Digging a new scene

Thomas Woodham-Smith discovers the joys of gardenalia


This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

If you are an exhibitor at the Battersea Decorative Fair and have the urge to go to the loo, you must clamber through a storage area stacked sky high with dealers’ goods and hurdle a ramshackle, tumbling regiment of beautifully waxed and polished garden implements.

These are the stock of Graham Child, who, like King Midas, has discovered the art of turning base metal into gold. Trading as “Garden Artefacts”, he has discovered that if you hang a group of six or so nicely-presented garden spades and forks on a rack, crucially with matching handles, interior designers and fashionable people — often with no garden — will buy the lot.

The world of garden implements is a bit of a rabbit hole down which I should beware falling

Apparently, increasing numbers of vogueish hallways are adorned with these garnitures of wood and steel. Which is why, by the end of the fair, it becomes easier to get to the loo.

Graham himself is part of the secret: he is one of those disarmingly charming silver-haired men who always carry a smile on their lips. He sacrificed his working years to Sotheby’s furniture department and has written a few books, but he has found his spiritual home fostering a rustic chic which defies easy analysis.

Over the summer I visited a pop-up Graham opened in a small corner shop on Pimlico Road. Typically, I found him deep into a broadsheet newspaper sipping a cup of coffee with his glasses propped up on his forehead. He has an uncanny knack of seeming tremendously at ease wherever he is.

We chatted for an hour or so, but gradually the truth was uncovered: the world of garden implements is a bit of a rabbit hole down which I should beware falling. Yes, he loves what he sells, but it is the symmetry, the surface, the style and the design elements that really drive him; he isn’t interested in the rarity or collectability of the pieces. But he directed me to a few names in the trade where dangerously deep knowledge could be acquired.

The thing about our business is that you can buy and collect anything, from the current vogue for NFTs to garden implements. I was once told that if you have one item then it is simply a purchase, two and you enter into the world of pairs and anything beyond could be defined as a collection.

Someone who almost seems to demand his own category is Trevor Farrell, who has more than 3,000 items of gardenalia in his house. A retired vet in his eighties, he has been collecting for well over 40 years.

He recently bought a rare border spade and noted the tingle as the piece was placed in his tense, eager hands. As is the case with all collecting, materials, patina, quality and age are crucial considerations. For English tools, the ones that sell are nearly all made between 1900 and 1960. Anything incorporating plastic is yet to be considered desirable.

If you inhabit the collectors’ world, rarity, a signature, or fantastic condition will drive the price, aesthetics are pushed to the background. While Graham sells and can almost be credited with creating a look, Trevor is a passionate accumulator.

Trevor remarks that the golden age of dealing in tools is passing, supply having virtually dried up

He reveals with a certain melancholy that while vintage English tools are good and solid, it was the French who excelled in ingenuity and quality. He points out a patent nickel-plated articulated apple picker. I cannot disagree.

In England, the big makers’ names are all, in essence, Midlands steel folk and a signed piece always commands a premium. Trevor remarks that the golden age of dealing in tools is passing, supply having virtually dried up. He asks me keenly if I know of any way he can get access to tools being sold in France.

A seldom-appreciated trading discipline has come and is now going. I spoke to a few other firms and the response was the same, that the glory days when greedy buyers would run to a stand or shop to buy the latest vintage implements are a thing of the past. Both supply and demand are faltering.

So if you feel a sudden irrepressible urge to buy a glass cucumber straightener, buy one now, because you may not find another.

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