In the oft-heard debate on whether antiques are best sold on the internet or in physical shops, it helps the bricks-and-mortar argument if the premises in question are of the early-Georgian, picture-postcard kind.
Dealers in Tetbury can boast that advantage in spades.
The second-largest town in the Cotswolds was an important market for local wool and yarn in the Middle Ages, creating a prosperity that’s still in evidence today. Elegant Georgian architecture is the norm, not the exception.
If the setting is delightfully frozen in time, Tetbury’s 25 antiques dealers and centres are anything but, as they work hard to maintain the town’s self-styled status as the ‘antiques capital of Gloucestershire’. Nowhere more so than on the town’s main thoroughfare of Long Street, where several dealers have invested in owning premises.
Shops and websites
There are several aspects to that evolution. One is a recognition that, if the town is to remain a Mecca for antiques-loving home furnishers and decorators, the internet must play an increasing role, especially as US buyers do not flock to Tetbury in the volumes they did before the 2008 global financial crash.
Some dealers ATG visited have strong websites and social media to encourage online sales.
Lorfords, the antiques retailer with the biggest presence in Tetbury – both on Long Street and in two hangars outside the town – is about to launch an improved transactional site for the 70 dealers in its collective, with finessed search capabilities to reflect how people explore objects online.
Though The Decorator Source has a fine, four-floor showroom with period room settings located at number 39, Long Street, “nearly everything in the shop is also showcased on our website,” says gallery manager Philip von Brandenburg.
Yet a key Tetbury selling point is that buyers still value seeing antiques in situ ahead of purchase.
“Shops in the internet age are important because people can come in and touch the items and understand their quality and scale,” says Amy Perry of Amy Perry Antiques at 21 Long Street.
The shop mixes “real antiques with contemporary,” Perry says, adding: “Visitors often say they’ve come to us for inspiration.”
The modern-day ‘utility’ of antiques is now the by-word of several Long Street dealers. Breakspeare Antiques has been located at 36-38 Long Street for more than 40 years, specialising in burr walnut furniture.
Andrew Breakspeare extols the rare features of a George I burr walnut bureau, agreeing that its design also means it is “great for laptop use”.
Richard Griffiths, a country furniture specialist who owns Westwood House antiques shop at 29 Long Street, happily declares that he sells “furniture that is functional, looks good, that you get pleasure from looking at and touching”.
His best-sellers are 19th century French and British farmhouse tables in elm, cherry and ash wood, and 18th century oak dresser bases. “Buyers are being specific about woods and their colour,” Griffiths notes.
“With formal dining now dead, an old country dinner table with lots of character, along simple Presbyterian lines, is what people want, even if they have modern upholstered chairs around it.”
Griffiths is not averse to adapting the country furniture he sells to suit tastes and for practical purposes, for instance altering dining tables to suit contemporary physiques.
“Tables I sell often need ‘tipping’ – raising up at the base of the legs as people were small in centuries gone by. The modern rule is you need 24 inches between the frieze bottom and the floor.”
“Tetbury now has something for everybody Philip von Brandenburg, The Decorator Source
Another of Tetbury’s attractions to buyers is its centre-west of England location. A 20-minute drive from the M5 route to the West Country and Wales, and the same distance in the other direction to the M4, Tetbury draws people “from all over the country,” notes Griffiths.
A dealer since 1994, he says the town attracts a diverse mix of “Cotswold weekenders, American tourists and interior decorators”.
The antiques on offer in Tetbury have become similarly diverse, having once been a more purist proposition. “Tetbury now has something for everybody,” says von Brandenburg.
The Decorator Source, established by 18th century furniture dealer Colin Gee and ranging across four floors and 4000 sq ft, mixes antique painted French furniture, decorative Italian furniture with mid-century mirrors and lighting as well as traditional English antiques.
Two dealers across the road on the south side of Long Street also illustrate the diversity.
Alderson Antiques, at 40 Long Street and relocated from Bath, stocks mainly 18th century English furniture and works of art.
As ATG visited, owner Kit Alderson, a dealer since 1976, was unloading two George I walnut wingback chairs just purchased at auction and already attracting interest from US and UK buyers. “I’ve not seen a pair of this quality for many years,” Alderson says, adding that “great period furniture always sells”.
Further down the street at no 14 is Brownrigg, an emporium selling period and contemporary decorative pieces in a three-floor shop and from a warehouse, run by Jorge (George) Perez-Martin and David Gibson.
A darling of Instagram and interiors publications, the shop stocks objects from Spain, Italy, Sweden, France, the Far East and Syria, as well as England. Prices range from three figures to £30,000, a typical antique object being a 19th century Italian painted credenza for £4500 which had just sold as ATG came to call.
Brownrigg is six years in Tetbury, having once been in Petworth – a move that other dealers regard as an endorsement for the Gloucestershire town. Perez-Martin, who describes the shop’s stock as “country house eclectic”, says makers such as Howard & Sons are still in demand.
The Valencia-born dealer started out loving 18th century furniture and style. “Georgian is great value but tastes are more diverse now and we recognise that here, stocking Art Deco and mid-century as well as 18th century,” he says.
At The Decorator Source, 30-something buyers bored with high-street furniture brands are encouraged to think Regency as a suitable period for modern-scale houses and to mix contemporary with period. “Just one punchy Regency piece like a pier table or mirror will do it, I tell them,” says von Brandenburg, “and everything else can be modern.”
Garage and hangars home
The antique-to-contemporary eclectic look permeates Lorfords, both across the firm’s shop at 30 Long Street – a former bus garage – and two former Second World War hangars three miles away in Babdown.
Prices are diverse too, so that a 19th century cast-iron dog bowl for £380 sits under the same roof as an early 18th century Austrian armoire with original paint at £4950.
Toby Lorford, a former Georgian mahogany and rosewood furniture dealer, founded the firm with Lesley Ferguson 20 years ago, on the principle of providing a curated look for buyers.
He says the focus on private buyers has increased in that time. Lorford’s business “used to be a trade negotiation but now it’s much more service-based,” he says, to the extent that buyers have one point of contact and dealer brands are deliberately invisible as you trawl the two vast hangars filled with room settings.
A consistent theme in ATG’s conversations with Tetbury’s dealers is the extent to which buyers can rely on the town having a continued critical mass of outlets to visit.
One long-term dealer says they find evolving buying habits and tastes too much to absorb – “everything’s being pushed onto that wretched mobile phone” – and are looking to sell up.
Others, including Brownrigg and Lorfords, emphasise they are in Tetbury “for the long haul”, believing they provide buyers with the best of both worlds: the comfort of experiencing antiques in the flesh in a historic setting with the convenience that digital provides buyers on a cyber platter.
It was reassuring to hear such commitment, as any time spent in Tetbury will surely lead buyers looking to collect or furnish period pieces to conclude that the ‘antiques capital’ of the South West remains a town not to be missed.