When you have been brought up in a laughter-dappled and antique-filled house where seven children were raised, along with many dogs, well, the eyes and the heart occasionally get whelmed, from all that elegance and pulchritude.
Mum and Dad began collecting seriously in the mid-1950s in Vancouver, Toronto, New York, and London. Mum was self-taught, but had an eye for beautiful things. "Jeannie was never frightened away by a large price tag," one dealer remembers. "She was discriminating, but she knew what she liked." Whether in a shop on Madison Avenue or Bond Street, Dad might ask (rhetorically) if they really needed another Queen Anne stool or miniature cabinet, knowing that wasn't the point. Or he'd wonder, out loud, where on earth they would put the next chest-of-drawers or the Queen Anne settee. "Somewhere," was generally Mum's cheerful, non-committal answer, offered with her blazing smile, "God I love it!!"
Dad was a very patient husband. He was in charge of reigning Mum in, of keeping her passionate, infectious antique collecting in some sort of perspective. Mum relied on him for that counsel because she rarely saw an expensive 18th century piece of English furniture she could live without. She also depended - utterly - upon him for the shipping details, the customs correspondence, and initial queries about, say, fourteen George II dining room chairs Mum just happened to see advertised in Country Life magazine.
Together they were a formidable team. And they had so darn much fun traveling and collecting together, even if it was to an antique store in Victoria, which got a lot of their trade in the beginning. But it was in the 1960s, taking yearly trips to London in June, that they began a friendship with the boys at Mallett at 40 New Bond Street, that would last more than four decades.
Mum and Dad pretty much used Mallett as a club, as a living room away from their beloved Connaught Hotel corner suite. You often found them having lunch there, or strolling through the rooms with (the late) David Nickerson, Lanto Synge, and the irrepressible Henry Neville, a martini in hand.
"Many of we younger assistants had our early lesson in mixing strong drinks, courtesy of Jeannie's frequent requests for more gin in her martinis," remembers Henry. On a more serious note, Henry noticed something interesting about Mum's discerning eye. "Unlike many furniture collectors today who select their pieces to complement their interiors, Jeannie had no problem falling for an impossibly beautiful needlework sofa and then re-hanging every curtain in the three rooms from which you could see it; so that the curtains worked with the settee, rather than the settee working with the already existing decor." (The last receipt from Mallett, in 2002, is signed, "with love". They meant it.)
Of course, Mum and Dad also found rarae aves at Stair, Halcyon Days, Albert Amor, Heirloom & Howard, W.R. Harvey & Co., and Fortnum and Mason.
This astounding amount of legwork and logistics also included the Grosvenor House and Olympia Antique fairs, where Mum often went with her buddies (while Dad escaped, happily, to his beloved cricket matches at Lord's.) One friend, Evie MacDougall, remembers one such foray to Grosvenor House, which they attacked with a vengeance, and fortunately, with a car and driver waiting outside.
"Jeannie fell in love with a beautiful child-size Regency sofa, along with other smaller, fragile treasures. Exhausted but triumphant, we hauled our purchases down to the car. When they were all packed into the stuffed car, Jeannie announced that only 'the sofa' remained to be retrieved, whereupon the driver, already at his limit, nearly fainted. "You should have seen his relief when he discovered the sofa was a miniature! But stuff it in we did, with the boot lid up and a lot of rope, and took off to meet our husbands, patiently waiting (as usual) for us."
It was the same in New York, every autumn for forty + years. Hitting The Seventh Avenue Armory antique fair, opening night, with the charming Peter Duchin, and the redoubtable Pat Buckley, the Vancouver-raised daughter of my grandfather's business partner.
After Dad died in 1998, New York was too painful for Mum, too full of graced memories with Dad. "We were of an era and of a time," she said on our last trip there together.
Cleaning out the drawers, I found hundreds of bills of sale, for instance a receipt, from 1986, for a miniature. It is from somewhere called, "Ordinary, VA." I never remember my parents going anywhere near Virginia. And there certainly was nothing remotely ordinary about their antique collection.
PROPERTY FROM THE COLLECTION OF
THE LATE MR. AND MRS. GORDON T. SOUTHAM