This week on the podcast I interview Drew Pritchard, an architectural antiques dealer, on turning his passion into a career both on and off-screen. As the star of TV’s Salvage Hunters, Drew says it’s all about the thrill of the chase rather than the selling of his finds. He shared his tips on shopping for old pieces and didn’t pull any punches when it came to what he finds tasteful. Dubbed the junkyard genius, he claims the title is unfair: “I find beautiful things but it’s often because they have been discarded that they are called junk”.
When I spoke to Drew at his home in Wales he had already spent £15,000 that morning sourcing furniture including a 19th century card table and an 18th century armchair. So what are his tips for picking out great pieces? The things that other people might regard as junk?
“At every car boot sale and junk shop, salvage yard or antique fair there is one gem; one thing that is remarkable that isn’t where it should be. It might have been lost in the hands of someone who didn’t understand it and it the right hands it is amazing but it isn’t junk.”
“Everything goes in cycles: it’s new and exciting and then it’s second hand. Then it’s unfashionable and then it’s unwanted, so it’s junk and it sits there waiting for the right time to become an antique [100 years] and that term is just a question of age, and then it might become desirable. But not all antiques are desirable and that’s the bit you can’t put a finger on – why is something desirable?
“The two main categories are form and quality but I also like history and patination.”
And the skill in recognising those things is, he says, down to having good taste and a good eye. The former, he says you can’t teach, the latter can be honed with practice.
He is, I am beginning to learn, characteristically, dismissive of those who aren’t experts in his field. When I ask about the fashion for brown furniture it is some minutes before he draws breath.
“This so-called brown furniture was out of fashion and now it’s back. And it’s coming back because people like me are pushing it and I have never stopped buying it. It was a term coined by people who don’t know what they are talking about and I’m sorry to be harsh about this,” he says (not actually sounding remotely sorry).
Between the 1940s and 70s, he explains, the Americans bought all our best antiques (presumably while we were investing in G-plan and mid-century modern furniture by designers such as Robin Day and Ercol) and they hung on to them and all that remained in the UK was a “load of old toot” from after the Second World War.
“The Edwardian to the late 1940s was not a great period for the majority of furniture and that is what was became known as brown furniture, but, what happened was that everything that was old and brown was tarred with the same brush including 18th and 19th century English furniture – finest on the planet that has ever been.
“And the people who didn’t know that called it brown furniture and people who did know bought it.”
By which he means people like himself, who was taught by his father, a sign writer, to recognise quality when he saw it.
So why were we (in the UK) so good at furniture making?
“It was partly good training and good quality and people coming back from their Grand Tours with drawings of the Greek Style and the Romans had nicked it off the Greeks and we nicked it off the Romans and called it Neo-Classical.
“So in the 18th century you have people like Robert Adams and Chippendale championing it [neo-classical) and creating the finest furniture from the finest woods; we owned large parts of the world where these beautiful woods came from so we imported it.”
Despite his knowledge and passion for beautiful furniture, Drew is unsentimental about any of the things he has found. And nor is it about making money.
“I would sell everything in the house – it is all about the hunt for me. Finding it, recognising it and bringing it back. The selling just gives me the money to carry on doing it.
“I was talking to a dealer friend the other day who said so far this year he has turned over a million quid but he said he hasn’t made any money at all because he just keeps buying more stuff. And that’s what I do. It’s a passion and it [the selling] allows us to keep hunting for more”
So he talks of finding an amazing painted panel in pieces under a table in a tiny shop and a rare table in girls’ school that was used to stack the loo roll,but they are all forgotten about because each great find is blurred out by the next one.
But ask him about modern furniture and his passion appears to tip over into anger: “We have been trained like little lab rats to go to Ikea and buy things … and aren’t they great because they’re shiny lovely people who give you meatballs and sell you something that’s comfortable for five minutes and is instantly worth nothing, whereas you can go and buy yourself a chair at any antique shop or salvage yard or online for the same price or less that will be better and will last you all your life and will be more comfortable and that is more green because recycling’s all right but re-use is better.
“It doesn’t have to be antique or expensive – one of the most comfortable chairs you can buy is a smokers bow and you can get one for about £45 and they get better with age.”
I did a quick search and I did indeed find some starting at £50 (but I also found some selling for ten times that so I guess you need to know what you are looking for.
“We have been trained to buy new but don’t be afraid of buying old. Break the cycle by buying something with soul. There is a story attached to it and you can find someone to restore it and the love affair starts.”
So what are his tips for buying old? Firstly, if you buy an old light he suggests taking it to the “bloke on the high street who fixes your microwave and your telly. Electrics is three wires, there’s no mystery. Clean it up, take it to him and he will fix it for you.”
What about shopping at antiques fairs? You won’t be surprised to know that Drew has Thoughts:.
“I stood Newark for 13 years and I’m going to say get there early. People start unloading their vans at 4.30am so be there then and bribe the security guard to let you in early.
“Take your measurements, take a tape measure and a pen and paper and take cash, credit card and a cheque book. And dress warm.”
So far so good. Then: “And don’t be a tourist; you see these ladies turning up at Ardingly at about 9am in a silly hat, expensive coat and wellies and you know ‘everything went four hours ago love’ so –get there early.
“Also be polite. I’ve been up all day loading the van, I’ve driven said crappy, filthy van across the country to the fair. I’ve slept in the van, I’ve unloaded the van and I want £50 for something and you’re trying to offer me £25. Give people their money. Ask once if that’s the best price they can do and then pay it.
“Everyone sees everyone trying to get a bargain on the telly but don’t do that because the next time they won’t be there for you to try and get a cheap price off. Give them their money you will still be getting something of value.
“Put your hand on it, say you love it, smile and say you will take it away that day and I guarantee you will get the best price possible.”
Given all this it will come as no surprise to know that trends is something that gets Drew’s “hackles up”.
“I’m not interested in fashion but in style and taste. I detest with every fibre of my being painted furniture . You have some dreary Edwardian sideboard that no-one wanted anyway that you got for for £40 and spent £200 (sic) on chalky paint and paint it badly and make it even more worthless and then all of a sudden you’re a vintage painting expert.
“You’ve taken something that was worthless and made it worth even less. It’s an embarrassment to this country that we do this. Along with pebbledashing.
“It’s thoughtless and dull and nonsensical and if I get shouted down by someone who says they like shabby chic I don’t want to talk to you anyway.”
So I ask if, perhaps it was a “worthless” piece of furniture and it’s made someone happy to paint it so they can keep using it where’s the harm?
“I’d love to be right on about this and PC but no it’s not ok because you have vandalised your environment and put something tasteless and cheap and nasty into it, and even it wasn’t that way you’ve made it that way and you’re not learning from it and it will go out of this small phase and still be something worthless so you have wasted your money [when you could have gone out and bought] something beautiful.
“The only person getting anything from this is the person who sells you the paint and if it makes you happy then FINE – but as I said stone cladding was in for a while wasn’t it?”
And with that he is off. Back to the thrill of the hunt. That evening he messages me to say he hoped he hadn’t been “too grumpy”.
The pictures are all of Drew’s collection of sofas and chairs in collaboration with Barker and Stonehouse.
Oh gosh what a rant ! I can’t agree with him about painting furniture- and obviously I don’t mean painting a valuable antique . Anything that saves a ” dreary ” item from landfill and gives it a new lease of life is good in my book. Not to mention the enjoyment of the transformation.
Well isn’t he a charmer… does he not notice the slightest irony in banging on about how the English made the best furniture in the world and then going on to describe what’s been appropriated from other places including those that were colonised, often brutally? And not the most… inclusive of other peoples’ heritage and taste. Not all of us grew up with a father who could teach us about furniture history and craftsmanship, and some of us have had to hone our own taste according to what delights us and according to the stories that our pieces tell us even if they are just cheap “toot”. When my parents came to this country they used the tea-chests they shipped their belongings in as tables and chairs, and once they’d got their furniture bit by bit my father chopped up one of the chests and made it into a blanket box that I took to my first flat and painted and which my TV still sits on now, and it’s far more precious to me than any Chippendale from a 4:30am antiques fair that I can’t go to because it would involve leaving my kids in the middle of the night. (There’s probably a reason those ladies that he’s so quick to sneer at get there at 9!).
I guess we won’t be seeing him on the BBC tv show “Money for nothing” anytime soon then. Because all they ever seem to do on there is paint old brown furniture.
Loved his uncompromising views! Good on him for being passionate about what he clearly loves. Whether you agree or not, the fun is in the debate! I do agree about painting old (antique) furniture, though. I’ve been looking for an Art Deco era sideboard and they are nearly all painted – some not so bad, some in the most migraine-inducing colours (and then there’s the obligatory parrot or flamingo wallpaper lining the shelves…). Utterly ruined. Daniel Hopwood has also commented that furniture should be appreciated for what it is… I suppose the balance is ensuring that there is quality furniture for all incomes and the less that goes to landfill, the better.
Mr Pritchard is being a bit disingenuous here, I have watched many episodes of Salvage Hunters and a few of the spin off restoration programme. He has not only bought and sold painted furniture, but he has also had his restorers paint pieces. I think his comments amount to ‘I am the arbiter of what is, and is not acceptable’ and hopefully is somewhat tongue in cheek, however passionately expressed.
There is nothing new about painting furniture, the Romans did it, and it has been popular in every century since, as I am sure he is aware. If a Hungarian marriage chest, constructed from scrap wood by a far from skilled carpenter, and painted and decorated in a naive fashion by the bride, can sell a hundred years later for ££££, then I don’t see why an Edwardian sideboard, skilfully reinvented, can’t become a valued piece of furniture.
I understand where his dislike of Ikea and upcycling comes from, but nobody appointed him the head of the furniture Stasi, as far as I am aware.
I like Drew and I enjoy his programmes, I think he is very knowledgeable and has a brilliant eye for quality – which is just as well, otherwise I might be thinking he is a bit of an arrogant ****** after reading this.
Very much enjoyed the podcast and the post, as ever. However, I could not help noticing that Drew has collaborated with a company responsible for putting much that is ‘tasteless, cheap and nasty’ into the environment (monkey lamps, anyone?). I would like to know more about the sustainability chops of Barker & Stonehouse before I offer them any of my hard-earned!
To steal from my nine year old… I think it’s “sus”. Snobbish-Until-Sponsored!
Thank you Drew for your refreshing POV and for bringing us a stunning collection of what look to be heirloom quality pieces to improve with age and be fought over in the antique markets of two centuries from now!
I mostly agree, and it’s always good to hear from someone with that kind of burning passion and point of view. I wonder though how it squares with him lending his name and approval to mid-range modern furniture – much of which looks to me to be “trendy” (if in the sense that this version of “classic” is the current trend) and which comes in not so far over the Ikea price point. What does he realistically expect will be the future of most of it?
Loved this article! Something freshly grumpy and cheerfully painful 🙂
Hilarious! Mr. Pritchard is a total snob but in most ways, he’s not wrong. My husband and I live in an 1856 home in Mississippi. Our friends think we have some decorating magic but we don’t. To Mr. Pritchard’s point, our parents taught us how to spot quality and our creative careers taught us good design. We’re not afraid of color, scale, or where an item comes from (antiques shop, Ikea, the sidewalk…) — we collect what we love. There is no greater decorating rule than “your house should make you happy.”
I enjoyed the article and his thoughts, well he does have his opinions. I do agree with you and others that if a piece is truly going to the landfill and a nice paint job brings it back to life and make a person happy then no harm. Although, so many antique fairs are not happening at the moment, I would find a piece the best antique fairs fun.
Love it! At least Drew has an opinion and isn’t afraid to express it…
I agree with you though, painting furniture destined for the scrapheap and giving it a new lease of life is a good thing. It’s better than going and buying that flatpack item that is going to be chucked when it fails a few years later.
Can’t wait to get back out there and hunt for treasure bargains for my home
Love him… he is obviously passionate about what he does and I agree for the most part. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and everyone loves what they love and your home should reflect your passion whatever that maybe. I miss being first at the gates of the Bath and West Antique Fairs or local boot sales hunting for treasures.. those were the days….
He really didn’t like painted furniture! I think your point Kate is a valid and sensible response – if the furniture would be heading to landfill anyway (not talking Chippendale furniture here), what is the harm in painting something to give you joy in the privacy of your own home? One of my lockdown projects was PAINTING the inside of a glass fronted IKEA CABINET in emerald green and I LOVE IT! Think he’s being a bit grumpy about that issue. But otherwise it was fab and really interesting interview. I love all my ancient furniture handed down and acquired over the years, along with the flat pack stuff!
I think I want to marry Drew.
I’d love to know where he lives if he has a bloke on his high street who fixes small electrical items!! Most of us haven’t, mainly because said items are made and assembled far away to be sold cheaply, disposed of when they fail and replaced with something else just as cheap and unreliable.
So, much as I applaud and agree with his statement, a capable and reliable electrician who could afford a high street rent is an endangered species. I used to live in Guildford and for years we had such a shop – last time I visited it was a posh butcher.. need I say more.
Would loved to have seen some of his finds with price tags.
I feel a bit better about all the brown furniture I’ve aquired over the years!
Oh yes indeed, Drew. The thrill of the hunt is what my daughter, granddaughter and I love early on a Saturday morning at the local thrifts. Not for more than a year, but with the vaccines rolling out, soon again now. Cheers from Canada!
Absolutely squealing with laughter!!! Ha ha ha what a jolly fellow….. very knowledgeable though as I am jotting down some of those tips 😉 thanks for brightening my otherwise slightly dreary day.
Wow! That was really something.
OK, I’m off to paint some furniture. (Not really. I’m off to sit on my ikea chair).
I’m off to paint my ikea furniture! (With the right primer, of course.)
I’m off to paint and sell my chippandale and replace them with ikea.
That made me roar, Kate!