Antiques shops in The Lanes of Brighton in its Sixties heyday. The sign on the left featuring a woman’s portrait identifies Compton, a shop that belonged to Patrick Moorhead’s grandfather.

When Brighton rocked — how a humble English seaside town became a mecca for antiques

As a selection of artefacts from his eclectic collection comes to Christie’s, the Brighton antiques dealer Patrick Moorhead recalls the heady days of the 1960s, when competition among the traders in the so-called Lanes was fierce

Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe didn’t think much of Brighton in the early 1700s, describing it as ‘a poor fishing town, old built, and on the very edge of the sea’. The narrow backstreets of cottages he escaped to when a gale blew up were cramped and dirty — nothing like the elegant boutiques and antique shops found in The Lanes area today.

Brighton’s impoverished fortunes changed with the arrival of the Prince Regent and the construction of the Royal Pavilion in 1787. Suddenly everyone who could afford one wanted a seaside villa: the unconventional mix of second-homers ranged from aristocrats to dissolute bohemians. By the 1800s, the Romantic artist John Constable was dryly describing the thriving hotspot as ‘Piccadilly on sea’.

John Nash, The Banqueting Room at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, 1826. A plate from ‘Views of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton’. Bridgeman Images
John Nash, The Banqueting Room at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, 1826. A plate from ‘Views of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton’. Bridgeman Images

With the wealthy blow-ins came merchants keen to supply them with the very best furniture and art money could buy. As Giles Forster, a Christie’s specialist in the 19th Century Furniture and Works of Art department, explains: ‘The town began to develop a reputation as a place where you could source beautiful and curious works of art.’

By the mid-20th century, however, many of these villas had fallen into disrepair — ‘they were just too costly to maintain,’ adds Forster — and their contents were sold to the small family-owned antique and jewellery shops that populated the The Lanes.

‘I want it to capture that rush of discovery, that sense of a find’ Patrick Moorhead on the online sale at Christie’s of treasures from his collection

‘I want it to capture that rush of discovery, that sense of a find’: Patrick Moorhead on the online sale at Christie’s of treasures from his collection

It was here in the 1950s that the Moorhead family established their shop. Patrick Moorhead belongs to the third generation of the family and is a highly respected international antiques dealer. He remembers the stiff competition between the businesses as a child.

‘I loved the buzz,’ he says. ‘New objects would come in every day. You had to be up early in the morning, going from shop to shop, to be sure to get to the best things first.’

‘Patrick has a sixth sense for quality, knowing what is a good example instinctively by its look and feel’ — specialist Giles Forster

He quickly developed an eye for excellence and learned to recognise the differences between styles and periods, high-quality originals and copies. 

‘Everything would change hands until it found its way to the right dealer whose specialism it was, whether it be a Chinese vase, a war medal or a fine manuscript,’ he recalls. ‘I remember on one occasion buying a bookcase; I was the twelfth dealer it had passed to that day, and I was very relieved to sell it on to the thirteenth.’

From 4 to 25 February, a selection of artefacts from Moorhead’s collection will be offered in Patrick Moorhead: Hidden Treasures, a dedicated online sale encompassing Regency furniture, Meissen porcelain, chandeliers and Chinese ceramics.

‘Patrick’s taste is eclectic and wrought from years of experience,’ says Forster. ‘His energy is boundless and he has a sixth sense for quality, knowing what is a good example instinctively by its look and feel.’

Moorhead describes the auction as a microcosm of his whole career. ‘I want it to capture that rush of discovery, that sense of a find,’ he says, choosing objects that have both sentimental value for him and reflect the history of his home town.

A Japanese porcelain model of an elephant. Estimate £4,000-6,000. Offered in Patrick Moorhead Hidden Treasures, 4-25 February, Online
A Japanese porcelain model of an elephant. Estimate: £4,000-6,000. Offered in Patrick Moorhead: Hidden Treasures, 4-25 February, Online

A pair of Kangxi-period blue and white ‘Soldier’ vases and covers (above) are similar to those found in Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. A set of Victorian oil lamps (above left) is offered in memory of Moorhead’s father, who began his career buying up these beautiful but redundant objects following the advent of electricity.

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The sale also features some handsome Regency and French ormolu-mounted furniture. One object in particular recalls a convoluted purchase the dealer made early on in his career. 

‘I bought a Regency sofa table in the morning from one shop, resold it by lunchtime to another dealer, then bought it back in the evening when I realised I had regretted selling it,’ he says.

‘Sometimes something about a vase, or a piece of silver, or furniture rubs off on you. You want to capture its magic and you can’t live without it.’

Patrick Moorhead: Hidden Treasures runs 4-25 February 2021, online