Nathaniel Lee-Jones, antiques dealer
Although Nathaniel is only thirty three, he has the style of wit, gravitas and experience of a gentleman twice his age, and speaks with all the beguiling rhetoric and arcane poetry of an old-school London antiques dealer. My belief is that Nathaniel was born advanced for his years. When he told me he was the son of an antiques dealer and started out dealing from a stall in the Portobello Rd, I wondered how he would react if I suggested we have marmalade sandwiches and mugs of cocoa, in the manner of Mr Gruber and Paddington bear. But as you can see from the picture above, Nathaniel’s concerns are far more adult.
This painting is the only nude from the collection of the late Benny Hill, sold at Christies in 1991 when the contents of the comedian’s Kensington flat went until the hammer. Its provenance renders this bizarre painting on velvet, of a Mediterranean woman taking off her skirt with a provocative smirk, as a uniquely significant historical artifact. Brazenly, she invites your gaze, tantalising the viewer by playing the moment before she reveals her glory. There are many photos of the reception rooms in Benny’s flat but none show this painting, suggesting he kept her in a private place for his sole pleasure. At present, she is in pride of place at M.Goldstein, the candy coloured shop at 67 Hackney Rd that Nathaniel runs with his girlfriend Pippa Brooks - selling art, antiques and attire – and you are welcome to go round their to feast your eyes upon Benny’s Latin lady’s gorgeous endowments.
My father switched the television off whenever scenes of copulation appeared on wildlife programmes, but he always tuned in to Benny Hill’s raucous comedy shows and choked with laughter at the knobs and knockers jokes, much to my prurient adolescent embarrassment. Then, I disapproved of the shabby humour of sexual euphemism but now I have learnt to laugh at the absurdity induced by the culture of sexual repression that Benny Hill celebrates. These days, Benny Hill is dead, is rehabilitated and is big in the USA, as Nathaniel discovered last time he took a taxi from Manhattan to JFK airport and the Indian cab driver enthused “You’re English! – You like Benny Hill?” In fact, I hope Nathaniel will forgive me if I say that when he is telling an amusing story (as he always seems to be), his eyes roll, his eyebrows rise and his ironically insinuating smile lifts his rounded cheeks to reveal more than a casual resemblance to the great comedian.
Once upon a time, Nathaniel was a teenage street urchin who lived as a caretaker in his father’s business premises, Elms Leicester Painting Rooms (theatrical scene painting workshops), up an alley in Denmark St off Charing Cross Rd, next to St Giles’ church. These were the days when the strip clubs and sex cinemas were closing and young Nathaniel roamed the streets of Soho in the early morning scavenging the discarded neons and signs from sleazy clubs like Charlie Chester’s Casino and Raymond’s Revuebar, saying STRIPTEASE, FULL NUDITY and PEEPSHOW. “I supported myself for two or three years on erotic signage,” he reveals proudly, confirming his acute eye for spotting the precious things that others discard as worthless. Nathaniel cultivates an appealing levity that makes him great company and he obviously relishes the opportunities his profession offers to search through the detritus of the world. “I go to places, auctions, flea markets and car boot sales, and people are throwing out stuff – they don’t realise the charm and importance of old things that are worth more than money, small things, personal bits and pieces, and photo albums, as well as furniture, neon lights, paintings and clothes.” A sentiment you will find expressed repeatedly in different forms throughout the pages of Spitalfields Life.
Today, Nathaniel lives in a tiny flat in Waterloo with Pippa and their two sons Joe and Duke, travelling back and forth to the shop and to the Spitalfields Market, where you can find Nathaniel and his stall every Thursday. Customarily behatted, he cuts a rakish bohemian figure dressed from head to toe in carefully chosen examples of fine vintage clothing and is currently wrapped up in a long sheepskin coat. “I quickly realised that Spitalfields rather than Portobello was the place to trade and be seen,” he says with the dignified authority of a seasoned professional, explaining that there is a wider mix of customers, including City gents, here in the East End. Characteristically, Nathaniel kept the beautiful original sign “M.Goldstein” (that he uncovered on the front of the shop), as the name for his business and I never miss the opportunity to call in here to enjoy the loving displays of Nathaniel’s recent offbeat discoveries and revel in the endless repertoire of intriguing stories that comprise the colourful life of Nathaniel Lee-Jones.