The late John Jesse.

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I first met John in the early 1960s when he had just finished a four-year art course at the Regent Polytechnic and was working at the Brook Street Gallery.

I soon discovered that he had another life – buying and selling what we soon learned was Art Nouveau.

John with his then wife, Sally, set up a stall in Portobello Market. This was a ground-breaking moment. Dismissed and ridiculed by the other dealers, he soon attracted a devoted following and gave emerging collectors a focus and confidence.

It was at this time that John sourced the objects for the first Art Nouveau exhibition in England at the Piccadilly Gallery in 1964, described in The Times as “the phenomenon of Art Nouveau again engaging interest”.

Gallery opens

In early 1966 John opened his gallery in Kensington Church Street and a legend was born. As they say in the trade, John had a ‘great eye’ and was soon building up (what with hindsight we now recognise as) important stock.

So important, in fact, that one night robbers hammered their way through a brick wall to gain access to the shop and stole nearly everything.

As John’s gallery was the only one in London selling 20th century items, collectors and museums from all over the world found their way to Kensington Church Street, as did colourful celebrities of the time, including Marc Bolan, Michael Caine, Robert Fraser, Barry Humphries, Paul McCartney, Dudley Moore, Barbara Streisand, Luchino Visconti and Andy Warhol.

John’s interests soon expanded to include Art Deco, although the movement hadn’t yet a name. He sold Tiffany lamps to Lillian Nassau in New York; Mackintosh and Symbolist works to Barry Friedman; Liberty silver by Knox and Wiener Werkstätte to American collectors and shop exhibitions of Lalique glass.

Important objects such as the painted clock by Voysey went to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Most mornings the eminent British collector, Charles Handley-Read, would call at John’s gallery, make a purchase and hand on priceless information.

By the mid-20th century one of the greatest Victorian designers, Dr Christopher Dresser, had been forgotten.

In the late 1960s John and I decided to collect his work discreetly and hold an exhibition. It was a defining moment when we came across the Dixon pattern books with original photos of Dresser’s amazing teapots.

In 1972 we held the first exhibition devoted to Dresser at The Fine Art Society. This proved to be a seminal event.

However, it was not only the great designers that caught John’s eye – he also loved the wit and novelty of items, whether handmade or mass-produced, gold or plastic. In the 1980s, with his then partner Irina Laski, John held a series of themed Christmas exhibitions: A Glass Menagerie, Art Deco Handbags, Objects in Disguise and Useful Animals.

His discerning eye had also taken in the world of plastics. Secretly he formed a fascinating collection of early celluloid and Bakelite and showed then in an exhibition titled Contrasts at the Adelaide Festival in 1976, along with The Fine Art Society and Dan Klein. The collection is now in the Science Museum.

John’s passion for jewellery design was very evident in his gallery – in truth, there was little in 20th century decorative arts that John didn’t collect.

In 1991, he married Jackie Ryder, bon goût bon genre, and embraced a new Anglo-French family, as Jackie had three daughters.

Sell up in style

The business flourished until John decided that the moment was right in 2006 to close shop and of course John did it in style: a Sotheby’s catalogue – The Pursuit of Style – his entire stock and treasures from home. The sale was an exceptional success and John was heard to say it was, with his tongue in his cheek: “The only sale I’ve ever been to where I wanted to buy everything.”

John continued to live near to Kensington Church Street where he could keep an eye on events, take lunch at Sally Clarke’s and occasionally still find a treasure.

In 2014 John published his autobiography – A Fridge For A Picasso (ISBN 978-0-9575568-8-1). It is a very good read, written in John’s indomitable style, reflecting a life both flamboyant and enthralling.

John was well known in the salerooms of Europe and a familiar figure in Kensington Church Street for 60 years, witnessing the inevitable changes in his beloved street.

By Richard Dennis