Romancing the Antiques Roadshow . . .
While books and the internet are my principal tools for research, I’ve found The (the English one) a wonderfully fertile ground for firing the historical writer’s imagination. If you’ve never seen the Roadshow in action, let me explain. A number of expert valuers in all different fields—china, furniture, dolls, teddy bears and other memorabilia, jewelry, glass, paintings and so forth—travel to places all over England and set up camp in the grounds of a stately home or perhaps in the local community centre, depending on what’s available. People come from all over the region, bringing their precious goods for a free valuation from one of these experts.
Now, this all sounds rather mercenary, but usually the value is the least significant thing about each piece. First of all, there is the story of how the owner came to possess the teapot or diamond brooch. Then there’s the story the expert might be able to tell about how, why and where the item was made, what it was used for and perhaps a little personal anecdote about the artist or the jeweler—all of which brings an inanimate thing of beauty to glowing life. The experts speak with such appreciation, such enthusiasm, such reverence that I feel uplifted by what seems at first glance to be a mere exercise of greed.
And besides that, I confess to pure, unadulterated covetousness, especially when it comes to antiques from the Georgian and Regency periods. I’ve drooled over miniatures, dressing cases, sewing samplers, snuff boxes, writing desks and dueling pistols. People have the most remarkable pieces tucked away in their attics. One man owned Lawrence of Arabia’s flying watch and had no idea of its significance. All of this is grist for the writer’s mill.
Certainly, I can look at period furniture and such on the internet or in a book, but on the Roadshow, I see how the secret compartment of a lady’s writing desk is sprung; marvel at the sheer beauty of a velvet lined dressing case, with all its monogrammed, cut glass bottles as its owner lifts them out, one by one; hear the hiss of steel as an expert draws a sword from an innocuous-looking walking stick. I can almost feel the way the butt of an 1810 dueling pistol fits comfortably into a man’s hand.
One of my favourite Roadshow stories came from Prideaux Place in Cornwall , and was related by the present owner. His ancestor, Humphrey Prideaux, went on the Grand Tour in about 1740 and while in , he sat to have his portrait taken by the pastellist Rosalba Carriera. What Humphrey didn’t know was that the artist fell in love with her subject and wrote him a passionate letter, which she concealed behind the canvas. Humphrey died in Bath in 1793 at the age of 74. He married twice and had four sons--and he never found that letter. In fact, it wasn’t discovered until the painting was taken for restoration in around 1900. Isn’t that the most heartbreaking story? And if you’re a writer, aren’t you immediately wondering how you could use it, twist it, and make it your own?
So what about you? What would you take to the and what story would you tell?