A Trip Around The Art World – Life at Sotheby’s
If I was going to work in London I would need to find somewhere to live. My father, when he came down from Cambridge, had been a curate at the church in St John’s Wood and so he got in touch with the present incumbent, he made an appointment with Mrs Fielding at nine Queens Grove. She took in lodgers. She said I could be taken but I would have to share a room with a young Scottish accountant. Mrs Fielding was an interesting character highly intelligent but somewhat eccentric, I never saw her dressed in anything but a blue tracksuit. My rent was 3 pounds per week but that included breakfast and an evening meal. My salary at Sothebys was 8 pounds a week which after stoppages left me £6.50 minus rent pounds 3. 50 the only time I ever seem to have managed to save money.
A Porter’s life started at 8 o’clock, so that by the time the doors Sothebys were open to the public at nine everything was ready for that day’s viewing. In those days there were no estimates published in the catalogue and so if a punter wanted to know what a particular lot was likely to make they asked a Porter and many was the florin or half a crown I made by having an accurate view.
I was based in the West Gallery at Sothebys where the senior Porter was Jimmy Greene and the other Porter was called Billy Bontaire. Billy came from Jamaica and stood about 6 foot five. He taught me two things, how to tie a bow tie and how to do the limbo. I can still tie a bow tie but the limbo is now somewhat beyond me. We Porters ruled with a rod of iron by a gallery manager called Mr Munden, I don’t know if he had a Christian name, but if so, we never knew it.
The week was perfectly worked out, Monday was viewing day, Tuesday porcelain sale, Wednesday pictures, Thursday silver or jewellery, Friday furniture, which included carpets, tapestries and clocks.
After a few months I had saved sufficient money to buy what I had hankered after for months, a 12 bore double barrel shotgun. So I went up Bond Street to Philip, Son and Neal’s saleroom to one of their gun sales and for the princely sum of £16 became the proud owner of a 12 bore hammer gun. I checked the barrels and they looked pristine. The first time I use the gun the barrels had more pits than the relief map of the moon. I took it to our local gunsmith who told me that it’s the oldest trick in the book, pour molten black boot polish down the barrels let it cool, polish with a ram rod and soft cloth and you have perfect barrels.
One evening the Sotheby’s gallery had been hired out to a fashion house, Dior, if my memory serves me right and so the main gallery had to be cleared and the catwalk created down the middle. Two large tapestries had been suspended at the rear of the gallery to hide all the cabinets, chairs etc. It was also a very good place to hide two young porters and several bottles of champagne. From there we could watch the show and get thoroughly drunk. For me the highlight of the evening was this vision of loveliness floating down the catwalk whose name I found out was Fiona Campbell Walters, I also found out she was married to the Baron Thyssen and so there seemed little point in pursuing that avenue.
The evening concluded with something akin to French farce when one of the porters, also somewhat drunk, wheeled one of the huge cabin trunks, in which all the dresses were travelling back to Paris, straight into a trolley containing porcelain the next day’s sale, with obvious results. I was moving into new lodgings that night and on arrival at two in the morning, somewhat the worse for wear, was immediately given one weeks’ notice.
Sothebys in those days was one large family with only about 240 employees and even after 50 years I can still remember the names of the directors Peter Wilson chairman, John Ricketts pictures, Carmen Groneau old Master pictures, Richard Timewell furniture, Tim Clark English and continental porcelain, Jim Kadell Chinese and Japanese porcelain, John Hobson books, Tim Llewellyn silver and jewellery. Today there are so many directors that it takes up nearly a page of the catalogue.
Being one large family had its advantages and its disadvantages, the latter being when a group of us decided to call in sick and went off to Ascot, Peter Wilson spotted us on the television news and we were all summoned to his office the next day and severely carpeted. The former being at Christmas time, Peter called us all into the main gallery, proudly announced that we had turned over £8 million in the year and as it was very unlikely we would do so again we would have a large party to celebrate. Today one second rate Picasso will make that much money.
It always seems to be the disasters that stick in one’s mind, like the Friday (carpets, clocks and furniture) when a Thomas Tompion Long Case clock had been sold for a world record price and was being removed from the saleroom. The way to carry a long case clock is to stand behind it put your arms around the clock and lean back, thereby lifting the base of the clock off the floor and then you can waddle forward like an Emperor penguin with an egg between its feet. This is fine except your forward vision is restricted and if there is a pile of sold carpets in front of you disaster looms. There were bits of Thomas Tompion all over the place!