Collecting: Lightly battered but in the best possible taste: John Windsor meets Christopher Gibbs, originator of the slightly distressed English country house look, who has been buying at auction for 30 years

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The Independent Online
NOD in appreciation next time you stroll past the unobtrusive, softly-lit Georgian antique shop hidden on the narrow corner of Vigo Street, near London's Piccadilly. It is the sanctum of Christopher Gibbs, the antique dealer who has gained a reputation as the most influential taste-maker in antiques for well-off homes.

These days, more money is spent on collectables to put under the spotlight in the sitting room than to stow away in albums. Every home-maker has become a collector and (unless our taste is kitsch or punk or similarly perverse), the advice we get from interior decorators is, unknown to us, likely to be a statement of the laws of good taste handed down from the oracle in Vigo Street.

Mr Gibbs, 54, whose red-rimmed spectacles and fair hair make him look like a passable David Hockney reproduction, is the original exponent of the lightly battered English country house look. New money goes for it. So does old money. So do pop stars taking respite from their stage outrages behind high hedges in the Home Counties. As for the Americans, they go wild for it.

He has been indulging his fastidious taste at auction for the benefit of heritage-conscious style-followers for 30 years. Some of the pounds 18m which Lord Rothschild spent on the meticulous restoration of Spencer House in St James's - a paragon of neo-classical discernment - went on Roman antiquities and Georgian and Regency furniture picked up at auction with comparable discernment by Mr Gibbs.

Whenever he makes a successful auction bid, less successful dealers and decorators take note. Antiquities (sculpture, pottery) would be cheaper than they are if Mr Gibbs had not decided that they are a delight in the home; and Victorian architect-inspired furniture would be less expensive.

To spread the risks of buying and selling, he forms ad hoc consortiums with other dealers. Nothing to do with secret rings and knock-outs. The consortiums declare themselves, only to be rewarded, on occasion, with the auctioneer's uncomprehending 'Why are you telling me all this?'

I visited the Vigo Street shrine on the day Mr Gibbs was having bids placed at Christie's sale of the contents of Pitchford Hall, the jewel-like 16th-century Shropshire manor lost to misfortune at Lloyd's.

His first purchase, for a lower estimate of pounds 100, I found uninstructive - an American whip labelled 'Bought in South Carolina 1875'; then, for pounds 300 each, two chests of drawers of around 1800. 'Painted, battered, very nice and jolly useful', he said. 'They would suit either a modern or an old house.'

His first, cryptic pronouncement on good taste was so simple that at first I failed to absorb it. He said: 'In the industrial revolution, the sheer number of artefacts got out of hand.'

The fact is, the discriminating Mr Gibbs thinks most things are ugly enough to be thrown away: 'We have got to the extraordinary moment when everything is held to have a value,' he said.

'I'm a great chucker-out. I go into people's homes and say: 'Chuck it out, chuck it out'. They say: 'But I won't have anything to sit on'. I say: 'Sit on the floor, then, until you find the right thing'.'

With my encouragement, he began to catalogue the naff down the ages. He scorned 'the rude artefacts of antiquity' - Roman oil lamps, household crockery, misshapen statuary - 'made by doltish people who never seemed to get the hang of how to make something beautiful. When people threw such things out as rubbish 2,000 years ago, they were probably doing the right thing.'

Georgian style? 'It also has its mean, dim furniture. Tight, uncomfortable little chairs, tables with drawers which are too small.' Victorian furniture? 'The worst has needless ornament, pointless kinks and bows - made for people who wanted it to look as if it cost a lot. And then those awful chairs with a Louis XVI knee, a Louis XV toe and a Louis XIV back . . .'

As for the modern age: old fountain pens, framed original illustrations from children's books, 'dismembered and turned into tiny little pictures; horrible', and television sets: 'I've never seen a beautiful television set.'

So what does he look for when buying? 'I've got quite a rigid view, the same as that of William Morris: 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'.

'I love to bring light into gloom. Even dark-panelled rooms can come leaping into life with the help of Chinese blue-and-white ceramics or a refreshing Meissen sculpture.

'And I try to find things for my clients which I have never seen before, which they have never seen before and which neither of us are likely to see again. I might see beauty in strange things, strange beings, strange places.'

But nothing kitsch. 'I hate all that thing about it's-so-bad-it's-good. I'd rather read William Wordsworth than William McGonagall.'

Beautiful things? These are antique flints, fragments of sculpture. Things made of thrilling materials - basalt, porphyry - and beautifully designed. Heads, pots, amphorae, krater, kantharos vessels. Almost anything Cycladic. Old ethnographical things made out of wood or stone by primitive peoples in the far-flung corners of the world before the vulgarising influence of the industrial revolution. Rough and ready medieval artefacts. Textiles, such as velvet church cloths, to hang on walls. Georgian chairs which you can walk round and watch 'dance'. Adam, Chippendale. Victorian furniture inspired by Pugin, Norman Shaw. William Morris arts and crafts . . .

'I like people to collect and buy things which have a strong personal flavour of someone gone by. For example, walking sticks. You can walk into a frightfully ugly house and the most strongly personal and tangy corner of it is the walking-stick stand in the hall. Its sticks have been given by people to each other, they chronicle events.'

He picked up an auction catalogue from Bearne's of Torquay from the yards of catalogues lining his office. (Even his lavatory is lined with catalogues - auctioneers really must think seriously about printing them on soft paper.) Bearne's is selling a fine late 18th-century gold-and-tortoiseshell cane on 14 October, est pounds 600-pounds 800. 'Incredibly fine,' said Mr Gibbs, 'and greatly treasured by its maker, owner and those who inherited it.'

Which brought us back to the American whip bought from Pitchford Hall. 'It belonged to Lord Rosebery, a great collector of whips,' said Mr Gibbs, revealing a fact not in the catalogue, 'and obviously has a lot to do with the house. Incidentally, it was probably used for whipping slaves.'

Much as he appreciates artefacts redolent of people of the past, he has no patience with home owners who 'try to perfect the recreation of a single moment of time'. Instead, he attempts to preserve 'layers of other people's vision from all ages', unlike those Georgians of Bow who live in a coal-and-candlelight time warp.

Objects do not have to be big to make an impression. 'They can be big and exciting or tiny and precious. I buy things both humble and grand and try to sell them to people or institutions. With people I like to find out how they want to live and then try to help them.

'I'm not interested in creating a dazzling impression of richness. We can make do with surprisingly little in life. It is best to have a few things which are really nice. I don't approve of the mean look, but I do approve of the spare look, where every little bit is telling.'

'I want to help people make nice, cosy homes where they are going to live happy, beautiful lives.

'No, it's not tongue-in-cheek. I mean it.'

Christopher Gibbs, 8 Vigo Street, London W1X 1LG (071-439 4557).

Spencer House, 27 St James's Place, London SW1. Open Sundays 10.45am-4.45pm (closed August and January). Entry pounds 5, concessions pounds 4.

Rooms furnished piece by piece

cast-iron fireback, 1679, of Joseph being pulled out of the well, pounds 275. Gibbs says: 'Nice in a empty room with a chimney opening. Put it at the back against the bricks.' Meissen biscuit figure, 2ft high, late 18th century, after 'The Spinario' (the thorn), pounds 2,800: 'Nice in a window.' Chinese blue-and-white vase, 3ft 1 1/2 in high, Kangxi dynasty (1662-1722), pounds 17,000: 'Blue-and-white pots lighten a room, even dark panelling.' Sandstone pug, 2ft high, c1800, pounds 4,200. 'A fierce but friendly little guardian for hall or porch.'

(Photographs omitted)

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