Auction: Bunny boy with a sharp eye for the Gothic

Their reputation for frippery and foppery is unchallenged. Their collection of antiques and memorabilia which is auctioned today is eclectic, to say the least. And, says Robin Dutt, there is a dark, even gothic side to the oddities amassed by the 20th century's most inveterate collectors, the Roger brothers.

It may well be that the dynamo of every serious collector is obsession. The desire to amass especially when done without the thought of financial gain.

The Roger family were among the greatest collectors of the 20th century, bringing together a selection of luxury flotsam to set any contemporary antique dealer drooling unashamedly.

Exquisite taste, an unerring eye and a certain amount of luck characterised their seemingly endless piles of elegant furniture, mirrors, glassware, silver, paintings and in the case of the most famous Roger brother, Neil (Bunny) who, including all these obsessions, added finely tailored clothes and glace kid shoes.

Amongst the truly magnificent antique treasures - the marquetry, parquetry and papier-mache pieces, fine Meissen, Victorian silver, paintings by Lowry, Tissot, Clough, and Picabia are some more curious pieces which deserve a closer look. A collection is often an eloquent apologist for a character and this element of Bunny Roger's and the zeal of his brothers Alan and Alastair (Sandy) to amass is certainly borne-out by the more peculiar and eccentric objects commanding a perplexing position, shall we say, stage left?

Bearing this in mind, the Roger collection emerges more as a tightly controlled and supremely clear agenda rather than an exotic, esoteric and easy whim of three rich boys left money by their self-made early 20th century Aberdonian telecommunications tycoon papa.

Gothic Regency may well be a way of describing some of the more surprising pieces of furniture, objets d'art and sculpture. Indeed even some of the paintings have a good deal to do with modern psychological preoccupations and may remind some viewers of the work of Hans Bellmer and Ken Currie.

"The point of selection is highly individual," says James Miller deputy chairman of Sotheby's. "Each object seems to have a reason to exist on its own. There are no `blenders' here, no also-rans. Bunny had a very good eye - the way he dressed, the way he was - everything counted. Alan had much more fastidious tastes."

Milliner Freddie Fox who first met Bunny 40 years ago said:"You have to remember that a lot of their possessions were inherited, too. He was much closer to the past generation and their tastes - after all we are talking of going back 85 years."

Typical of the more outrageously Gothic and rather curious elements of the collection are a pair of 19th-century carved and stained pine hall chairs - the backs in the form of a billygoat and a bull's head. There is something undeniably Aleister Crowley about them - definitely designed to shock. The legs actually taper to cloven and hooves. Demonic and comic at the same time, they have an almost medieval feel about them.

On the same theme but more organic is the set of 12 cowhide-covered dining chairs which scream theatrical camp. Some of the inner backs are poignantly rubbed down to the tan skin by a succession of party revelling posteriors. In similar vein are the Italian torcheres in the form of satyrs which grin in a rather Faginesque fashion inviting us to consider ourselves at home.

The purpose of the grotesque or even faintly sinister has often been to provide an exact counterpoint to the indubitably elegant and grand. They provide a moment's levity in the context of seriousness. This particular pair contrast so well with the seriously classical George III gilt wood examples.

One might reasonably think that Bunny's furniture preferences might encompass say salmon pink and spinach green Louis XVI pouffes but not a bit of it. Again, the taste for the architecturally Gothic - one observer feels an influence from Scotland -is seen time and again in occasional pieces and complete sets. Ecclesiastical Gothic dining chairs in George IV style feature with crocketed lancet shaped backs filled with pierced tracery, highly contrasted in black with white which works to an amazing dramatic effect - somehow almost skeletal. Further Gothic examples may be found in the set of 12 giltwood dining chairs of the Regency period with pierced tracery backs with brass finials and cane seats. Each is branded on the underside "Windsor Castle VR 1866 - Room 191". Their prominence was the Holbein Room in the Private Apartments at Windsor Castle. It is presumed that they were removed and sold by Queen Mary when she was doing a bit of redecorating in 1926. Well, what may not have been quite fit enough for a queen, Bunny was pleased to acquire.

An Italian parcel-gilt chaise-longue and accompanying chairs are reminiscent of the contents of princely palaces of the 16th century, exquisitely detailed with star filled paterae-carved seatrail and lion paw feet, the gilt contrasting with the blue mauve panels.

Contrasting with the serious collection of Meissen, Samson and Wedgewood are a number of eccentric oddities - one hesitates to call them quite "whimsies" but they do possess a certain playful not to say kitsch quality such as the "majolica" umbrella stand circa 1880 in the form of an eskimo holding a seal standing on a chunk of iceberg. The expression of the man is terrifying. The seal looks none too happy. Majolica is a kind of ceramic ware usually highly decorated and coloured - the vibrant Spanish shawl incongruously on say a strict black Chanel suit. It is not to everyone's taste like Martinware birds or Christopher Dresser pots.

But then the Rogers freres were themselves not to everybody's taste - though matters of taste dominated their lives. Bunny on exiting a taxi and powdering his nose was confronted with the driver's cheeky barb - "You've dropped your diamonds, love." Bunny's answer? "Diamonds with tweeds? Never."

Auction today-Fri, details from Sotheby's (0171-293 5000).

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