Canterbury Tales: Traveling the Backroads for British Antiques

When Richard Heanue left his career in the fashion industry, he intended to take a few years off. "That lasted three months," he now says with a laugh.  Instead of the extended vacation he intended to take, Richard took a booth in one of the new antiques centers in Stamford -- Hiden Galleries.

That was 15 years ago. 

Hiden Galleries: Richard Heanue looks for the clean lines of the pre-industrial 19th-century, primarily in the back country of northern England and Scotland.

Hiden Galleries: Richard Heanue looks for the clean lines of the pre-industrial 19th-century, primarily in the back country of northern England and Scotland.

He had lived in Hong Kong for many years and now was in New York City during the week, coming out to Pound Ridge on the weekends. Richard had collected for years but when he started selling antiques, he bypassed Asian or American goods, favoring English furnishings, particularly those of the 19th century.

"The 19th century was the British century in the way that the 20th century belonged to America," he says. "There was a volume of furniture which came out of the United Kingdom then. They were still handmaking, filling great warehouses full. Very little was veneered.  We didn't have the money in this country to support a domestic furniture industry in the 19th century."

He goes on to explain that, especially after 1830, as the English became more prosperous, they were eating better and getting larger. As both the people and their houses became larger, their furniture evolved to be scaled up in size, which makes it more appropriate for contemporary Americans.

Richard's love for the well-made, clean lines of 19th-century English has never wavered. "It's much cleaner than the European furniture of the period," he says, adding that English "isn't pretty... it's handsome."  At the antiques shows he has done in the region, men are always attracted to his booth first.

A case in point is an unusual linen press in his booth. With strong clean lines and beautiful graining, the 54-inch high chest would complement a man's dressing room or add character to a study or library.  "I think this piece has had two lives," Richard explains. "The top lifts up and indicates the 19th century. It was most recently a linen press but was probably a daybed originally." Richard has typically made three or four buying trips a year to the UK, scouring the byways of the countryside, mainly in the North: Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Lancastershire, Somerset and Scotland. He never makes advance reservations for hotel rooms, preferring to let the supply of antiques determine how long he spends in each village he visits.

He recalls one evening in Scotland when he had worked until late. There was nothing open in the little village except one pub. He went in to ask directions to the closest place to stay for the night. Richard says, "A fellow on the bar went on and on with directions in his best Glaswegian [a Scottish dialect that has a "patter" of slang much like Cockney English]. When he was finally finished, the bartender leaned over and said, 'Do you want a translation?' That was fortunate since I hadn't understood a word he said!"

Among Richard's current Scottish antiques is a small-scale, five-drawer mahogany sideboard. The circa 1840 sideboard with turned legs is "as it was born," Heanue's terminology for furniture that has not seen changes in its purpose or structure.

Along with the difficulty in understanding the thick dialects of the North, Richard said that the other issue in buying antiques from these removed areas of Great Britian is that the pieces are harder to date. "I have a mahogany commode from Jersey. Jersey was so provincial that it is more difficult to date than city furniture. They were behind in their expression of styles."

When asked what advice he would give to a beginning collector or to someone simply looking for an antique, Richard says, "Buy a piece of furniture that you can see in several different rooms.  We all move much more often than we once did so you can't buy something that only works in one limited space.

"Most of all, you have to love it! Look at the piece. Look at it some more. Then walk away from it. If you're still thinking about later, go back and buy it."

Hiden Galleries: Antique English mahogany chair cabinet

Hiden Galleries: Antique English mahogany chair cabinet

The 19th century was the British century in the way that the 20th century belonged to America.

The mahogany chair cabinet open. Many years ago, it was re-purposed to become a storage cabinet. Hiden Galleries

The mahogany chair cabinet open. Many years ago, it was re-purposed to become a storage cabinet. Hiden Galleries

Richard Heanue

Wilcox & Wells Antiques

Hiden dealer #714