China in your hand
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Katya de Grunwald
David Herbert invites us round for tea to see his incredible ceramics collection the way it was intended – under a slice of lemon drizzle cake… Hidden down a suburban street on the outskirts of south west London, there’s little hint from the front door of David Herbert’s house of what treasures lie inside. But once you’re over the threshold, it’s hard to know where to look first. The first thing that strikes you, sitting on a side table in the hall, is an unusual-looking lamp base with a paper shade. To the layman, it would look like a junk shop find. Which is exactly what it is, after a fashion. ‘I found it at an outdoor antiques market in Berlin,’ he says. ‘I thought it looked like a nice modernist, Art Deco thing – and I picked it up, and underneath there was an Omega Workshops letterhead. It’s the sort of thing that you dream of, but think would never happen. I got it for £50 – and they thought they were getting a fortune; they had no idea.’
Herbert did have an idea. The Omega stamp identified the lamp base as a key piece in the shortlived decorative homewares range launched in 1913 by the Bloomsbury artists Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Conceived as a rival to Heal’s, Omega Workshops was officially liquidated in 1920, adding a rarity that is catnip for collectors like Herbert. ‘There was a similar one on at auction at Christie’s for about £1,800,’ says Herbert, describing it as one of his best finds.
So here we are, hardly through the door, a 20th-century Holy Grail in the hall – and we’re not even here to talk about it. Herbert is essentially a ceramics collector, but he specialises in pieces designed mostly in England between 1914 and around 1940, and decorated by the most innovative artists of the day – such as those associated with the Bloomsbury Group. As such, it’s a collection that naturally bleeds into painting, sculpture and even furniture. ‘With most of my pieces, there are only one or two degrees of separation between everything,’ he explains. ‘Everyone knew each other, almost. And people cross over [into other media] too, which is nice.’
Central to his collection is a series of earthenware and bone china sets dating from 1934, which were part of a selling exhibition at Harrods called Modern Art for the Table. For it, Foley Potteries and the ceramicist Clarice Cliff produced a series of ‘blanks’ – plain tea sets and dinner services – which the 20 best artists of the day were then invited to provide designs for. Participitants included Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Graham Sutherland.
What is truly unique about Herbert’s collection isn’t so much the individual pieces as his refreshingly unaffected attitude towards them. Rather than keeping his plates, teapots and dishes locked away in cabinets, he organises regular ‘Bloomsbury Teas’, inviting guests round to not only handle his collection but also eat and drink from it. ‘You have to be unprecious about it,’ he reasons, ‘because I live with it. I use everything here.’ A lot of his visitors come via the network of Bloomsbury enthusiasts (hence the name of his tea parties), including volunteers and guides from historical houses such as Charleston Farmhouse. For them, the novelty of holding an Omega plate or a Quentin Bell jug – or sitting in one of Herbert’s unique Roger Fry designed cane-back chairs – is a rare thrill. ‘These chairs,’ he says, indicating his set of Fry chairs for Omega; ‘we know that Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville-West and Yeats all sat in them. At Charleston, you can’t sit in the chairs and contemplate.’ Likewise, he feels passionately that the ‘slightly clunky and badly thrown’ pots by Quentin Bell and Roger Fry need to be held in your hands for you to truly appreciate them. ‘I think they’re really sensuous,’ he says. ‘It’s like you can feel Fry’s hands in them.’ For Herbert, it’s all really about the ceramics. His passion for them began during his childhood, at his grandmother’s house in New South Wales, Australia.
‘You have to be unprecious about it. I live with it. I use everything here…’
‘She had this wonderful little English Shelley jug in her cupboard,’ he recalls. ‘It had an amazing Art Deco handle, and I just loved the angularity of it and that it was fragile: it was bone china, she showed me how you could see through it. I was just hooked on ceramics from that moment.’ She finally gave it to him, but not before making him work for it by doing odd jobs about the house for her. ‘It was this principle that, OK, if you really want this thing, you have to earn it.’
From there began a lifetime of collecting. ‘My grandfather had a shed out the back that was always full of junk. Every day we went down to the local tip, and we always brought something back – I loved it! My grandmother had a sister called Aunty Vera, and she had so much junk you couldn’t get in the house, she just lived in one room. My father used to say that I’d end up like her!’
‘When you’ve seen something, you think,
“I hope no-one else has spotted this.”
It can get pretty tense’
Fortunately, Herbert found he had a knack for picking out the wheat from the chaff . ‘There was a lot of really good English ceramics to be found in Australia then,’ he remembers. ‘There was an auction every Friday. I’d go up there and get to know the dealers.’
He admits that the advent of eBay has made him slightly lazy, but is an unashamed convert. ‘I was on eBay right from the start – I thought it was such a brilliant thing. It opened up a world for me.’ Now he buys mainly from salerooms online, finding it less likely that he’ll chance on a bargain in junk shops and antiques markets – but that’s not to say he’s immune to the thrill of the ‘real-life’ chase.
‘The beauty is that stuff often gets misattributed,’ he says. ‘There’s a little auction up the road, and there was this wonderful Soviet plate in the catalogue. I’ve always had an interest in constructivist ceramics, but I’ve never been able to afford any. This just said, “Russian plate, modernist style” – but I thought, my God this is a really famous piece. I had a book in the garage and I found it in there, and just thought – bloody hell!’
The estimate was £30-£40. Herbert bought it for £60. The last one that sold at Sotheby’s in New York went for $15,000. ‘Those are the sort of stories that drive you on,’ he says. He called Christies the next day. They weren’t sure about it, so they sent it off to their experts; they expect to hear back any day, but they did say the last one they sold in London went for £7,000. So far he’s doing his best not to count his chickens, convincing himself he’ll at least make his money back on eBay. But you never know.
Obviously, with all this you need a good poker face… ‘Well, yeah, you have to,’ Herbert admits. ‘I don’t see it as tactics, but obviously you have to try to stop your excitement. When you’ve seen something and you think, “I hope no one else has spotted this,” and there are a few bids going in, that can get pretty tense and frightening.’
And there are still the ones that got away, of course. ‘I remember once Bonhams had a sale of stuff left over from when the Café Royal closed down – which was a great hangout for artists, and all the walls were full of paintings,’ he recalls. ‘It was one of those sales with no reserve, they were just getting rid of everything that was left.’ Lo and behold, a painting by one of his favourite artists, Nina Hamnett, turned up in the sale. ‘She’d worked in the Omega Workshops and was a really famous painter; she was friends with Modigliani. But she just turned into a drunkard, in the Fitzroy Tavern,’ he says. But having sat patiently through the auction for the painting to come up, it was suddenly announced that the lot had been withdrawn – Herbert assumes because someone had worked out what it was. ‘I got really angry,’ he laughs, ‘and yelled at them – “What are you gonna do with it then?”’
That’s the thing about collecting – there’s always the one that got away. Then again, there could also be the $15,000 Russian plate – soon to be serving slices of cake to anyone who fancies visiting the least pretentious ceramics expert you could hope to share a cuppa with.