tube—even if your pockets are deep, do you want to spend nearly $80 on a cab before you even get there?
Though it was pouring when I left the hotel, the sun is streaming through the Pally’s glass dome as I pay my $7 admission and enter the show, which offers a range of popularly priced merchandise so diverse that I decide to concentrate on British-made goods, my assumption being that this should be where the bargains are. In short order I see, for less than $150, Victorian Wedgwood bowls; a 1987 Sex Pistols calendar; a plaster bust of Churchill; a small wooden trinket box shaped like a house and decorated with pictures of rural churches; and a circa-1925 velvet doll in a white nightdress with a tag that says she was made in England by the Chad Valley company. (I purchase these last two items.) But my favorite stand belongs to Andrew Muir, who specializes in Clarice Cliff pottery. These dazzling Deco dishes with their faux-naïf patterns are usually, alas, pretty steep, though Andrew tells me that a small perfect bowl is $71, and for $200 you could start your collection with an exuberantly decorated side plate.
Day 3: Covent Garden, Here I Come
It’s Monday, which means I’m off to the Monday-only Jubilee Market in Covent Garden. Whenever I mentioned this market to the dealers at Portobello, they said that it’s no good anymore. So I don’t start out with very high hopes.
But herein lies the joy of collecting: sure, this flea is rough and tumble, with plenty of unspeakable junk, but there is also a goodly amount of fashionable items—heaps of fur coats from the 50’s and 60’s (the English seem to have turned irrevocably against wearing fur; you rarely see a fur coat on the street but there are plenty at the markets); stacks of British Vogues from the 1930’s; and so many fitted cases with silver-topped bottles, so many dressing-table mirrors, vanity sets, Bakelite nail buffers, and monogrammed fish knives, that you start to believe everyone in Britain was at one time living like Bertie Wooster. (I wonder idly if a taxidermied fox in a glass bell jar would get through customs.)
At least this market begins at a civilized hour, I think, when I see the dealers wrapping items at 11 a.m., but I am wrong—they’ve been here since 5 a.m., and they’re actually packing up. So I quickly sew up some remarkable bargains—a porcelain cup with portraits of King George V and Queen Mary from 1935 for a ridiculously low $7; two 19th-century dogs made of horn, $60 for the pair; and, for $28, a sailor doll with a wicked grin who started his life as a souvenir on a grand ocean liner.
Day 4: Packing It In (Despite ATM Setback)
Tuesday is my last day in London, and today I’m up at five myself to catch the commuter train from Paddington to the Kempton Park Race Course, where a gigantic, highly regarded show takes place twice a month. Though it’s free and open to the public, and the train stops right inside the racetrack, Sunbury Antiques Market is very much a dealers’ scene, with trading pretty much over by noon.
By now a number of merchants, who are seeing me for the fourth day in a row, are saying, “Hi, Lynn!” which gives me a funny little thrill. I am having a wonderful time, perusing Victorian gate bracelets and Staffordshire pooches, when disaster strikes: the racetrack’s cash machine will not accept my card. I am reduced to begging dealers to take dollars or credit cards (neither prospect thrills them), so I highly recommend you load up on pounds if you are planning to take a train to a suburban outpost.
I consider a diamond ring shaped like a duck, persuade a dealer to accept dollars for a 1930’s Norah Welling doll I can’t live without, and decide to pass on a set of Deco silver place-card holders shaped like cartoon animals that I’d also seen at the Ally Pally. (I will regret this decision.) Then I run into Vanessa, who has bought plenty of jewelry for resale to clients from Istanbul to Italy, along with something for herself—a fox coat for $114.
By noon I’m back on the train to meet my friend Simon at Selfridges for a final lunch. But wait, don’t I have an hour to kill before it’s time to head for Heathrow? Let’s go down the street to Grays!
Grays, an antiques center with the most fabulous jewelry in London, hands down, is by reputation as expensive as it is elegant. But it turns out that even the glittering Grays is not beyond the modest means of thrifty antiquers. I admire the dazzling showpieces as if I were in a museum, then head downstairs, where Jo Elton and Olly Gerrish sell paste serpents and enamel butterflies. On the main floor, Sylvie Spectrum specializes in late-19th-century brooches that say darling or baby or sweetheart, just the sort of thing I was seeking before I was waylaid by diamond hearts. She shows me so many pins that I’m drowning in indecision, but I finally settle on a circa-1910 baby, signed by jeweler Charles Horner, for $78, mostly because Sylvie tells me that when Diana gave birth to William, the dealer sent a pin just like this one to the Princess.
Okay, time to go! I feel like I’ve done it all, seen it all, really exhausted the possibilities of a London antiques weekend. But just as I’m going out the door of Grays ready to dash to the hotel, pick up my bags, and head for home, a dealer nearly breaks my heart when she stops me and says, “Will we see you at the Horticultural Halls show this weekend, Lynn? You should come! Six hundred dealers!”