Wednesday, 30 November -0001
THE ROADSHOW TO CHINA
Eric Knowles started out as an 18-year-old with a passion for a coffee cup. Now he is one of our most adored antiques experts. Sam Taylor finds out about his gilt-edged career
By Sam TaylorThere is an old saying that ‘the most valuable antiques are old friends’, and to most of us, the presenters of the Antiques Roadshow are just that: old friends. Since its inception in 1979, millions have tuned in to watch the roller coaster highs and lows of those waiting in the long queues for the chance to place their treasured find or heirloom in front of one of the experts.
King among their number, of course, was the late Arthur Negus. ‘He was a boyhood hero,’ says the ceramics expert, Eric Knowles, who joined the show in 1981. ‘On a Sunday afternoon, my father would give my brother and me a pencil and a pad and we had to guess the prices before Arthur said what they were worth. Then we’d hand them to our father and whoever won was great. But whoever lost, washed up.’
These days, Eric is as much a part of the (old) furniture as his boyhood hero, with a successful career as an after-dinner speaker and auctioneers’ consultant to bolster his TV pro le, but his achievements were hard-won.
‘Without getting the violins out, I grew up in a working-class town in northeast Lancashire, where people didn’t have very much, and nobody thought they were any worse o because nobody had more than you had. But if people had a bit of money, they might buy a pot or piece of china. Keeping it for “best”.’
Starting out in the antiques trade as a keen-eyed 18-year-old, he still owns the rst piece of ne china he ever bought. ‘It was £14-10/- and my take-home money for the week was £12-10/-. It’s by Caughley – a co ee cup and saucer, made in 1785, decorated in the Dresden ower pattern with a cable boarded in gilt, and I’ve been looking for the matching tea bowl. Last year I found it at Newark Antiques Fair for £10. I had waited 40 years to complete that set.
‘The point is: why would anyone do that? Spend more than a week’s wages as a lad who also loved football and going out with his pals on a Friday night? Because I knew that it had travelled through time. It has gilding, which only really comes to life in candlelight – as it ickers, it dances. It’s travelled in a box with straw to get from Shropshire and it’s been there since before the French Revolution – it’s been through Trafalgar, Waterloo, and the Crimea. You feel like you’re touching the past.
‘You think of the faces that have peered into it, people who have shivered in December, who have had a bad time because it rained or there was no harvest. Just life – all in a co ee cup and saucer. Some people may think I’ve lost it a bit but I am a romantic. And OK, everything today is “what’s it worth”, which is vulgar, but it’s what people want. I’m still intrigued; it’s the story that really grips, more than anything else.’
As regular viewers of the Antiques Roadshow will know, it is the human stories that are most compelling. And, as Eric’s own experience shows, it’s not always the ones that end with a six-digit gure. His four-decade hunt has only resulted in a set worth at most, £150. Unlike his once trademark bow tie (ditched 10 years ago), his passion for his subject is palpable. But, despite there being no shortage of people bringing beautiful, occasionally rare, pieces of porcelain for him to cast his expert eye over, he says we really need to do more to support our failing pottery industry. He is a director of Moorcroft pottery and a drum banger for the English craft. ‘Pottery is one of the things we think we’re the best at. Well, the Germans think they’re pretty good too. I’ve been to Meissen, I’ve argued the point with them, and they laughed their heads o . Although it was my German that made them laugh.’
He and his wife Anita have been married for 39 years, since he was 21 and she was 18. They met in the North and it was a classic case of boy meets girl at the weekend dance hall. His wife doesn’t work in antiques, but he credits her with having exquisite taste, good enough to have been a professional interior designer. Instead, she devoted her life to being a wife and mother to two young boys, now grown men. He hopes that his sons are lucky enough to nd the same kind of happiness, and he also hopes young people realise the historical importance of starting out life with a good dinner service.
‘I belong to a generation that when we got married, we couldn’t a ord everything at once, so we bought our Royal Worcester dinner service and added to it as we went along. Occasionally, in some families, a girl might be lucky enough to be given a set by her mother, but most of us saved up.’
He says that it isn’t just that the dinner service has gone out of fashion, but also that the English ceramic industry took a turn for the worse when outsourcing arrived. ‘The jobs were given to somebody on the eastern seaboard for a fraction of what it costs here. But I think the tables are turning. I know Wedgwood has just reinvested a lot of money in its Barlaston works, and there was talk of £25m being invested there. But there is another problem at the moment, because of the Wedgwood museum trust getting the thumbs up for the collection to be sold.’
He feels, however, that all is not lost. ‘It’s not going to happen, but I can’t say that with any real authority. But the idea of an archive of the Industrial Revolution, more than 250 years of history, just disappearing overnight, that seems inconceivable.’
This year he is planning a new initiative where ceramics fans, or those with just a desire to learn more about these fragile parts of our cultural heritage, can spend a day with him. It is, he suggests, best done in pairs. ‘I tend to talk a lot and that could be a bit much for one person,’ he laughs. The day would start with co ee, probably at one of the smart auction houses on Bond Street.
‘It’s amazing how many people, even the rich, are terried of pushing open those plush doors.’ Perhaps an auction itself, some antique hunting. Lunch at the Courtauld Institute and a look at their priceless porcelain and cameos (what he calls the foreshortened room – most of them were owned by aristocrats from the French Revolution). More hunting and chatting, or just hand-holding for a big investment. He doesn’t expect everyone to rush out and start buying ceramics, but he does hope that if you are lucky enough to have some and want to pass them on, be sure to also pass on his golden rule: ‘Don’t put your plates in the dishwasher. Well, you wouldn’t put your children in the spin dryer, would you?’
The cost of a day with Eric Knowles is £600 for two people: 01296- 658373, www.anniepenn.co.uk
Antiques Roadshow is on Sundays at 8pm on BBC One.
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