C Polished Iron Side Chairs Justin Evershed Martin

Art and antique appreciators may wish to add The Open Art Fair to their calendars, which takes place 18 to 24 March 2020 at Duke of York Square, London. The fair, which is vetted by the British Antique Dealers Association and has been conceptualised by Masterpiece founder Thomas Woodham-Smith, will feature thousands of objects from ancient antiquity to the contemporary, on display from a wide range of dealers. Luxury Briefing speaks to Thomas about what visitors can expect from this exciting new celebration of art and design. 

The Open Art Fair founder, Thomas Woodham-Smith

Your professional experience in the world of art started at Mallett – how did that lead to where you are today and what are some of the important lessons you learnt there?

I had toyed with the idea of going into the wine trade. Straight after my finals, through one of those random lucky chances, I was offered a temporary job driving the van at Mallett in Bond Street, in its pomp one of the world’s most famous antique dealers. I was obliged to wear a suit, but they allowed me the freedom to rearrange the 18th-century treasures in their opulent galleries.

The highlight of the summer at Mallett was the June Art and Antiques Fair, held since 1934 in the ballroom of Grosvenor House. You could call this my antique dealing epiphany. I was starstruck by the huge effort everyone made to decorate their stands, and by the exceptional quality of what I saw around me. In the autumn I was offered a job as a junior salesman, rising to become director, then managing director.

Over the years, I absorbed some of the spirit; the obsession with symmetry and pairs of things. I learnt that you could buy from other dealers at the top fairs and still make a profit. I learnt what makes an object different but not peculiar. The best lesson was to look at a piece of furniture by looking through it. To see its lines and shape and not get bogged down by the surface. But once you are smitten with the way a piece stands, you must drill down and focus on every detail.

Where did the idea for Masterpiece come from and how did the event evolve?

Grosvenor House Fair, known to all of us cooped up in the dungeon of the hotel, away from daylight, as ‘Gro Ho’ became a grind and a burden, glitz and glamour fading away. I had to break out and so did all the other exhibitors. I came up with the idea of Masterpiece and with a consortium we made it happen. Everyone wanted a light airy space and I wanted to offer visitors a superb all-round experience, not just access to fine things. I well remember the first Masterpiece, people came anticipating the old Fair reincarnated in a new location. They were blown away. The old fair came to an end.   

To me, Masterpiece created something of a revolution, an explosion of glamour, aesthetic pleasure, and the highest standards of quality. The importance of having a good time there, eating and drinking in style, meeting friends; it was more of a party than a shopping expedition. So many other fairs have copied Masterpiece in terms of putting the food and drink right into the heart of the fair. It is a well-worn truth that the longer you keep people in the fair the more likely they are to spend money.

A579 Gaskin gilt necklace on Black THE PEARTREE COLLECTION
Gaskin gilt necklace from The Peartree Collection

What was the initial thinking behind The Open Art Fair?

My concept for the Open Art Fair is one that complements Masterpiece in that it offers superb quality but is more value-based. We want to give the visitor a great day out, a choice of the ‘best of everything’, but with a focus on the charm of all the decorative arts rather than just at the highest level. The Open Art Fair is located in the heart of Chelsea, therefore embedded in one of the most affluent residential districts in London.

What can visitors expect to experience at this year’s event?

It will be a celebration of pleasure. A treasure hunt for ‘intellectual and decorative shopping’ discoveries and surprises, from period London Underground maps to 19th century Japanese bronzes. Fine paintings include landscape, marine and equestrian art, contemporary abstracts, and Tudor portraits.

A profusion of spring flowers, including a wall of hyacinths, will scent the air, and when the moment comes for a pause, elegant light dishes will be on offer throughout the day at Vardo restaurant with creative cocktails and cordials at Gimlet Bar.

Two Hacks by George Stubbs
Two Hacks by G. Stubbs 1789, framed oil on canvas, from Parker Gallery will be on display at The Open Art Fair

What are some highlights of the collection of works/antiques that will be on display?

A few highlights: Painting of Two Hacks 1789 by George Stubbs from Parker Gallery (pictured above); museum-quality Thomas Pitts silver epergne 1773 from Forrest & Fraser; Queen Anne burr walnut bureau bookcase from Millington Adams; a pair of Famille Rose porcelain vases from Gibson Antiques; early 20th-century jewel-studded silver artefacts (tea set, mustard pot, tazza) and jewellery by art nouveau masters from The Peartree Collection; curvaceous art deco cocktail cabinets and dining chairs from Jeroen Markies; and from the 21st century, strong abstract works by painters Sean Scully and Bridget Riley at Tanya Baxter Contemporary as well as powerful yachts cleaving through waves by Renard from Nicholas Haynes Fine Art.

Opening image: polished iron side chairs from Justin Evershed Martin