So Long, Bedell Coram
Andrew Coram’s antique shop, Bedell Coram at 86a Commercial St, closes forever on 31st March
For several years now, the most interesting shop window in Spitalfields has been that of Bedell Coram, Andrew Coram’s antique shop at 86a Commercial St. Every single day, I walk past and always direct my gaze to discover what is new. I am rarely disappointed with lack of novelty, and sometimes I am astounded by Andrew’s latest finds and ingeniously surreal displays that are worthy of Peter Blake or Marcel Duchamp.
Over a year ago, I admired three yellowed newspaper hoardings in his window, Evening Standard: THE PRINCE: TOUCHING SCENE, Evening News Late Extra: MAN-HUNT IN LEICESTER SQUARE and Evening News 6:30: LONDON HIGHWAYMEN ON WHEELS. They were gone as quickly as they appeared. “Gilbert & George bought them,” Andrew told me discreetly, “They rang to say they saw them in the window and came round next morning to buy them. They don’t usually collect old ones, they just go to the newsagent across the road each day to get them new.” Clearly, Andrew has a well-deserved following, and as I have gone about my interviews, when occasionally I have admired a delft bowl or a corner cupboard in an old house, invariably the proud owner will say, “I got it from Andrew.”
Andrew is the youngest of eight children of an antique dealer from Plymouth who was born in 1900 and died in 1980, when Andrew was still a child. His father began in domestic service and started in the antique business after World War II when the country houses of Devon were being knocked down, creating a vibrant trade in china, furniture and paintings. “He knew how to speak to those people,” explained Andrew, vividly aware of the negotiation skills that are key to his profession. When Andrew was growing up, his father was trading from Carhampton, near Minehead in Somerset, and he remembers long Summer holidays hanging around the shop. “I think my poor brother spent all his time polishing my finger marks off the mahogany furniture,” he recalled fondly.
Andrew Coram is a popular figure in Spitalfields, with trenchant humour, and a fluent lyricism that he indulges when speaking of his treasured discoveries. He is a poet among antique dealers, with a melancholy streak that he resists, yet exposes when he speaks of his motives. Sitting in a chair wedged between boxes of stock, casting his eyes around at all the beautiful things that he has surrounded himself with in his shop, Andrew revealed almost apologetically, “It’s not about the money, it’s about the way that some antiques speak to you. There’s a sense of loss every time you sell something you like, which I didn’t have when I started. I think I may have lost focus. My father never lost focus because he had to support six people. It’s easy to let the things take over. You hope to do something that continually generates itself, and inspires you, so that, as you are discovering new things, you are learning more and you accumulate knowledge.”
Who cannot sympathise with this conflict? It is the quintessential dilemma that cuts to the heart of the passionate antique dealer. The modest trader spends his time searching, using his ingenuity to find wonderful things, and learns to appreciate and understand their histories, as Andrew has done. Then he collects his treasures together, and all for the purpose of disposing of them to others.
Even though his father was an antique dealer and Andrew incarnates his occupation so magnificently that I cannot think of him any other way, he did not set out to follow in his father’s footsteps. Impatient of waiting for a lucky break as an artist, Andrew started trading his personal collection in the Spitalfields Market years ago, in the days when it was free to have a stall, and he made £75 on the first day. “When you start out trading, you feel you have achieved something the first time you buy a Georgian chest of drawers or a long case clock on a hunch and it proves to be right.”, said Andrew, relating a milestone on the career path. He claims he learnt everything as he went along, that he has no conscious memories of the trade from his childhood, but I think Andrew’s upbringing accounts for the special quality of his personal sensibility that he brings to everything he does. Andrew’s unique sense of tone, his distinctive style of dress that is of no determinate period, his instinct for seeking out such charismatic artefacts and the artful displays he creates, all these attest to his special quality as an antique dealer, born and bred.
Still ambivalent about how much he chooses to keep, Andrew admitted recklessly, “There’s a part of me that would like to have nothing!” So I asked him what drew him to things that he liked and he thought for a moment, assuming his grimace of rumination. “Things that have rarity value – that you might not see again. As I said, things that speak to you. Things of which there’s a sort of … clarity about what they are … a quietness about them, even a stillness.” he replied, searching for words beyond grasp.
Then his eyes lit up, as he thought of an example to illustrate his point, and held it up, in mime,“I found this tooth, a boar’s tooth, mounted in silver with the inscription upon the base ‘Roasted upon ye Thames Jan 15th 1715/6’ – I’m not selling it!” Once we had considered this treasured momento from a frost fair together, in another mime for my delight, Andrew produced a copper pie dish with words “Lincoln’s Inn 1779” upon it, folding his fingers as if to grip the sides of the invisible dish. Then, returning to the material world, Andrew passed me a tiny delft tea bowl in pale porcelain with Chinese figures on the outside and the softest blackbird egg blue interior. It was a mid-eighteenth century English tea bowl and as I cradled it in my palm where it sat so comfortably, he told me in triumph it was worth a thousand pounds. “Holding a delicate thing like that in your hand puts you in touch the past. – it’s the story that connects us.” he said, intoxicated by the magic of the bowl, and breaking into a broad grin.
I spent much of my childhood being taken around the country antique shops of Devon and Somerset by my mother and father, and the romance of these places and my parents’ delight at their finds remain vividly with me today. I do not know if Andrew’s path and mine crossed back then, but I do know that Andrew Coram has soul and his antique shop is a proper one, of the old school, where authentic treasures are still to be found.
Read my other stories about Andrew Coram and his wonderful shop