Thomas Woodham-Smith meets the go-to man for classic English furniture
This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Sipping a double espresso in his pine-panelled Mayfair office in Bruton Street, it is hard to think of Simon Phillips as a survivor. The big guy in English antique furniture, his shop is on two floors and if you are looking to acquire furniture this is where you come to buy the best. It won’t be cheap — there are no bargains here — but if you have deep pockets and seek trophies, this is the one-stop shop.
Before Simon joined, the business of Ronald Phillips was firmly established as one among the many art and antique dealers in Mayfair. In those days, there were numerous famous names in and around Bond Street: Mallett, Partridge, Colnaghi, The Fine Art Society, Agnews, and many more. Simon’s father ran a tidy, mainly trade, business which he had started in 1952.
If you have deep pockets and seek trophies, this is the one-stop shop
The traders were local and collegiate and they visited each other buying and selling for low margins in a convivial manner. The ensuing decades wrought a significant change to the West End. The fashion world moved in and the art and antique dealers either closed or moved off the high street. Ronald Phillips, selling the best English eighteenth century furniture, is the last one, a bloom in the desert.
At the tender age of 6, Simon went on buying trips with his father. Those long hours in the back of the car clearly sparked something because in 1979 at the age of 18 he asked if he could join the family business rather than heading off to university. His two older siblings were amazed that he sought such a fate, convinced that their father would be hard to work for, but it proved to be the ideal role for him.
Over an extended apprenticeship of nearly 20 years Simon encouraged, cajoled and even bullied his father into moving away from a dealer-focussed business in favour of working almost exclusively with private clients and museums. He recalls that his first acts on joining were to insist that his father got a second telephone, and to extract him from behind the antediluvian typewriter where he laboriously processed invoices by employing — much against his father’s wishes — a secretary.
He pushed for the firm to exhibit regularly at the Grosvenor House Antique Fair (in 2009 he was one of the founding partners of the Masterpiece fair) and to produce catalogues. These days catalogues are such a familiar marketing device that it is hard to appreciate how innovative this was — and expensive. The business has produced a hardback one every year since 1997 that currently costs around £75,000 to produce.
By 1995 Simon was already the key buyer and salesman and got together the funds to buy out control of the company from his father. Over the ensuing years, the firm of Ronald Phillips has traded its way to pre-eminence. When I ask him, Simon puts it down to working a seven-day week, buying bravely (spending a lot more money than anyone else to secure things) and meticulous cataloguing.
Though Ronald Phillips sells almost nothing made since 1820 there is a recognition of modern times and taste
But a lot of people work hard and don’t even survive in the art world. I think that Simon’s secret weapon is his ability to connect with people. He loves fine wine and restaurants and is almost obsessive about paying. He lavishes generosity on his clients and provides a support service that other dealers could not even imagine.
Close relationships besides, at the core of his business is the stock. Though Ronald Phillips sells almost nothing made since 1820 there is a recognition of modern times and taste.
Simon observes that a Chippendale tripod table is now more desirable and consequently valuable than a Chippendale bookcase; sideboards are unsellable, and satinwood furniture, once a darling of the trade, has become comparatively “worthless”. He buys great desks — “every great man needs a great desk” — and has made a speciality of spectacular mirrors.The business has not been impervious to the vicissitudes of the Covid pandemic and Simon has lately put the brakes on buying. But he still has a stock of over 1,000 items, costing somewhere significantly in excess of £10 million.
Many of his finest purchases he keeps tucked away, waiting for the perfect moment to reveal them, or for the possibility of building up sets or making pairs through cunning buying. Thinking of the future he wonders whether his teenage children will enter the business but ruefully concludes that they will more likely orientate towards art and sculpture. But one thing is certain, if he is to survive, the seven-day weeks will have to continue.
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