Secrets of Portobello

Thomas Woodham-Smith treasures this classic antiques street market

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

My favourite Portobello Road joke goes like this: at a porcelain stall an American lady is peering very intently at a plate. The dealer, sensing a sale, tries to tempt her with a morsel of information: “It’s the famous Meissen bird pattern.” The woman nods approvingly and continues to scrutinise the plate. The dealer is sure that a sale is imminent. After a considerable wait she looks up from the plate and says, “I can see the bird, but where are the mice?”

That joke is itself an antique. I first heard it around 1990, recounted by Henry Brownrigg. From his arcade on Westbourne Grove, he dealt in Indian artefacts but he specialised in gruesome iron flagellant flails and canoe prows. Arcane, I grant you, but he had a loyal following. Some years passed and he had an almost perfect dealer’s funeral when his sister brought a few representative items of his stock to the wake and we all squabbled over who would buy what. I bought two small bronze Ganesha figures.

Clothes shops, cafes and other food outlets have, like a fungus, taken over and depleted the street

I also miss “Jim the Knife”, who sold wonderful period blades from across the centuries; the chess set specialist, Gary; and my old friend Edric who owned an arcade and lived above. On Saturdays he had an open house and we eagerly rang his bell in the expectation of coffee, lemon cake and even some shopping. His beautiful flat was adorned with solid porphyry shelves and exotic hard stone drawer handles.

That was Portobello 30 years ago and whilst clothes shops, cafes and other food outlets have, like a fungus, taken over and depleted the street, it is easy to forget that robust trade still continues. Tourists pour down the street from about 10.30am, but if you get there earlyish and you head for the handful of remaining dealing arcades you will still find interesting things.

I don’t buy silver but that market is well represented. Many moons ago I inherited some modest pieces of silver which Christie’s and Phillips told me were worthless. My then wife and I decided to have a home clear-out and we borrowed a stall for a Saturday. I sold the rejected silver before 6.30am and the rest of our junk to tourists by 1.30pm, spending the takings at an Italian restaurant around the corner.

An echo of the old Portobello remains at the Admiral Vernon Arcade

The silver dealers continue to prowl the street earlier than most. Jewellery is a stalwart of Portobello. If you are searching for classic stones and settings or for something unusual, there is plenty to look at. I am particularly fond of Pat Novissimo, who runs Lowther Antiques and has been “stalling out” in Portobello for more than 50 years.

An echo of the old Portobello remains at the Admiral Vernon Arcade. It is huge and rambling with a series of narrow corridors on both the ground floor and the basement.

In the doorway to the road sits David Levi, who epitomises the eclectic dealer of yesteryear. He is as likely to have a pair of modern plastic dice as a life-size nineteenth-century lead dog or a pair of seventeenth-century turned wooden goblets. His area is no more than a metre wide and yet he manages to preside over a precarious mountain of unpredictable treasures.

Downstairs is an Aladdin’s den where almost anything can be found. Specialists in a myriad of subjects discuss their stock, their lives and their aspirations in a loud, cheerful group. To the uninitiated it is a bit like walking into a bar in a Western. The piano stops and everyone turns round and stares, but they soon go back to their business and you can browse.

To the uninitiated it is a bit like walking into a bar in a Western

Portobello has one last secret. Parking is a nightmare anywhere in London but is particularly grim around Portobello on a Saturday. I find I can usually park in Ledbury Road and walk along. This means that when I have completed my shopping I can visit Robin Martin, which is now owned and run by Paul Martin, the son. It is one of London’s last shops dealing in continental decorative arts.

Paul has an intense addiction to eighteenth-century porcelain, gilt bronze and Boulle marquetry. Like many dealers he likes to present himself as struggling to survive and whilst it is may be truer today than ever before, he still manages to have new things to offer nearly every week. He therefore represents a very pleasant calm cup of coffee after the turbulence of a meal on Portobello.

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