“My mother caught the antiques bug early. When she was about six, an antiques dealer saw she was enthusiastic and said if she could guess what factory a cup was she could keep it; she cleverly spotted it as Caughley.” In this vignette, Charlotte Howard captures perfectly the precocious talent of her mother Judith, a well-liked and hugely respected scholar, dealer and collector, who sadly died after a long illness in January 2019, aged 73.
“My mother caught the antiques bug early. When she was about six, an antiques dealer saw she was enthusiastic and said if she could guess what factory a cup was she could keep it; she cleverly spotted it as Caughley.”
In this vignette, Charlotte Howard captures perfectly the precocious talent of her mother Judith, a well-liked and hugely respected scholar, dealer and collector, who sadly died after a long illness in January 2019, aged 73. Now, as Woolley & Wallis prepare for the sale of her remarkable collection of Sèvres on February 4th, it provides a perfect opportunity to look back at an equally remarkable life and character.
A pupil at North London Collegiate, Judith was a very bright child, “but she was quite lazy, as her journals show,” says Charlotte. “Throughout her O and A Level years she kept writing about working at the V&A, but she didn’t really revise and instead seemed to spend a lot of time going to the pub and watching TV.”
Diversions from her school work they may have been, but when it came to her professional ambition, there was no stopping Judith. The V&A was the only place she wanted to work and, eschewing university, she applied for a job there at 18.
“In those days they never took applicants without a degree, but by sheer force of personality and determination, she persuaded them to make an exception in her case and she joined the textile department,” explains Charlotte.
This led to a number of notable experiences, including helping Cecil Beaton to mount exhibitions. Later, she put the expertise she gained here and in business towards helping launch London Fashion Week. Despite bypassing university for the V&A, once there she returned to her studies, successfully completing a diploma in the humanities at London University in 1966.
While textiles gave her a start at the V&A, she always wanted to work in porcelain and soon transferred to the ceramics department where she helped Svend Eriksen with his research, leading to a life-long passion for Sèvres. Promoted to research assistant, it fell to Judith to act as guide to Sir Geoffrey de Bellaigue (surveyor of the Queen’s works of art) while he inspected the V&A’s collection for his book about Sèvres. She also developed a passion for collecting, which inevitably led to dealing as she scoured the markets at Portbello, Grays, Alfie’s and Antiquarius, where she struck up a friendship with Simon Wilson of Butler and Wilson. She also bought from Monty Don when he designed costume jewellery and sold it in his shop in Beauchamp Place.
Leaving the V&A to conduct research and try her hand at dealing, she found herself with Arthur Negus as an expert on the popular TV programme Going for a Song. She later became the curator of the Bowood House Museum – “the exhibition she created there is pretty much extant to this day” says Charlotte – and lectured at Christie’s and Southampton College, as well as on a freelance basis across the south of England. She was soon recognised as an authority on antiques.
“She didn’t have a lot of money, so she would have to sell to buy and that’s really how she first developed as a dealer,” says Charlotte. “If she saw a beautiful opal ring she wanted, she would sell a couple of cameo brooches to buy it. Then she started dealing properly and that’s where her obsession came from. Her collection was incredibly varied and she had a sixth sense when it came to finding the gems among the dross. She was a magnet for rare antiques where you would least expect to find them. For instance, she once found a Josephine sugar bowl from the Egyptian service in one junk shop and a Louis XV Sèvres plate, mislabelled as Minton, in another junk shop in Marlborough.”
In the end, her collection numbered nearly 1000 pieces of Sèvres. Porcelain scholar and writer David Peters referred to Judith’s Howard’s porcelain as “The Sèvres Shard collection” because she would treasure damaged pieces as much as the rest if they were rare and interesting.
“She and David really got to know each other well in the 1990s and this helped move her collection on,” says Charlotte. “She always preferred 18th to 19th century, but didn’t particularly like the scattered flower Sèvres. She was very creative – a designer as well as a collector and very organised thanks to her museum background. She kept every receipt and wrote the catalogue number on the back – a curator’s dream. I think it partially came from her upbringing with a very strict mother and father, as well as from her education.”
That organised mind also led to two books, written while Judith was still in her twenties: Carolian Fabrics and William and Mary Fabrics.
Despite all this, Charlotte says: “My mother always felt that she hadn’t achieved greatness, but I wish she were alive now to see and hear what people are saying.”
Here we begin to glimpse the contradictions at the heart of Judith’s character.
“A complex character, she was a bonne vivante with an acid tongue, but also incredibly kind. If you made her as a friend you had a friend for life, but if you crossed her, you knew about it. She always gave the right advice and you’d feel better after seeing her. Because she and I are one and the same, there’s no one else I could talk to in the same way. I miss my friend."
For those who first met her, Judith’s most striking aspect was her sheer charisma – “and yet she didn’t really have much self-confidence. She knew she was talented, with a particular skill in styling things, and she knew she was clever and was proud of her knowledge. But she was crushingly shy, and so although she did Going For A Song with Arthur Negus, like a lot of natural performers she didn’t really enjoy the experience of appearing on television.”
Shy she may have been, but no shrinking violet.
“She always wore bright colours and was immaculately dressed, with perfect nails and lots of beautiful 18th century jewellery, which she always wore when she visited the big antiques fairs to make everybody jealous.”
When Judith married Alvin they moved to Wiltshire. He was an architect and there she dabbled in antique dealing. In the dark days of the three-day week in the 1970s as the economy suffered and things looked particularly bleak, Judith and Alvin became stars.
“My father had been made redundant and at the time my parents were living in a small house in Corsham near Bath, making extra cash by decorating eggs in the Fabergé style. This attracted the attention of the media.”
In 1975, the BBC decided to launch a competition to find the nation’s most successful couple at making something out of nothing. Titled the Nationwide Supersave Couple of Great Britain, entrants were given £15, on which they had to survive for a week, throw a dinner party, make clothing and also make a piece of furniture.
“My father was very talented at all this and made me a dress out of patchwork as well as a piece of furniture. At the time they had no money – they even boiled up dandelion roots for coffee – and had been used to living off £8 a week, so even with the dinner party they had enough money over to present the BBC producer with a chocolate cake and a bottle of wine when they came round to judge.”
The Howards won and soon became household names, with Judith even securing a weekly column in Woman’s Own on how to save money and being sought out for tips and advice by the newspapers.
“Remember, there were only three channels on TV then and, with an appearance on Blue Peter and other programmes they became famous quickly. When The Good Life came out a year later, my mother said it must be based on them.”
The legacy of this belt-tightening experience was Judith’s enduring passion for a maximalist interior decoration style, with her collections filling every bit of wall space and available nook and cranny.
“When people have had it tough like that, they crave a bit of luxury and plenty, and this reflected that, I think,” says Charlotte. “She would be quite put out if visitors didn’t compliment her on how the house looked.”
Keeping everything spick and span was another matter. “She used to dust once a year and we would all have to leave the house for the whole day. She hated that chore but it had to be done.”
Garden designer Charlotte understandably inherited the collecting bug. “I collect anything to do with the French Revolution. It’s an abiding interest that came from my mother’s obsession with Sèvres. My mother would see something in a shop and think ‘I can make that’ and so would go home and do just that. And my father was very skilled like that too. They once made the most remarkable doll’s house after seeing one in a store.”
Her father also played an indispensable role. “He was a very talented restorer and very supportive, so it was a great partnership. At one time she owned an Aston Martin, but when that was written off she never drove again, so he would drive her everywhere.”
When ill health confined Judith to a wheelchair in her later years, it restricted her ability to visit her favourite antiquing haunts, so she turned to the internet.
“Shopping was her greatest passion and she was on eBay all the time. She bought some awful things from the Franklin Mint and other places, but she didn’t care if she liked it. And she also found some treasures.”
Along with a wealth of friends and admirers, Judith’s legacy is her collection, as well as the set of personal journals dating back to the 1960s. “Some parts are scandalous,” enthuses Charlotte, “and I’m definitely going to do something with them because they are brilliant at conjuring up the times.”
Summing up her mother’s life, Charlotte says: “Looking back, she is what we would call a Renaissance woman, with the most eclectic tastes when it came to collecting, and the ability to spot new areas to focus on, such as mourning jewellery and Spa sewing boxes, when nobody else had yet turned their attention to them. She also collected Infantalia and children’s book illustrations. And she was a great writer and photographer.
Available space and finances mean that the collections are gradually being sold off.
"She would have loved it if her Sèvres collection could have gone to a museum, but that wasn’t really an option for us,” explains Charlotte. “However, she would have been delighted with the Woolley & Wallis catalogue and the fact that two of her pieces have gone to the Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon, where they are displayed with her name alongside.”
The Waddesdon connection, especially, would have struck a chord: “She used to say that if her life had been different, she would have ended up running the Wallace Collection, but she was no diplomat. She loved people who were fun and eccentric, but couldn’t stand bores.”
Charlotte’s favourite piece in the consignment for the two-day Woolley & Wallis sale on February 4 and 5 is Sèvres biscuit figure of a lady at a dressing table having her hair done.
"It’s the piece that reminds me of her the best,” she says.
Better than all of this, though, for Judith was her garden. “It was her pride and joy and open under the National Garden Scheme. In fact, it was deemed so good it was featured in many magazines and papers including Homes and Gardens and was in Timothy Mowl’s book Historic Gardens of Wiltshire. Somehow it is appropriate that, in the end, it was to her garden that my mother’s attention always returned. After all, she herself was a force of nature.”
Errol Manners will be giving a lecture on Sevres and the Judith Howard Collection at Woolley & Wallis on January 31 as part of a private charity view.
The Judith Howard Collection of Sèvres Porcelain will be on sale at Woolley & Wallis of Salisbury on February 4, 2020. www.woolleyandwallis.co.uk