COLLECTING: Old mowers almanack

What Christopher Proudfoot doesn't know about lawnmowers isn't worth knowing - but is what he does know worth knowing? Madeleine Marsh meets the man, his son, and their collection of 200 antique machines
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The Independent Culture
IT SEEMED somehow prophetic that my tape-recorder should have broken down on the way to interview Christopher Proudfoot. He is not a man who welcomes modern machines into his home, a former vicarage in leafiest Kent.

Proudfoot is Christie's specialist in "wacky" items: mechanical musical instruments, old hand tools, typewriters, sewing machines - utilitarian objects that have fallen from use only to be recycled into collectables. "I've always liked anything old, mechanical, and of a domestic nature; it's the obsolete that appeals to me," he explains, choosing a Gilbert & Sullivan 78 to play on his horned gramophone. "I've never wanted a hi- fi," he says, sharpening the bamboo needle. "I think classical music sounds better on an old machine."

Proudfoot's house is filled with gramophones, phonographs and mechanical objects that were state-of-the-art more than half a century ago - you almost experience a shock of modernity when the phone rings. But it is outside, in numerous garden sheds, that his true passion lies, with his collection of 200 lawnmowers, dating from the 1860s to the 1950s.

Why should anyone want to collect 200 lawnmowers? "For me," Proudfoot explains, "the appeal is mechanical - making the machines move again. I enjoy mowing the lawns and laying down new paths, but I'm not interested in growing plants in the slightest; my wife does all that."

His collection ranges from huge, unwieldy machines designed to be pulled by horses, to tiny hand-mowers with 6in blades. Though several have been restored to their original red-and-green painted livery, with decorative metalwork, most appear old rather than antique. As Proudfoot explains, it's not necessarily what they look like that matters:

"I do find them attractive, but it's the unusual models I'm really looking for. The prettier they are, the more competition there is for them and the more expensive they become."

Now in his mid 40s, Proudfoot first became interested in lawnmowers at the age of six, when he found an ancient model abandoned in the back of his parents' shed. "It's because I am a child of the Fifties," he explains, "when so many shoddy things started to be produced, that I have this firm belief that nothing new is ever as good as the thing it replaces."

To Proudfoot, "new" means post-war, and his gently Luddite tendencies are mirrored in son William, 13, who received an antique toy mower for his third birthday and now shares his father's enthusiasm - and his disregard for horticulture. "I was rather keen on trees once," says William, "but what I like is using the machines. I enjoy mowing, but I have no interest in making the lawn look nice."

The two chat companionably about blades, motors and the application of WD40, squabble pedantically about names, dates and provenance, and look at me askance when I ask them to translate the Latin titles of two early models, Thomas Green's "Silens Messor" ("Silent Mower") - the first chain- driven model, produced virtually unchanged from 1859 to the 1930s - and the "Multum in Parvo" ("Much in Little") - a ladylike, small-bladed machine for mowing the borders and slim paths popular in turn-of-the-century gardens.

"The people who originally used these lawnmowers might not have been educated," says Proudfoot, eyeing me sympathetically, "but the people who bought them certainly were."

The first lawnmower was invented by Edwin Budding in 1830. "Before that," Proudfoot explains, "a mower was a man with a scythe, or rather armies of men with scythes. Only the very rich had large areas of grass."

Budding promised clients that his cylindrical cutter would out-perform the best humans, adding: "Country gentlemen may find in using my machines themselves an amusing, useful and healthy exercise."

These early machines were a luxury product aimed at the gentry, and are rare today. "You can count on the fingers of one hand the pre-1860s models, and they're all in museums," says Christopher Proudfoot. They were also very noisy; gardeners were often forbidden to mow before the household had risen, and it was not until Thomas Green devised his chain-driven mower that noise was reduced, hence "Silens Messor".

The invention of grass-cutting machines led to the inclusion of lawns in private gardens. As with all domestic machinery, the lawnmower's development reflects more important world events, as horticultural expert David G Halford notes. Production boomed after the First World War, thanks to a dearth of gardeners and the rise of detached and semi-detached houses, each with its own small garden; the market expanded again with domestic building after the Second World War.

Though Proudfoot admits to owning one present-day mower ("for when I'm in a hurry"), his collection stops c1960; neither he nor William approves of later models. "In lawnmower magazines you see pictures of proud people with their 1950s mowers, as if they were something incredibly special," says William, with the blithe insouciance of someone who has just been chugging round the garden with a late 19th-century mower.

Proudfoot's lawnmowers might be old, but few come from antique shops. Several have been found at country auctions, some rescued from skips and scrapyards, and many purchased direct from the original owners. "This 16in Atco belonged to a country vicar. It came here, to what is a former rectory garden, and when I lent it to the BBC it appeared in Lord Peter Wimsey, mowing yet another rectory lawn - exactly what it had been doing so well for generations."

Prices range from nothing ("people do give me their old machines") to the low hundreds. The majority of Proudfoot's lawnmowers cost well under pounds 50, and most are fully operational - working far more effectively, he claims, than "those new, rubbishy machines" most gardeners use today.

Collecting lawnmowers is still an esoteric pursuit. According to Proudfoot, the Lawnmower Collecting Society has 150 members, most of whom are more interested in mechanics than they are in gardens.

Lawnmowers certainly divide the sexes in the Proudfoot household. Mrs Proudfoot plants the flowerbeds and "tolerates" the lawnmowers while their nine-year-old daughter is only interested in one of the larger mowers in the hope that she might acquire the pony meant to pull it. Her father already has a set of the ancient horse boots, worn to minimise hoof damage to the lawn, but the horse itself is yet to be forthcoming.

Apart from lawnmowers, the garden is littered with other horticultural antiques: garden rollers from the 18th and 19th centuries, Victorian tools and wooden wheelbarrows. "Some people put these in their front garden with flowers in them," sniffs Proudfoot. "It not only looks completely stupid but it rots the wood."

Today, demand for such items has expanded way beyond the specialist, more academic collector. Tartan Bow, an antique shop in Eye in Suffolk, concentrates on kitchenalia and old gardening equipment. "It has become extremely popular in the last couple of years," says proprietor Jill Couzens. "People already have antiques in their houses - now they want them for their gardens."

Popular lines include early sprinklers, which were often attractively shaped; metal watering-cans with brass roses; terracotta pots, and yes, old wheelbarrows and donkey carts for plant containers. Also in demand are traditional tools such as daisy grubbers and dock lifters, pitchforks and rakes. "People stand these up against their fences for decoration," says Couzens. "It's the latest trend to have things looking a bit untidy."

Some objects, however, will always appeal to the enthusiast rather than the horticultural fashion victim. Just before I left the Proudfoots' house, Christopher and his son were tinkering with a lethal-looking period hedge- cutter which could easily have featured in a Terminator remake: 5ft long, operated by two men, and with teeth like a carnivorous dinosaur. "Have you ever used it?" I asked, as Christopher Proudfoot packed the monster away in a suspiciously coffin-shaped box. "No," he replied, laughing. "I'm not that stupid."

! Reading: 'Old Lawnmowers' by David G Halford (Shire Publications pounds 2.25). Museums: British Lawnmower Museum, 106-114 Shakespeare Street, Southport, Merseyside (01704 535369); Milton Keynes Museum of Industry and Rural Life, Southern Way, Wolverton, Milton Keynes, Bucks (01908 316222); Trerice, Kestle Mill, Newquay, Cornwall (01637 875404).