At Stephen Long’s Antique Shop
David Milne, curator at Dennis Severs’ House, got in touch to tell me about the death of Stephen Long, an antique dealer who had dealt in early nineteenth century English china from a shop in the Fulham Rd since the nineteen sixties. This was where Dennis Severs bought much of the china that graces the house in Folgate St, he revealed – adding that by the end of this week the shop would be cleared out by an auction house prior to the sale of Stephen Long’s stock. But before that happened, there might be an opportunity to visit and photograph one of London’s last traditional antique shops, he suggested.
Until then, I had not quite noticed how the old school antique shops have been vanishing from the world. In Kensington Church St and in the Portobello Rd, in streets formerly lined with antique dealers – where once I used to wander, window shopping at all the beautiful old things I would never buy – such businesses are thinning out and becoming sparser. Similarly in Fulham and Chelsea, part of the accepted landscape of London is quietly dissolving away.
David and I walked through Brompton Cemetery to reach the quiet stretch of the Fulham Rd where Stephen Long had his shop, beyond the fashionable street life of Chelsea yet not proxy to the bustle of Fulham Broadway either. “I had no idea he was ill,” David confessed, “I saw his shop was shut and a glass panel was broken. Nobody could contact him, so in mid-December they broke in and found him sick upstairs, where he lived. And he died in hospital in January.”
In a fine nineteenth century terrace, only one premises had its original shopfront intact, still in architectural unity with the upper storeys where the rest had been crudely modernised at street level to discordant effect. The name of Stephen Long caught my eye at once in its classic typeface, above the elegant five-bay Victorian display window. And, even before we entered, I recognised the shop as of the familiar kind I had visited a hundred times with my parents, for the delight of admiring the wonders yet ever wary that we might break something expensive. There were colourful old plates on wire stands and other pieces of china formally placed in symmetrical arrangements, their decorum offset by the whimsy of artificial fruit and flowers, and cheerful coloured paper lining the shelves.
“Stephen used to sit behind a low desk at the back of the shop – so that you couldn’t see him from the street, there in the shop in the darkness with beautiful stuff piled up around him,” recalled David, explaining how he discovered the connection with Dennis Severs, “I used to buy stuff from him and one day he told he knew a guy in Spitalfields.” Before Dennis Severs bought the house in Folgate St by which he is remembered, he lived in a mews in Gloucester Rd and gave rides around London in an open-top landau. Stephen Long told David, he remembered Dennis Severs parking the horse and carriage outside and coming in to buy things. Then, two years ago, Stephen Long visited Dennis Severs’ house at David’s invitation and when he saw the china, exclaimed, “I sold him all this!” At Dennis Severs’ House, the mass of china that decks the old dresser in the kitchen, the royal memorabilia in the parlour, the creamware and the teapots – it came from Stephen Long and his discreet price labels still remain on the underneath of the items to this day.
“What I loved about going into this shop, it was like stepping into the nineteenth century,” David confided to me as we entered the half light of the showroom, where most of the objects had been in stock for over twenty years but were now only resting in their former owner’s arrangements for one last afternoon. “In all the years I came to the shop, I never met anyone else in here,” David whispered, almost speaking to himself as he absorbed the atmosphere for the final time.
David told me Stephen Long was in his eighties, a quiet man, gentle, charming and of the old school, a dealer who knew his stuff. The shop was the manifestation of his sensibility and taste, after a lifetime of looking at things, displaying his eye for colour and form, and his playful delight in contrast and in gathering collections. “Like all the best dealers, he was a collector who only sold things to make room for the new,” said David and there it was, gleaming through the gloom – the last moment of one man’s treasure trove – just as he left it.
“He used to sit behind a low desk at the back of the shop – so that you couldn’t see him from the street.”
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