An Actor, Auctioneer and a Vicar

Rupert Toovey taking to the rostrum for post lockdown live and online auctions

I will never forget the first auction I ever attended. It was the mid-1980s and with Margaret Thatcher reinventing the nation’s economy there was considerable unemployment especially amongst graduates. Against this backdrop I had turned down my place to read history at Sussex with no real idea of what I was going to do. Mum and Dad had packed me off to see my Grandpa. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. We sat at his George V oak dining table as the light from his town garden lit up the bees-waxed surface.

“So Rupert what are you going to do?” he said. “I have no idea.” I replied. “Well it seems to me you have three choices. You love people, you love art and history, and you’ll have to own a sense of theatre. You can be an actor, an auctioneer or a vicar!” I paused to think for a moment, as the eldest of five I didn’t think I could really put my parents through the drama of acting. I knew what vicaring was but auctioneering? “What’s auctioneering?” I found myself saying. “Let’s go and see, there’s a sale on today, come on.” Grandpa responded.

It was a crisp spring morning, bright with a nip in the air as we walked through the Morth Gardens onto Horsham’s beautiful Causeway, past the Horsham Museum and Old Town Hall and into the Carfax. In those days cars still circled through the town. We dodged the traffic by the King’s Head as we crossed the road. The alley way between the pub and the newsagent was cast in shadow. As we walked up past the saleroom office we could hear the rise and fall of the auctioneer’s voice and crack of his gavel. We were greeted by a huge pea green door hung on rusty sliding hinges with a smaller door cut into it. We pulled hard on the smaller door and it swung open. The crowd was gathered amongst the furniture around a towering oak rostrum. The light came from a window set high above in the wall like an artist’s studio bathing the audience in a warm light and causing the medullary rays in the oak to shimmer. The auctioneer, Jack Ash, who would later teach me to sell, had worked at Churchman Burts in Steyning and sold livestock as well as antiques before the war. His voice filled with excitement called the bidding increments at great speed “£220, 20, 20, 40 now, £240 any advance £240?” as the gavel fell.

Furniture, Antiquities and Collectors’ items on view to the public once more

Beautiful things, wonderful people and the theatre of a sale day, I was captivated. That thrill of a sale day, the theatre, the people and the objects has never left me which is why I am so delighted to see the salerooms beautifully laid out and to once again and be able to welcome people by appointment to Toovey’s specialist auctions over the coming weeks – many of the sales catalogues are online already.

Looking back it’s fascinating to reflect how much Horsham and our county has changed. An actor, an auctioneer and a vicar – I have certainly fulfilled the last two of Grandpa’s suggestions and perhaps with the theatre of the sale day all three. So exciting!

“Rupert’s got his bow-tie on it’ll be alright now!”

Rupert Toovey with trademark bowtie on appointment in the downland village of Amberley, West Sussex amongst the hollyhocks, lavender and rambling roses bordering an abundant English country garden

My week has taken me from Amberley at the foot of the Sussex Downs to the villages and hamlets above Lewes, to Ferring, Shoreham Beach, Horsham and even Kensington – invited to value and share extraordinary collections with families and collectors. Each reflected the stories of their custodians, layered across generations and speaking of their lives and passions in that beautiful, eclectic English Country and Town House way.

Last week, for the first time since the Covid-19 outbreak I donned my bowtie. I breezed into Toovey’s between appointments to find my friend and colleague William Rowsell valuing some beautiful Persian rugs. As he greeted me he remarked to our clients “Oh Rupert’s got his bow tie on it’ll all be alright now!” I have to own that I felt rather pleased. As you know I have a weakness for navy blue bowties with white spots – they’re joyful things. I have just managed to acquire three new ones – well Boris has asked us to shop for the nation – and I can now quarantine each of them for 72 hours as part of my health and safety policy for visiting people.

It’s funny how quickly we adapt to a new routine. As I arrive at people’s homes I ring the door bell and then, feeling rather like a naughty schoolboy, I run 2 metres back from the door turning to greet them. Well it’s important to see a smile and exchange a greeting safely before putting on a face mask and gloves.

Once inside we perform a Covid dance as we seek to honour one another with social distancing and old fashioned good manners. We move around enjoying each other’s company and the treasures, the windows flung open to the breeze in the stunning early summer weather we’ve been enjoying. The blue skies and scudding clouds send my heart racing every day. Is it my imagination or are our skies bluer and more beautiful without the air pollution?

Amberley with its abundant cottage gardens filled with Hollyhocks, English Hidcote lavender and scented rambling roses provides a hope filled view as we move gently out of lockdown.

Our towns, villages and countryside have never looked more beautiful and even the bustling, leafy grandeur of Kensington has been slowed by Covid.

I am delighted to report that we have successfully reopened Toovey’s auction rooms to the public. Providing valuations and viewing for sales by appointment has proven really popular whilst keeping people safe, as has our home visit valuation service.

By the time you read this our first post Covid-19 auction of Chinese and Asian Ceramics and Works of Art, with an online catalogue, will have taken place. It has attracted strong interest from around the UK and the world. I’ll let you know how we get on!

How to be English!

Author, David Boyle, with Gudrun and Sara of the Steyning Bookshop
Author, David Boyle, with Gudrun and Sara of the Steyning Bookshop

‘How to be English’ by David Boyle is published this week. The book provides a fond, irreverent celebration of the ambiguities, eccentricities, and shared stories that define the English.

‘How to be English’ by David Boyle
‘How to be English’ by David Boyle

The writer David Boyle has recently moved to Sussex with his family and I have arranged to meet him at one of my favourite shops in all England – the Steyning Bookshop. The shop is at the heart of the Steyning community and is passionately run by Sara Bowers and her daughter, Gudrun. The shelves, filled with books, always fill me with a sense of anticipation and excitement. As I walk towards the shop past the familiar iron railings I am greeted by David, Gudrun and Sara, framed by the arch of the door and the colourful hanging baskets. Preparations are underway for an evening and book launch with David Boyle at the Steyning Bookshop on Thursday 23rd July 2015.

I ask David where the inspiration for the book came from, he replies “I became concerned that many of the stories which define the English, that I had grown up with, were in danger of being lost.”

David’s account of the English leaves you with a real sense of place in the procession of human history. I mention to David the delight that his articulation of the English has given me and the empathy I have with so many of his subjects. As I have read ‘How to be English’ I have become increasingly aware of how my understanding of what it is to be English has been informed by my love of Sir John Betjeman’s work. David agrees explaining that he too read Betjeman avidly in his late teens.

So are the English defined by Wellington’s stiff upper-lip? David responds “That’s one side of the story but Nelson provides a more old fashioned personality – emotional, overindulgent, sentimental, and lachrymose, overwhelmingly English, with a blind eye to authority.”

The divergent subjects of this eclectic book include: warm beer, Alfred the Great, the seaside, Capability Brown, The English Hymnal, heroic failure, daffodils, bell-ringing, the King James Bible, and The Last Night of the Proms.

So how would David summarise the English? He smiles and says “The English are always polite, apologising for themselves wherever they go. The importance of practicality over intellect is a very English idea, but also the importance of trying again.” David pauses for a moment and concludes “They like pluck, fair play and cricket…”

Author, David Boyle, preparing for Steyning Bookshop launch
Author, David Boyle, preparing for Steyning Bookshop launch

Don’t let David’s gentle humour deceive you. There is a quality and depth of thinking which belies the light-hearted tone of this joyous book.

Books feed not only our imaginations and thinking but there is the physical pleasure of the touch and smell of the paper. And the best place to savour and acquire these pleasures is an independent bookseller of the quality of the Steyning Bookshop.

‘How to be English – an Evening with David Boyle’ will be held at The Steyning Bookshop, 106 High Street, Steyning, West Sussex, BN44 3RD on Thursday 23rd July 2015 at 7.30pm. Tickets cost just £4, redeemable against the purchase of a book, which might just have to be ‘How to be English’! For more information go to www.steyningbookshop.co.uk and to book your place telephone 01903 812062.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 15th July 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Embroidered into the Rich Threads of Sussex History

Parham House

This week I am visiting Lady Emma Barnard at Parham House and Gardens. As we walk through this wonderful house, I am struck by the quality of the famous needlework in the collection. We come to the Great Chamber and are greeted by the gentle light of this spring afternoon. Lady Emma’s great-grandparents, Clive and Alicia Pearson, bought Parham in 1922 and set about restoring the house and gardens after years of neglect. The Great Chamber was remodelled in 1924 to become Alicia Pearson’s bedroom.

Lady Emma Barnard beside the Great Bed at Parham House and Gardens

At the heart of the room is the Great Bed. Emma explains: “My great-grandfather, Clive Pearson, purchased the bed from Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire and brought it to Parham. It is partly Tudor and probably from the court of Henry VIII.”

The exquisite headboard, backcloth, canopy and bedspread are delicately embroidered with interwoven monograms and fleurs-de-lys within an overall design of flower and leaf tendrils. It is thought that they date from about 1585 and are of French or Italian workmanship. The two sets of curtains, pelmets and valances are also rare. They date from around 1620 and are worked with flame stitch embroidery.

Emma quickly draws my attention to an extraordinary mid-17th-century embroidered panel depicting ‘The Finding of Moses’. She remarks enthusiastically, “My husband, James, and I love this piece. It was a great favourite of Great-aunt Veronica’s too.” Veronica Tritton lived at Parham before Emma and her family.

The scene depicted on this needlework panel is from the Old Testament story in Exodus, chapter 2, in which Pharaoh orders all the newborn Israelite boys to be killed. Moses is hidden by his mother in a cradle amongst the bulrushes of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers Moses and brings him up as her son. The story of Moses is one of obedience, leadership and salvation. Lady Emma points to the three women in the scene and exclaims, “Look how surprised they are to find him; they’ve two sets of eyebrows! It’s so finely worked, thirty stitches to the inch, and the details are amazing. Look at the sun with a face, the caterpillar, grasshopper, leopard and even a kingfisher with a fish in its beak. The more you look at it, the more fantastic it is. But those eyebrows, so surprised.” This family favourite is signed with the embroidered initials ‘ML’ and dated ‘1644’.

‘The Finding of Moses’, an embroidered christening cushion dated 1644

The embroidery of ‘The Finding of Moses’ at Parham has traditionally been considered to be a christening cushion. The textile specialist and conservator Dr Mary M. Brooks has suggested that this particular scene might reasonably be interpreted as reflecting concerns about political loyalties, issues surrounding royal succession and personal concerns, such as the safe upbringing of male heirs at this time.

These interpretations and the date of the panel, 1644, have a significance for Parham and its history. On 6th January 1644 Arundel Castle was surrendered to Sir William Waller, leader of the Parliamentarians, during the English Civil War. Amongst the prominent ‘hostages’ from the besieged castle, demanded by Waller as part of the treaty of surrender, was Sir Edward Bishopp, 2nd Baronet and owner of Parham. Sir Edward had fought at Winchester, Portsmouth and Arundel for the Royalist cause. He was taken to the Tower of London and heavily fined by the House of Commons.

Returning to the kitchen, we sit drinking tea in this timeless place, looking out over the park and gardens. I am reminded how important objects can be in bringing the common narrative of our island nation’s history to life.

Lady Emma and her family bring such life to Parham through their delight in this place, its history, collections and their desire to share it with others. We are blessed that Parham has such passionate, dedicated and generous custodians.

Parham House and its collections provide a window to our past and our future. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning, Parham never fails to captivate and delight anew.

Parham House and Gardens are open until the end of September on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Sundays and this May Bank Holiday Monday, at 2pm and 12pm respectively, closing at 5pm. For more information go to www.parhaminsussex.co.uk or telephone 01903 742021.

Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 20th May 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.

St Mary’s House and Garden

St Mary’s House, Bramber
St Mary’s House, Bramber

It is a bright spring evening as the Lord-Lieutenant of West Sussex, Mrs Susan Pyper, leads a gathering of friends and supporters at St Mary’s House and gardens, Bramber. We have come together to celebrate thirty years of conservation and restoration led by Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton.

The paths to the house and gardens are lined with primroses, violets and forget-me-nots, proof that spring has finally arrived. Guests include those who have supported Peter and Roger over many years in their desire to preserve and share the delights of St Mary’s House, Bramber.

The house we see today incorporates the surviving wing from the late 15th century when William of Waynflete, the Bishop of Winchester, built a new Chapel House around a galleried courtyard. The house is a good example of the use of close set vertical timbers known as close studding which became widespread in Sussex at that time.

The vision, dedication, hard work and generosity of Peter Thorogood and Roger Linton has permanently written their names into the story and history of this grand old house and her gardens. They have gathered a community of people around the house and gardens who have also offered their resources, time and talents to this project.

Susan Pyper at St Mary's House Bramber
Mrs Susan Pyper, The Lord-Lieutenant of West Sussex, presenting Peter Thorogood, MBE, and Roger Linton, MBE, with a plaque commemorating 30 years of restoration and conservation at St Mary’s House and gardens

In the wonderful music room, with its large windows and gothic revival fireplace, Susan Pyper, The Lord-Lieutenant of West Sussex, speaks affectionately of the pleasure of returning “to be amongst friends”. She thanks the Friends of St Mary’s House and all those who had played their part in this evolving project as supporters and donors. Turning her attention to Peter and Roger she praises them saying that their “generosity of spirit knows no bounds.” Mrs Pyper acknowledges St Mary’s House and gardens as “a jewel in the crown of West Sussex with an international reputation.” The charitable trust, set up to support the house and gardens for the public’s benefit, has given an Acer Palmatum de shojo. Susan Pyper presents Peter and Roger with a commemorative plaque to accompany the tree and occasion.

Peter Thorogood responds saying that St Mary’s, Bramber is “all about people”. He notes the “friendly atmosphere and generosity” of all who had been involved in the house and gardens. These sentiments are echoed by Roger Linton who, reflecting on the visitors before the reception, remarks upon how he gains such “pleasure from their pleasure”.

The Terrace Garden viewed through a wide stone arch
The Terrace Garden viewed through a wide stone arch

These generous custodians have always wanted to share St Mary’s with others and it is their intention that St Mary’s will remain accessible and at the heart of the local community for future generations.

Peter and Roger’s work and aspirations give expression to a deep sense of calling and vocation to this place and their vision to share St Mary’s with all of us. These ambitions have been at the heart of their lives and work. They richly deserve our thanks.

Whether visiting for the first time or returning to an old friend, as I often do, St Mary’s, Bramber never fails to delight with its architecture, collections, gardens and sense of history. St Mary’s House and gardens opens to the public for the 2015 season this coming Bank Holiday Sunday afternoon, 3rd May, 2-6pm. For further details go to www.stmarysbramber.co.uk or telephone 01903 816205.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 29th April 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.