Roger Warner: Discerning antique dealer

Thursday 05 June 2008 00:00 BST

For 50 years between 1936 and 1986, traffic on the steep High Street of Burford in Oxfordshire might be arrested by the display in a double-fronted shop. Sometimes it was dominated by a stuffed Pomeranian dog under a glass dome, or a bust of a broken-nosed Roman emperor, or a painted steed from a fairground carousel. Museum curators, eccentric collectors, local duchesses with their house-parties in tow (one included Queen Mary) and shrewd dealers regularly called. The establishment was owned by Roger Warner.

Warner's discernment gave him a legendary reputation and a lasting importance. He directed taste towards objects that previously had been disregarded or even derided. With pioneers such as Enid Marx, Margaret Lambert, Barbara Jones and John Fowler, he fostered appreciation of the naïve, the humble and simply the quirky. Thereby he ensured that popular, regional and vernacular arts, whether wooden furniture, pottery, treen, metal-wares, textiles and domestic utensils, were saved and studied.

Unobtrusively, but firmly, he ensured that rare survivals – from fragments of 18th-century wall-coverings, chintzes, cottons and worsteds, early daguerreotypes to urns designed by Robert Adam – entered appropriate institutions. The Victoria and Albert Museum, Temple Newsam House outside Leeds, the Museum of Rural Life at Reading, Colonial Willamsburg and the Ashmolean in Oxford all benefited. Much in the bizarre accumulation of Charles Wade at Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire (now owned by the National Trust) came from Warner's shop. Similarly, Christopher Gilbert's innovative account of English vernacular country furniture (English Vernacular Furniture 1750-1900, 1991) was heavily indebted to Warner's acquisition and documentation of the subtly differing regional types of stools, chairs, benches and cupboards.

Warner, the posthumous son of an engineer, had decorative arts in his lineage. A grandfather, Metford Warner, had owned the wallpaper manufacturers Jeffrey and Company. He and his sons, inspired by William Morris, pursued fresh designs in Italy and the Low Countries. Even while at school, Warner revealed the collecting urge, although it was channelled initially into the unpromising hobby of postage stamps. Illness then obliged him to be educated at home. With his widowed mother, he divided his time between Bournemouth and the north of England, in the 1920s both fertile grounds for finding a startling range of antiquities.

Indiscriminate enthusiasm was disciplined by an apprenticeship engineered by his mother. In part, Warner educated himself – as so many others of that generation did – by spending hours in the London museums. Also, he was schooled by Fred Winter, a polymathic lecturer. This grounding was supplemented by forays into buying and selling. Minding a shop in Paddington, Warner gained practical experience, which emboldened him to set up – with his mother – on his own account. His capital amounted to £600.

In 1936, the spacious and handsome premises in Burford were found. Elizabethan behind a robust classical frontage, the building had previously been a draper's shop. For 50 years, it was a magnet for buyers. During the Second World War, the shop was shut and he – as a Quaker, a conscientious objector – applied his formidable skills to organise hostels for evacuees and then (in Holland) for refugees.

Resuming business in 1947 and marrying in 1949, he flourished. Knowledge, luck and stamina enabled him to identify and buy rarities at auctions and privately in remote hill farms or decaying mansions. Obsolete agricultural implements or the furnishings of servants' quarters were more likely to take his fancy than the geegaws of grandees. To industry, acumen and fairness, he added the extra ingredients of charm, sometimes mischievous but never malicious. He himself noted how his role in handing around thinly cut bread and butter at the genteel tea-parties given by the gentlefolk (distressed and otherwise) around Burford created trust among those who normally shunned antique dealers. Always, he was aware of the ancestry of what he bought and knew the importance of remembering it. Records were kept meticulously: sound business sense was matched by a scholar's belief in accurate documentation.

Warner personified traits that are often associated with Quakers: method, directness and total honesty. With his mother, he helped to restore the Meeting House just behind the shop, and remained a stalwart in its communal life. In retirement, he was persuaded to write about some of the experiences with which he had delighted lucky visitors to the house. On the railway station at Charlbury, on his annual visit to the Chelsea Flower Show – he was an ardent and expert gardener, and in later years realised his ambition to have an auricula frame – he would share a little from his seemingly inexhaustible fund of recollections. He drew on his detailed stock-books and annual summaries to reveal that he had handled 70,500 items.

The reminiscences – Memoirs of a Twentieth-century Antique Dealer (2003) – if reticent about his own generosity to numerous institutions, include many of his stories. Suits of armour brought by taxi and train from London to Oxfordshire terrified the local station-master; silver chandeliers so tarnished that all except Warner assumed they were wooden; a gorgeous silken tent from the Orient that had never been unpacked from its sack until Warner did so. As a raconteur he evoked a now vanished era – before eBay and FlogIT. Yet he was always eager to share his enthusiasm and expertise, being an early participant during the 1960s in Going for a Song, a precursor of The Antiques Roadshow.

Something of that delight is communicated by the published memoir. It offers remarkable insights into the social, economic and cultural history of the 20th century. Yet, it is the objects which individuals and institutions acquired from him that will constitute permanent memorials to a modest but remarkable man. Thanks to Roger Warner's acumen, the fabrics of otherwise forgotten or obscure lives have survived and can be comprehended.

Toby Barnard

Roger Harold Metford Warner, antique dealer: born 3 May 1913; married 1949 Ruth Hurcombe (died 2007; one son, two daughters); died Burford, Oxfordshire 13 May 2008.

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