Your heritage, by post
The middle-classes want aristocratic style. The aristocrats want middle-class money. Thanks to mail order, business can be conducted at a discreet distance. By Serena Mackesy
Saturday 02 September 1995
The middle classes have, of course, always aspired to get their hands on the accoutrements of stately living. Some are unafraid to be seen to aspire, and scour the design market in search of things new and impressive, things that may well turn into the next century's heirlooms. Another, larger group, aspire but don't want to be seen to do so. They seek to link themselves to a grander past and, if possible, a grander class. The hunt is always on for a ducal link, however distant.
This is a sort of muted aspiration, and something that we British, with our fear of being accused of showing off, are very good at. A worn Persian rug is always better than a brand new Axminster; better to have a battered bergere than a comfy sprung sofa. We spend our time rummaging around auction houses and plundering the attics of those of our betters who fall on hard times in order to fill our living-rooms with carelessly scattered items that we can dismiss with an airy hand wave and a "That? I inherited that" or a "Those? Oh, those were a wedding present."
The Eighties were a great time for design. As in the Victorian era, the bourgeoisie were permitted to be pleased about their sudden wealth and could spend it on things that were obviously new and obviously expensive. But now even the bourgeoisie know unemployment, and those of us who are in work feel a bit awkward about being seen to be earning more than our peers. If we're going to have things, it has to look as though we might always have had them.
One of the more popular ways of doing this is to buy stuff that could be linked with the noble "younger son" professions: the military, the Raj, and urban practices like the law. So the tills of the General Trading Company ring loud and clear as we troop out with carved Indian cupboards and Benares ware pots that look as though they came back across the sea along with the steamer trunk that now serves as a coffee table. Peter Jones groans beneath its load of wastepaper baskets showing old London street scenes, and handsome leather-bound bedroom sets with drawers and brass handles called things like the Campaign Collection. But an awful lot of people hanker after something just that little bit grander.
Meanwhile, the aristocracy, who have had to reinvent themselves as businesspeople or sink without trace, have been casting around for ways to make money from this urge without actually flogging off the family silver. All grand houses supplement their tour income with a shop selling reproductions, but there is one flaw in that arrangement: they have to pull the punters in in the first place. Or, as Lady Victoria puts it rather more gently: "There are people who are elderly, or stuck at home with the children, or just a long way from the shops. Mail order has always seemed a bit of a missed medium to me. And I've always felt that the heritage tradition gets a rough deal. The market needs stirring up."
The Past Times catalogue has been exploiting this niche for some years - the latest one has Rococo paperweights, botanical-print keyboxes. Now there is a chain of shops as well. Lady Victoria's Ancestral Collections catalogue, however, aims to be far more exclusive. Where Past Times' merchandise sometimes seems disappointingly mass-produced, Ancestral Collections' goods are all made by artisans and no attention to detail has been spared. Many of these things look like the real McCoy, and you can feel smug in the knowledge that some of the money from each sale goes directly to the upkeep of the house your purchase orginated from.
The first catalogue contains a variety of items from five stately homes in mainland Britain, all members of the Historic Houses Association: the Duke of Atholl's Blair Castle; the Leathams' Burghley; everyone's favourite film set, Castle Howard; Elton Hall; and Knebworth. Each house has contributed four prototypes, all guaranteed to warm the cockles of the Fulham Road. The most expensive reproduction is a rather delicious Georgian-style stool with scrolling and curved seat from Castle Howard at pounds 390. Forty-five pounds will buy you a resin reproduction of a cherub wall-bracket given to the Duchess of Atholl by Queen Victoria. For pounds 380, you can have a hand- thrown charger, a 151/2-inch plate in blue and white depicting Burghley before Brown saw its capabilities. Or, then again, you could spend pounds 67 on a loo-brush holder - not just any loo-brush holder, but one made from a facsimile of an artillery-shell-case carrier thought to have been used in the Boer War.
The original marketing plan included a launch in the United States. But Lady Victoria spent two years researching potential markets, and eventually decided to start in the UK alone. "I was told on several occasions," she says, "that the market in America is more or less saturated now, and they're so sophisticated that you literally have to provide things before they think they need them." So, at least in the short term, you won't have the embarrassment of finding your Burne-Jones print or your brass doorstep (each pounds 57) in a lounge in New Jersey.
In the long run, Ancestral Collections hopes at the very least to expand into Europe. "The houses over there are spectacular," says Lady Victoria. As one of those rather driven and extensively knowledgeable heritage people, she obviously can't wait to start tracking down craftsmen who are good with gilt or awesome with alabaster.
While the operation stays small, though, it can lay claim to exclusivity. If all goes well, the next catalogue will have expanded to include goods from a further three houses, but quantities themselves will stay low. "We're a cottage industry, really,'' says Lady Victoria. "My partner Elizabeth Nicholl is a great packager. She comes all the way down from Northumberland and spends all day in the stockroom.''
How the world has changed.
Ancestral Collections, Old Corn Store, Burghley Courtyard, Stamford, Lincs PE9 3JY (01780-482522). Past Times: 0800 106666
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