History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 September 2007

Romancing the Antiques Roadshow . . .

with Christine Wells.

While books and the internet are my principal tools for research, I’ve found The Antiques
Roadshow (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 Italy , 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 Antiques Roadshow and what story would you tell?


Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Christine, what an absolutely fantastic post. Gave me goosebumps! I'm a huge Antiques Roadshow fan too. I discovered it when I had four months travelling in the UK in 2004 and then was absolutely delighted to discover it was on cable TV over here. You mentioned a lot of my favorite stories. The Lawrence of Arabia moment was pure gold, wasn't it? And I just wanted to cry at the letter concealed in the painting. And the guy was a bit of a hunk as well, if you recall! I think I would have developed a soft spot for him too! I remember one day someone turned up with this very battered notebook - it ended up being the diary of Thomas Hardy's second wife (life with TH didn't sound like much fun!). And nobody knew it existed until that moment. Do you remember the exquisite Georgian glass from the most expensive shop in London? You could just picture some bewigged dandy stepping down from his coach and buying it with a flick of his lace handkerchief. As you say, Christine, all amazingly inspirational for a writer!

12:34 AM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Anna, I didn't know about Thomas Hardy's wife. Poor woman! Reading his books is bad enough, but being married to him! ::shudders::

Yes, I loved the way the glass expert set the scene of a very wealthy Georgian gentleman descending from his carriage to buy that breathaking glass. Sigh.

The funniest thing about watching the Antiques Roadshow is my children always make the most noise just when they give the value of the piece and I always miss it. I watched the show with Humphrey's portrait in it about 3 times and still didn't manage to catch Rosalba's name due to my noisy boys, so I wrote to enquiries at Prideaux Place and checked the details. They were very helpful and gave me a few extra tidbits.

Anyway, we could go on all day, but to all you history buffs, I can only say--watch it! You'll love the show.

1:10 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a wonderful post Christine. I've enjoyed watching the American version, primarily because I know two of the appraisers, but I'm going to have to start watching the British version now. What a touching story of the painting and the letter. I just want to cry thinking about it.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Oh, a love letter undiscovered for centuries...what a story!

Thanks for a great post, Christine. I really enjoyed it.


7:24 AM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Elizabeth, thanks for commenting. Isn't it a lovely story? And lucky you, knowing appraisers on the American show.

1:01 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Hi Kathrynn, I had tears in my eyes when I heard it! Pure romance.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wonderful post, Christine!

I now have a French empire clock, ca. 1799 or 1800, which looks like a little Regency temple in a way, with a marble arch supported by four columns, atop which are 4 little bronze urns. The clock has a pendulum which is a bronze sun. It's been in our family for years and I remember it most when it was on my maternal grandparents' sideboard. It strikes every quarter hour, and I've always fantasized about the identity of the original owners.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Amanda, your clock sounds beautiful! Isn't that wonderful to have a treasure like that passed through generations?

My mother often points to her cabinets full of china and says it will all be mine one day. Quite a depressing prospect, really, because firstly, I'd far rather have her around and secondly, I don't know what I'd do with it all. I couldn't bear to sell it.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Cassondra said...

Hi Christine!

Waving madly from the Bandit lair!

I had no idea you were an antiques fiend. I'm the worst of all. I have a thing for kitchen gadgets--old pots and pans, old dishes--but especially old furniture--the kind one can still use. I moved into an antique house! It's only 157 years old--nearly new by British standards, but for Ky, USA, it's an old one.

I've never seen the British version, but I love the American version of the show. The thing I'd take is an old wood burning cook stove. It belonged to my grandmother, who died almost 40 years ago at age 83. She cooked all the meals for her family on that little stove, and she came from a dirt poor upbringing and married a man who had even less, so the stove was undoubtedly used when she got it as a young bride. I've never found it in any reference book, and I'd love to know its story.

Old things are just plain interesting, as much for the stories attached as for the items themselves. Thank you so much for this brilliant post!

4:37 PM  
Blogger Joan said...

Another Bandita waving wildly at Christine!

Boy, the British version is BOUND to be even more interesting than the one here in America. I've only watched a couple of times but most of our antiques are brand spanking new compared to GB.

The oldest thing I own is a pearl and silver rosary my father bought his mother while he was in the army in WW II. I calcualte it to be close to 70 years old. Still prays pretty good too :-)

4:43 PM  
Blogger Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

What a fun post Christine! I've never seen the UK version, I'll have to see if it shows in my area. I love the US version though. Always fascinating to see what people will bring and how it's acquisiting ties into their lives - hated aunt, dearest friend, great-grandmother, cleaning out the attic in an estate house - all that sort of thing. I love antiques from the Second Empire, pieces from the American South (where I'm from) and some of the heavy, gorgeous Jacobean stuff. :> Don't get me started on the silver pieces and the swords. As to what I'd take in, there's a huge old spinning wheel from 1810 in the family. I'd just love to know its value. I've been told it's a flax spinning wheel. Great post!

4:51 PM  
Blogger Jeanne (AKA The Duchesse) said...

That should be acquisition, of course! :>

4:51 PM  
Blogger Trish Milburn aka Tricia Mills said...

I've seen the American version of Antiques Roadshow a few times. It is fertile ground for stories. I don't know if anyone here ever watched the Canadian TV series Road to Avonlea (I didn't when it was on but am watching it now on DVD), but there was an Antiques Roadshow type episode, and it was funny because everyone was bringing out all there old pieces of junk, convinced they were valuable antiques.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Great post, Christine! Love the story about the hidden letter *g*

I've only watched Antiques Roadshow a few times but I enjoyed it and yes, great ideas for writers :-)

6:05 PM  
Blogger jo robertson said...

Christine, what an intriguing experience! I love the story of Humphrey and Rosalba. The imagination simply runs wild with such a gem!

Very interesting post!

6:09 PM  
Blogger Caren Crane said...

Christine, another Bandita checking in! My mother started collecting antiques in the 1960s when nobody wanted "that old junk". She would scrimp and save from her household allowance and comb the "junk stores" for pieces she loved. She refinished a few herself and had the antique restorers refinish a couple.

I have no idea what any of it is worth, but it's all priceless to me and my siblings because my mother loves her collection. I really want her buffet and the grandfather clock from the 1700s--we shall see if I can beat my next older sister to it. She's fast! *g* If I get hold of anything, I'll have to haul it to the road show!

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christine, that was a lovely post and such wonderful stories! I don't have anything old enough to bring to the Antiques Roadshow, but I do have a pair of arm chairs that were my grandfather's that I adore, and a table linen that belonged to my grandmother. She brought it to the US when she emigrated here from Latvia in the 1960s, and I think it was her grandmother's. So it's a very special bit of cloth.

Though, come to think of it, I think it was last seen wrapped around a stuffed animal in my daughter's bedroom...

(Note to self: in the future, keep precious antiques out of the hands of four-year old children.)

7:34 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

I have seen several episodes of the British Roadshow and I just love it.I started studying music when I was 9. We lived in England at the time. Our neighbors in the little village of Kelsale took my mother to an estate sale. She bought my first piano for 10 shillings (@ $1.20) at the time!!We shipped in home when I was twelve and I still have it. It is a spinet built in the late 19th century so it has real ivory keys.

7:48 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Oh, I almost forgot. After I read Lisa Kleypas's DEVIL IN WINTER, I realized that the foot warmer Sebastian kept refilling for Evie sounded a lot like one of the pair of bottles sitting in my mother's diningroom. She also bought them at an estate sale in Suffolk. On my next visit, I told her about it and she said "Take them. I have never figured out what they were supposed to be. I just thought they were interesting." I did not take them on the Road Show, but I did research them online and I am the proud owner of a pair of refillable ceramic foot warmers, circa early nineteenth century!! They are sitting on my hearth even as we speak. There is a story there, I just have to figure it out!

8:00 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Cassondra, that stove is exactly what I'm talking about. The social history is what makes it all so fascinating. For instance, someone had china that had been through the bombing of Hiroshima and warped in the heat. It wasn't worth a cent, yet priceless for its history.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

What a lovely thing to own. You can imagine the hands that have held those beads and the prayers said over them. Thanks for dropping by.

Thanks for commenting. I haven't seen the American show but I imagine it would be just as fascinating. A spinning wheel that old must have seen a lot of use, perhaps even heard stories around the fire at night. Lovely!

8:51 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Hi Trish, thanks for commenting! Yes, I imagine they might get some belligerent people sometimes, disappointed they don't own a masterpiece. But the English tend to be so well-mannered. THey nearly always say they'd never think of selling the piece and to them it's priceless, etc. Avonlea always makes me think of Anne of Green Gables. I never think of it as a real place!

8:53 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Beth and Jo, thanks for dropping by!

Caren, I love the thought of you lugging that grandfather clock! Actually, the opening credits of the roadshow have this great shot of someone in an open topped VW bug driving through the English countryside with a grandfather clock coming through the roof, so maybe that's something you could do, too! Isn't your mother clever to have bought all those lovely antiques? I bet she has a good eye.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

Kirsten, I don't think they have to be a hundred years old. The linen sounds divine! And yes, keep out of hands of young children!

8:58 PM  
Blogger Christine Wells said...

How wonderful about your piano, Doglady! And it must have been satisfying for your mother to find out what those ceramic bottles were for. Isn't it wonderful what you can find out from historical romance?*g* I loved Devil in Winter. Thanks so much for commenting.

9:01 PM  
Blogger Anna Campbell said...

Doglady, I love your piano story! I must tell you about my piano (I'd love you to come and see it one day). It's this huge heavy solid walnut German piano made in 1900 and it weighs a ton (literally!). It has brass candlesticks and beautiful art nouveau style carving over the front. Three brass pedals. Mum and Dad bought it from a guy who ran a musical instrument museum but didn't find out much about it (which seems odd!). Anyway, one day we had a tuner in who knew about such things and he said it was a ship's piano and it was so heavy because it had an extra heavy duty iron frame. Anyway, when he opened it up, it was full of coiled up tarred ship's rope about as thick as a man's thigh (if the man was Errol Flynn!) that was used as ballast. I was completely fascinated! It's got real ivory keys (they did back then - and I think those elephants are past worrying about it!) and the most amazingly rich tone, much richer than a lot of modern grands I know of! As you can probably tell from the burst of enthusiasm, I love this piano to death although if the house were burning down, I couldn't shift it to save it!

10:05 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Oooh, Anna! We need to exchange photos of our spinets. A ship's piano. I love it!! Yes, those elephants are long since dust. And yes, my old spinet has that rich gorgeous tone as well. The day they moved the piano into our house after it was shipped back from England, I was hustled out of the house. They thought I would make the movers nervous!! I would love to visit you and your piano one day!

6:27 AM  
Blogger kimberly said...

I liked this blog specially because i am passionate about antiques things.
I think every old has an important story to be discovered.

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8:57 PM  

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