Eila Grahame: Antiques dealer whose shop was a magnet for curators and collectors

Click to follow

Church Street, Kensington, is full of antique shops. It winds up the hill from the High Street for just over half its length, then goes straight down to Notting Hill. At the summit of the hill was a small dark shop, its fascia painted black, and above the door in rather small capitals the name "EILA GRAHAME". To the left of the door, picked out against the general blackness by indirect lighting, was a frequently changing display of old, usually English, glass. On the other side you could see, less clearly (but that only made them more seductive), other things, some identifiable, some not, but always eye-catching.

What you could not see unless you pushed the door and went in was the proprietor, who sat at the back of the shop at her desk. She might, or might not, acknowledge your presence. If you were shy (and you were not to know that she was shy too), you might look round and go out again without a word spoken. If you asked a question, the answer was not effusive – precise, if the question suggested some knowledge, brusque, if not. To those rash enough to ask the price straight off, the reply was crushing: "You couldn't afford it." What was it, then, that brought collectors and curators, and all the other dealers, come back again and again to that inconspicuous shop?

If asked, they would have said, truthfully, that it was the quality of the goods, but even more it was the quality of Grahame herself: her keen eye, sure judgement, forthright speech and formidable appearance (Lucian Freud, calling in after buying his bread at Clark's, said she looked like an Eskimo soap-stone carving). But if her figure was solid, so was her judgement. She disliked pretence in people as in things; a rare word of praise from her was a compliment to be treasured, as was her smile, as rare but of great sweetness.

She was proud of her descent from the Grahams of Duntrune and Claverhouse, descendants of "Bonny Dundee", and further back of Robert Graham, who married the daughter of Robert III, King of Scotland, in 1466. Although her great-great grandmother was the last to be born a Graham, her father had painted under the name Lewis Grahame. Her parents drifted apart and she was living with her mother at Cobham when a bomb fell in the garden and killed her mother. She was sent to live with an aunt at Loudham in Suffolk.

She did not have an easy upbringing. Educated first at home, then at Downe House, she duly "came out", and Humphrey Lyttelton played at her dance in Chelsea. A series of "suitable" jobs followed, one at Harrods Food Hall, where she boasted that she sold more bread than anyone else. Who can say now what accident led her to apply for a menial job at Canterbury's, the antique shop in Bury Street, round the corner from Christie's? She struck up an instant friendship with Kate Kleinfeld, the manager, who soon found out how good her eye was.

Buying expeditions together taught her more. She could drive a hard bargain, then and later, and she was soon trusted to buy on her own. When Kleinfeld moved to Spinks in Duke Street, Eila went with her, but became increasingly independent, a "runner" on her own account.

She became a great admirer of John Hewitt, then in Green Street, perhaps the only man for whom she felt more than mild affection, and it was after he moved to Bond Street that she decided to set up her own shop at 97 Church Street in 1969. This soon became a regular port of call, not just for collectors of glass but for the increasing number of people who delighted in her gift for finding the unusual: primitive paintings, early needlework, Berlin ironwork, botanical drawings or a calligraphic trompe l'oeil.

She still went on buying trips with Hewitt, and did not give up running: a Tiffany scent-bottle bought for a song made a fortune at Sotheby's. She also liked a modest gamble on the stock exchange and the turf.

She was a legendary salmon-fisher, and collected and designed flies: "Eila 1" and "Eila 2" were tied by the famous Megan Boyd. She loved plants, and designed her own garden and that of Aubrey House nearby. Good clothes were another passion; no fashion icon herself, she bought regularly from Ferragamo in Bond Street. She did not cook, but loved good food, never uncritically. Fresh oysters, halibut or Dover sole made her face light up, as did samphire in season. The old Connaught dining room was her favourite, but she once spat an unsatisfactory fish starter firmly on to the carpet. The opening of Sally Clark's lightened a life that became gradually more and more restricted.

Runners now came to her, and she grew more dependent on them to replenish stock. She gave up driving, to general relief; her faithful driver would take her to and from the shop, and also on longer, positively Elizabethan, progresses to visit friends. She never lost her early love of the Suffolk landscape, and owned the Thatched House at Ufford, giving it up only three years ago. She was buried at Ufford church, but, faithful to her Scots roots, she left her own wonderful collection of pre-1700 British glass and pottery to find a permanent home in Scotland. It will be her monument.

Nicolas Barker

Eila Grahame, antique dealer: born London 2 October 1935; died London 25 November 2009.