Artillery Row

The man who made antiques cool

Christopher Gibbs inspired a generation of dealers, aesthetes and designers

On July 29th, 1938, Christopher Gibbs was born. On July 28th, 2018, Christopher Gibbs died. Though some accounts hold that he scraped through to his 80th birthday by just a few minutes, I much prefer the almost imperceptibly perfect asymmetry of his reaching the age of 79 years and 364 days; a characteristically subtle detail in an extravagant and patinated whole, endemic of his general approach and specific style. Probably the most important figure in the overlapping worlds of design throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the oft-termed King of Chelsea came to his final conclusion on a mountain in Tangier, part of a fine tradition in so doing. His perfectly tarnished crown has yet to be claimed.

Christopher Gibbs, as much as (perhaps even more so than) any other, was the man who set the sixties swinging. The first to be seen sashaying down Carnaby Street in flares, he was the Beau Brummel of the post-war, post-rationing, post-modern age and he played his part with alacrity, defining and refining the tastes of billionaires, royalty, business heads and rock gods alike. His accomplishments were manifold, and as well as taking enough drugs to emasculate Keith Richards, and influencing aesthetics in a more lasting way than literally anyone else in Britain since the second world war, he is also credited as the man who made antiques cool (long before Lovejoy donned his leather jacket), and who carved out the distressed, boho-aristocratic style which has held sway everywhere that counts ever since.

I first became aware of him and his overwhelming impact twenty years ago, in a marquee with my Grandfather, on the grounds of his Manor House at Clifton Hampden. The Christie’s estate sale, which regurgitated the broad and varied contents of Gibbs’s childhood home, took a full two days; the cumulative treasures went for more than three times the estimate, at over three million 20th century pounds (we returned to Hampshire in our empty Daimler, my Grandfather unsentimentally committed to buying only at considerably below estimate). Gibbs had inherited the place another twenty years before that, and it had been a few months prior to the auction (another July, in fact) that he had, with much regret, sold the ancestral (it had only been built for his family in 1840, so still a relatively recent concern). Last year his close friend Nicky Haslam did similar (though he was 20 years older than Chrissie had been, and the exquisite hunting lodge he cleared had no ties of blood, only of beauty), and sitting in Bonham’s plush New Bond Street premises I couldn’t help but drift back to the Gibbs sale. He had died so recently, as had my Grandfather, and as I alternated between the front row and the back, attention shifting between the auctioneer, the treasures and oddities that filled the room, and the treasures and oddities that filled the seats and held the paddles, memories of great men and grand sales danced and changed places in my mind. When I try to think of either, now, I find myself thinking of both. It is fitting, I feel, that for me the memory of Christopher Gibbs is forever tied not only to auctions and to antiques, but also to the human stories and associations that infuse them.

I believe, fervently, in the power of provenance; of story. The right narrative can turn lead into gold, coal into diamond, and water into wine – figuratively (and financially) speaking. When I write “narrative” I do not refer to the prevailing post-truth, distorted subjectivism that currently infects culture, but rather to the applied worshipping of truth as beauty and beauty as truth; the understanding that an object, a house, a landscape can act as a conduit to the past, connecting us in deep, almost spiritual ways with lives and worlds and lived experiences incomprehensibly beyond our own; can give us the opportunity to weave our chapters into other people’s stories, before passing them on to others who will add to what we’ve added. Few have flown this flag higher than did Christopher Gibbs, and none have really devoted themselves to the Goddess of Provenance in any comparable way since, and certainly not at any comparable level.

Gibbs made antiques cool long before Lovejoy donned his leather jacket

To any who might not be aware, it is not mere age which defines the value of an antique (whatever you may hear about the hundred year measure, or the magic date of 1830), but provenance; the proveable story of where it started and how it came it be standing before you. There is little more thrilling than picking up a non-specific, dismissed lot for pennies at auction, only to do the hard research and prove that you’ve found a forgotten masterpiece. It is why the closing of the auction houses and the cancelling of antiques fairs through lockdown has been such a blow. There have been online mimicries, of course, but this is comparing an orgy to a webcam, and doesn’t come close to sufficing. 

Though the antiquing trade began to reopen from mid June, for many that was too late; Caroline Penman, of the Chelsea Antiques Fair, emphasised to me recently the degree to which the Coronavirus shutdown has divided the antiques world on a broadly generational basis; those who are comfortable with online buying, selling and promotion on the one hand, and the predominantly older crowd on the other – those who don’t excel at or enjoy the online experience, and usually engage with fairs and auctions as much for the social and recreational aspects as for the professional; those who like to look someone in the eye before shaking hands on a deal, or to feel the heft of a piece in their hands before committing. The fear is that these analogue practices will steadily crumble and fade, shifting from their hitherto-held position of practical antiques apprenticeship, the heart and arteries of the industry, to a mere antiquated afterthought, a slightly awkward novelty – like making payment by cheque. If the circuit is to die, like the repertory theatre circuit did in the 80’s, then so will an incalculable resource of accumulated knowledge, not to mention a social and business culture passed on organically for generations, even centuries, itself as antique as many of the pieces it relates to.

Perhaps it is merely my sentimentality that leads me to mourn the passing of every generation, and to resent the coming of a new. The generation of dealers, aesthetes and designers that Christopher Gibbs inspired, that of Piers von Westenholz, Robert Kime, David Mlinaric, Christopher Hodsell (etc.), have themselves inspired, in turn, another generation, who are themselves in the process of defining and refining new generations of the rich and the powerful, and in so doing inspiring the next generation of the aesthetic trades who’ll pick up the paintbrush and start moving bits about. Among this current crowd we can include the likes of Luke Edward Hall, Duncan Campbell, Charlotte Rey – all urging forward the latest maximalist revival, but underpinning the playfulness with a minimalist’s focus on high quality pieces, craftsmanship, refinement, contrast and bold colour –  all of which is, without at all wishing to diminish, merely the latest iteration of the very style that Gibbs first began to carve out over 60 years ago.

Octavia Dickinson, one of the aforementioned baton-holding, bright young things of smart aesthetics, spoke to me about those bearers of the flame who have inspired this latest generation: “All of these decorators have what I think is an incredible eye, and style that cannot be easily explained. There is a masculinity, or weight, to the rooms that they design, and most importantly a love of and necessity for beautiful objects that have a history. They, for themselves and clients, collect items rather than buy them. Christopher seemed to be the forerunner of this way of decorating. It was more of a lifestyle than mere decoration, as in he needed to collect the objects for his clients and himself rather than looking at it as a job.” This instinctualism, this curatorial and artistic sensibility which transcends intellect or equation is the great heirloom that Christopher Gibbs passed on. The New York Times, 20 years ago, described it (succinctly) as “anti-decoration, high-bohemian taste favoured by self-confident Englishmen, a look based on well-worn grandeur, disarming charm and unexpected contrasts. The magic is in the mix of masterpieces and oddities — like an assemblage of refined and wild-card house guests who mysteriously combine to create the ideal convivial country-house weekend. The allergy here is to the banal, not to dust.”

This year, I spent Christopher Gibbs’s birthday at an estate sale at Bonham’s, and allowed myself to get slightly carried away with some extremely ornate but very beautiful pieces, most of which came in considerably under estimate (Granddad would be proud). I can think of nothing more fitting. I, like Octavia, am optimistic. Post lockdown she predicts “an even stronger course towards the need for well-made, well-designed, beautiful objects. People have been sitting at home … contemplating their lives and their homes, thinking about how to improve both.” As I look over the sumptuous interiors and unique treasures in past auction catalogues and current instagram feeds, each glittering with depth and with richness, I feel hope for the passing of the anaemic, colourless, “Eat, Laugh, Love” flatpack interiors that have become so commonplace over the past decade or three. As innovative and new as their exponents must have thought themselves, I’m reminded of Fanny, the narrator of Nancy Mitford’s 1949 Love in a Cold Climate, whose “taste at this time, like that of the other young people I knew who cared about their houses, favoured pickled or painted furniture with a great deal of white, and upholstery in pale cheerful colours. French furniture with its finely chiselled ormolu, its severe lines and perfect proportions was far above my head in those days”. When her camp, international-aesthete cousin, Cedric, tells her of the overwhelming beauty of his no-expense-spared, antiques laden, roaring 20’s pleasure palace, I can almost hear Christopher Gibbs himself, speaking to all the uninitiated aspirants left rebuilding from his rubble:

“Cedric went on, ‘but I suppose you would think it more hideous than ever, Fanny. I know that you like a room to sparkle with freshness, whereas I like it to glitter with richness. That is where we differ at present, but you’ll change. Your taste is really good, and it is bound to mature one day.”

One can but hope.

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