Peter Hone’s peripatetic career has afforded him many guises: chef, barman, museum guard, antiques dealer and celebrated plaster caster. Meanwhile, he has enjoyed a parallel life as a connoisseur collector, primarily of sculpture and antiquities but also of curios and idiosyncratic artworks — anything with an unusual story attached.
On 26 October, to mark his turning 75, Hone is selling his collection at Christie’s South Kensington, an event that he says is of a piece with his lifelong search for a grand narrative.
‘The stories are more important than anything else,’ Hone tells me over a pot of lapsang souchong at his home in London’s Notting Hill. ‘All my things have been lost, neglected, left to stew.’ In rediscovering a work — in the gardens and attics of once-prominent houses, at auctions and galleries, on building sites and on the pavement — ‘one is saving it for the nation’.
One of his oldest pieces is a bust of a woman which he found holding up a stable door at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire; a marble table was pulled out of a cellar on the Edgware Road.
Hone is like Fifties screen star Kenneth More dropped into the age of eBay. His hair is a snowy swirl, his laugh is fruity, and his nature recalls that particularly English bonhomie one sees in Ealing comedies. It is as enchanting a mix as his collection, which over the past half a century has slowly filled — from the floorboards to the plaster-panelled ceiling — his flat on Ladbroke Square.
Hone’s hoard includes marble busts, urns, architectural fragments, Roman and Greek statuettes and 19th-century Coade stone sculptures. There are oddities, too: death masks of Keats and Wordsworth; a dinner service made for Prince Adolphus, Duke of Cambridge, and another for Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant; the architectural plans for the public lavatories of Penzance. It’s a bewildering and beguiling mass, and bounding in amongst it all is Basil, Hone’s Jack Russell.
In the ‘winter bedroom’ at the front stands a canopied four-poster bed surrounded by floor-standing works, including a replica of the Pope’s chair. Looming over these is a portrait of the 18th-century Derbyshire industrialist Thomas Oldknow by Joseph Wright of Derby, which Hone bought in Motcomb Street in the early 1960s. Oldknow, who died before its completion, is pictured with his eyes serenely closed. ‘Which I’ve always loved,’ Hone laughs, ‘because I don’t want anyone staring at me, following me around.’
At the back, overlooking a mews and private gardens, is the ‘summer bedroom’ where a group of 19th-century portrait plaques pepper the walls, each made from bois durci, a gruesome French concoction of ox blood and sawdust. There is a bust of William Pitt in the hall, and fashion shots by the 1930s photographer Dudley Glanfield hang over the bathtub. Every work tells a tale.
Hone understands more than most the winding paths of provenance. He was born in the early part of the Second World War and at six months old was left outside an orphanage at Prestwich in the northwest of England. ‘It’s all part of the secret history of it all. Which I like,’ he says. ‘It’s a question of abandonment. I rescue all these objects and take them into my orphanage of things.’
After leaving school, he cooked at various British Transport Hotels — Gleneagles, Inverness, Peterborough — working the breakfast shift. ‘My porridge was mentioned in The Times,’ he says with pride. ‘The little room I slept in was over the shunting yard. And I was woken up by steam every morning, which would rush underneath my bed.’ His interest in fancy pastry work would later be reflected in his passion for architectural flourishes.
The job brought him to London in the late 1950s, to work first in the kitchens, then the bar at the Great Western Royal Hotel in Paddington. In the capital he fell in love with antiques, and during the 1960s and 1970s ran a series of shops in Camden Passage where he gained a reputation for stocking exotic old beds. ‘We sold them to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles,’ he recalls. ‘Lord Lambton bought one for every mistress he had over the years.’
Whether cooking, casting or collecting, Hone observes that ‘everything is elementary as long as you put your mind to it’
In north London he befriended the veteran portrait photographer Angus McBean, who kept a studio on Colebrooke Row in Islington. Hone would help out in his darkroom and carry his arc lamps to photo shoots in the West End. Included in his sale are McBean’s posters of Vivien Leigh and a chandelier designed by the photographer for the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street.
After his shop leases ended, Hone spent a period as a custodian for the Department of the Environment, looking after landmarks such as the Banqueting House in Whitehall and Chiswick House. His interest in plasterwork grew during his time at Clifton Nurseries in Little Venice, where, during the 1990s, he managed an architectural antiques shop for Lord Jacob Rothschild. ‘I’ll give you a shop that you’ll be proud of,’ Hone told him. Rothschild replied: ‘All right, as long as you don’t make a loss.’ It became world-famous.
An ardent autodidact, Hone began his own casting (finials and friezes, capitals and corbels) when he retired from Clifton Nurseries. Whether cooking, casting or collecting, he observes that ‘everything is elementary as long as you put your mind to it’.
That dedication has left its mark on Britain’s cultural landscape: he has placed altarpiece sculptures by Artus Quellinus in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and saved a 17th-century baroque ceiling that is due to be installed in Nottingham Castle Museum.
He is now, he says, at his peak — ‘in my prime, Miss Brodie’ — and looking to start a new chapter. His home, bereft of these treasures, is to become his canvas. Hone intends to cover the wall space with his own plaster creations — ‘white on white, white on grey, grey on grey’— drawn from both classical and contemporary sources. His latest passion is for casting the huge leaves from the trees in the square.
‘It will be my mausoleum,’ he giggles into his cup. ‘Joyous, thrilling.’ Meanwhile, all the objects that he has collected — his orphans — will continue with their own stories, each one revived by its time in the ‘Hone museum’. They were, he observes, ‘all bought with heart. Like a nurse nursing them back to health.’
The Peter Hone Collection will be offered as part of the Interiors sale on 26 October at Christie’s South Kensington