Leslie Geddes-brown catalogues her collections
HERE’S a tip. If you’re starting a collection, already have one or have just acquired one, whether it’s Dinky toys, narcissus bulbs or Picasso etchings, start a catalogue, too. You’ll find it great fun and, in the distant future, full of interest.
My father, a doctor, started collecting in middle age and catalogued everything he bought. His collecting involved an eternal hunt for more, be it English porcelain figures, Georgian silver or 20th-century British art. This was the first bit of enjoyment. Then, he would bring his buy home and start to research it for his catalogue (no internet then). This was also terrific fun. I think it was the best bit.
Nothing was too insignificant to be written up, first on sheets of paper and then, when he thought the info adequate, on stiff cards. A lot of these descended to me and were transcribed from his impossible writing by a friendly secretary. To say she had difficulty puts it mildly.
To prove nothing was too insignificant, here is an example: ‘Worcester blue and white moulded, painted pickle tray. Elaborate leaf moulding outside, blue decoration (floral) inside… c1755, complete longitudinal crack.’ He records that he bought it in June 1951 from a York dealer for 5d or, in decimal terms, 2p. He adds more details of the maker’s mark: ‘V&A Collection3252.’ I still have the little chap.
Later, I started my own catalogue, first with Victorian glass, which I now loathe. Looking at it, I see my entry about a 1860s military chest bought from an officers’ mess in Hampshire (what could be more appropriate?). I was under 20. Weirdly, I detailed each piece with a code for price and that one cost me £2.50. Seven years later, I found a mahogany country Chippendale table, about 1750, for £3.50 in Pickering, North Yorkshire. I still have both and remember clearly how I came to acquire them.
Hew and I still catalogue things. I know I recently spent £25 for a modern necklace and who made it. I know that my amber necklace was bought by my maternal grandfather when on a trip to the Baltic. He was a poor boy who grew up to become a rich ship owner and, as a consequence, never bought anything but the best. And there’s a watercolour of Gozo, near Malta, by Edward Lear (bought in a lot for £2 by my father in 1967). In his catalogue, my father noted that Lear has written that the scenery ‘may truly be called pomskizillious and gromophiberous’.
Our catalogues have ta ught us a bit about our family history, Lear, Gozo geography, where the best amber is found and how it was possible to buy a military chest directly from the military. Every time I read them, they bring back memories of dread- ful old junk shops with dusty treasures or snooty dealers who took one look at us and directed us to the ‘cheap room’.
I remember stopping at one such and spotting a small Chinese figure of a Court lady. Casually, I asked: ‘How much is that rough figure over there?’ ‘Ah,’ said the dealer, smirking, ‘you mean the T’ang.’ He had known all along and waited, like a spider, for me to get caught in his web.
You’ll never complete your catalogue if, like us, you’re always buying things, whether at auction, in shops or on ebay and if, also like us, you move pieces from room to room. Or if the task of describing every book (barring crime paperbacks) is too daunting. That’s a pleasure for the current long winter evenings.
Start now, while dusk still falls in the afternoon and when you can sit over a glowing (or as they usually say, roaring) log fire and remember coups gone past. They’ll give you memories decades later and help your children learn what their pack-rat parents did with their free time.
‘They’ll help children learn what their packrat parents did in their free time