In conversation with … Ian Towning and Les Barrett at Bourbon Hanby Arcade
Bourbon Hanby Arcade owned by Ian Towning and Les Barrett, is set on the corner of King’s Road and Sydney Street, opposite the Chelsea Old Town Hall. This elegant confection of 8 showrooms, with the majority of the exhibitors second and third generation London dealers, each trading in their own bijou shop, represents a microcosm of what the London antiques trade was like in the late C20th when the King’s Road was peppered with internationally renowned antiques centres like Antiquarius.
We spoke to Ian and Les about the history, and the future, of this gem in the heart of Chelsea.
Bourbon Hanby Arcade central hall
ANF: You now occupy a rarified position as the last antiques arcade in Chelsea! How long has Bourbon Hanby been on the King’s Road and what is the history of the name Bourbon Hanby?
BH: Bourbon Hanby has been on the King’s Road for 42 years. The History of the name would take pages to explain, however the basic history is that Ian’s family descended from the French Bourbon monarchy which abdicated to India in 1644 and married into the Indian Royal Family
ANF: We heard that the Bourbon Hanby building was once a hospital gym and was derelict for 12 years before you found it. What type of hospital was it and how big was the renovation job? It looks like you managed to save a lot of the lovely original features?
BH: We were not responsible for the renovation. The Hospital was a general hospital serving the public, The renovation was carried out by Union Properties who sub let from the Landlords Brompton Hospital. It is indeed a beautiful building dating back to 1865, an ideal setting for Bourbon Hanby Arcade
Ian casts an expert eye
ANF: Long before you set up Bourbon Hanby in 1997 you started your career at the Chelsea Antiques Market starting there is 1976 until you opened Bourbon Hanby. Do you still see some of your original clients from those days – did they follow you to Bourbon Hanby?
BH: Our Chelsea clientele have been the main stay of our success and yes they all followed us, in fact we are travelling to York for a 90th birthday for the very first customer who ever bought anything from Ian when he first opened at Chelsea Antiques Market in 1976. And these friends and clients are still buying from us today.
From Ian & Leslie’s collection:
An important and rare Geo III silver gilt campana shaped lidded racing vase by Paul Storr, created for the Royal Goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, c1809-1810.
ANF: You mentioned that some of your clients started buying in a small way as young collectors and have now developed into major clients. What is your secret to keeping clients engaged over the generations?
BH: We certainly have second generation clients and in some cases even third. We treat all our clients with the same resect, you can purchase items from as little as £20 up to £1m and you will still be offered that famous glass of champagne.
ANF: In 2009 5 of your 8 resident dealers came to you when Antiquarius sadly closed – Sue Norman Blue & White China, Ferguson Fine Art, Richard from Raker UK , Angelo Gibson Antiques and Emmanual Kra of Saint Esprit Antiques. What do you think is the biggest impact of the closure of Antiquarius on the London antiques trade?
BH: Closure of Antiquarius was a sad time, Chenil Galleries and Chelsea Antiques Market had already closed, but Antiquarius had a around 100/120 dealers and attracted a large number of antiques collectors.
ANF: You run a very happy ship at Bourbon Hanby with some of your exhibitors having been with you since the very beginning – what do you think is the secret of your long running success?
BH: I firmly believe stay in one place, selling at realistic prices and being prepared at times to negotiate on price, and foremost entertain your clients, they are spending money and they deserve a treat.
Silver is a big seller at Bourbon Hanby. Ian gives Les some tips on how to pour a proper cup!
ANF: Les: you mentioned a new dealer, Herbert Pulese, trading as Prometeo London, who has recently joined the Arcade having been a member of a Roman Catholic commune in Tuscany. This is quite a change – tell us how you first met him and how you helped him to make this transition to an antique jewellery dealer?
BH: Herbert Pulese was the first of our employees when we opened the Arcade in 1997, he was 20 years old and was unable to speak English. Over the years Ian trained him in all aspects of antiques especially in jewellery. At the time he was not keenly interested in antiques and returned to Italy where he was temporarily a lifeguard, and later joining a shop selling repro antiques and travelling the world buying with the owner. In the more recent years his interest in jewellery increased and he decided to return to London, where with a little help from Ian has established his own unit within The Arcade, where he is enjoying much success.
ANF: Ian: We have to mention your role in Posh Pawn with the gorgeous James Constantino! How did your role as expert jewellery advisor evolve and when is the next series?
Ian Towning and James Constantino during the filming of Posh Pawn
image credit: Channel 4 Television.
BH: I have always had a keen interest in jewellery, and was already helping James in his Weybridge shop before Posh Pawn came to light, however when it did, I was already known from my time on Dickinson’s Real Deal and the producers thought I was the right person. My personal knowledge has been learned overall my 40 years of trading and I had some great help from some very personal friends in Hatton garden who shared their vast range of knowledge with me, and for that I will always be very greatful, sadly most have now passed on.
ANF: Ian: Do think your celebrity status in the tv world has increased the number of illustrious and and interesting clients to the Arcade who add even more sparkle to the premises with a knock-on benefit for all the resident dealers?
BH: I am sure the programmes have increased my credibility when selling high priced items, and yes it has certainly increased the footfall and again yes I am sure this has been of some benefit to all my resident dealers.
ANF: Ian: now that your profile has been so elevated do you find that the way you trade has changed significantly for example do you find that you do not need to travel to buy because people come to you?
BH: It has not been necessary for me to buy from auction for many years, I have not needed to advertise all of my stock is offered from private sources, which also gives me an edge for my stock to not have been seen elsewhere before being offered for sale.
ANF: Do you split the responsibility for the buying and the running of the business between you or do you both buy and sell?BH: Ian: I am mainly responsible for the buying and selling of all goods, my partner Les, whom I have been with for 44 years, handles all administrative aspects of both the running of the Arcade and handling all of the company’s finances. This is great, I hate paperwork and Les hates being in the shop, what a great team!
ANF: Has the advance of digital marketing made a significant difference to sales at Bourbon Hanby – we know you launched a new website last year, or do you think full on personal service in a luxury environment results in better sales?
Exceptional and exquisite 18ct white gold necklace and pair of matching drop earrings set with mixed cuts of diamonds and nine cabochon cut pear shaped emeralds from a selection on the Bourbon Hanby website.
BH: I do not feel this has helped to any degree, the price and quality of the items we sell would not normally be acquired through an internet source, you would need to physically see and handle the items being offered. The web site is a showcase and our clients view the web site and then come to the shop.
ANF: Do you think that the new website has helped clients to discover that there is a wide range of antiques and accessories in addition to the vast array of jewellery, including silver, blue and white pottery, luxury vintage luggage, sculpture, lighting, silver and collectibles?BH: The Bourbon Hanby website is dedicated to the items sold at Bourbon Hanby and is not fully representative of the Arcade as a whole.
Part of the silver collection at Bourbon Hanby
ANF: What plans do you have to secure the future of Bourbon Hanby Arcade?
BH: Bourbon Hanby is currently in the second year of a five year lease, with an ongoing five years, and although Les and myself are now in our seventies, the word retirement is not in our current vocabulary.
ANF: We usually ask our In Conversation clients about how they unwind after a busy day but we can from your Facebook profile that you do quite a lot of unwinding both at home and abroad with many friends. What is your favourite location to visit?
BH: Fuerteventura in the Canary islands always has an annual visit from us, we have been going there for about 30 years, the all round weather and Pina Coladas are a big draw.
OTHER DEALERS AT BOURBON HANBY ARCADE
The Arcade is home to a collection of experienced dealers, many 2nd or 3rd generation London dealers and the quality of the stock is exquisite throughout the building.
We picked a few of our favourite pieces – details available from individual websites or Bourbon Hanby Arcade:
Ferguson Fine Art
Sue Norman Early Blue & White china
Saint Esprit Antiques Emmanuel Kra
Richard Lehane Raker UK
Angelo Gibson Antiques