Judith Howard – An Appreciation

On the 4th February, 2020 the Salisbury office of Messrs Woolley & Wallis administered the sale of probably the second largest single-owner collection of Sevres porcelain in the UK (after only that belonging to Her Majesty the Queen).

The collection had been assembled over the last five decades by a remarkable woman and good friend of mine by the name of Judith Howard (nee Bolingbroke), who sadly passed away early in 2018.

In truth I cannot remember when I was first introduced to Judith, but it was probably not long after I was offered the job of head of the Ceramics Department at Bonhams, in 1984.

She was, without question, a veritable ‘Femme Formidable’ in that she was a no-nonsense type who was incredibly opinionated whilst at the same time wickedly funny. She was also supremely well versed in the latest society gossip of the day, to such an extent that - had they known the extent of her knowledge - both Nigel Dempster and William Hickey would have had sleepless nights…

I was soon to discover that here was – also - a young woman with a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of many things, extending far beyond the realms of just ceramics and glass.

In short, she was my type of girl - although when talking about Judith I must make it clear that she always came en famille with husband Alvin and daughter Charlotte in tow, and collectively they became known as Melksham’s answer to the ‘Three Musketeers’.

Whenever they came to view or attend a Bonhams auction, all four of us would head off after the sale and ‘do lunch’ at Zia Theresa, tucked away down the side of Knightsbridge’s best-known local corner shop – Harrods

During the 1950’s, Judith’s mother used to take her to the Victoria & Albert Museum to draw exhibits from life, and she soon fell in love with the place to such an extent chose to leave school immediately after her A-levels to work there; North London Collegiate School apparently took a dim view of her chosen career path.

At that time the museum did not as a general rule accept applications from non-graduates for her sort of role, but the Director proved willing to make her an exception on the understanding that she took a part-time degree in Fine Arts at London University, an assignment which she successfully completed.

Initially she worked in the Textiles department for three or four years prior to being transferred to the Ceramics department where she was given specific responsibility for the Sevres porcelain and English glass collections.

What I find truly remarkable is the fact that her three other lady colleagues included Aileen Dawson - late of the British Museum, Gaye Blake Roberts – the long-time curator of the Wedgwood Museum &Archive, and Rosalind Saville DBE late of the Wallace Collection and a fellow specialist in all things Sevres

In 1971 she met Alvin Howard and following what must have been a whirlwind romance they married in 1972; the following year she left the V&A to follow a career that would embrace dealing, collecting and the most diligent research.

Judith was soon in popular demand at a time when the growing interest in antiques in general began to boom, so it was no surprise that in 1974 she was asked to appear as an expert on Going For A Song alongside the inimitable Arthur Negus.

Twenty-five years later she appeared together with her daughter Charlotte on the BBC TV lunchtime remake of that same programme, by now by Michael Parkinson whilst ably abetted by your humble scribe as the adjudicating expert.

As recently as 2014, our media paths crossed again when Judith appeared on BBC TV once more, this time rising to the challenge in an attempt to become the nation’s Antique Master but she had to settle for the runner’s up  spot by the narrowest of margins.

It was whilst at the V&A , having been charged with the responsibility of cataloguing the museum’s collection of Sevres porcelain that her passion for the work of the French master arcanists was properly kindled.

A visit to Judith and Alvin’s home was quite an experience – being Melksham’s own proverbial Aladdin’s Cave – festooned wall-to-wall with Sevres artefacts and other exceptional porcelains – not to mention her amazing collections of mourning jewellery, early Valentine’s objects, 18th century English enamels and numerous other articles of note.

Robert Woodmansey, my colleague at The Hoard, and yours truly were fortunate enough to attend the preview for the above-mentioned auction, and found ourselves faced with the seemingly impossible task of assessing innumerable pieces in the three hours we had available. Here, mention must be made and grateful thanks afforded to the wonderful gallery staff at W&W, who allowed us some additional, somewhat furtive time for appraisals after the official close of the viewing window.

Strange though it may appear, my personal favourite lot in the collection was not Sevres, but a Derby porcelain tasse glace, modelled after a Sevres original and quite simply a total gem.

However, what made the whole experience so very special to me was that - having visited Judith in her final weeks - this ceramic work of art had been placed into my hand by the Grand Dame herself, who then asked me to advise her of the name of the decorator responsible. She took great delight in testing me and, in turn, I delighted in her company.

I was in no rush to venture my opinion, and it soon became obvious from the sheer quality of the decoration that this was the work of a master painter. After careful examination I found the clue for which I was looking inside the deep, conical base in the form of a long-tailed numeral, 7 – case closed - the artist responsible was none other than the great William Billingsley himself.

I will never forget the big smile that lit up her face at my declaration – or my inward sigh of relief at having managed to pass her ‘test’.

I so wanted to buy this small treasure as a lasting memento of our friendship, but it sold on the day for £700.00 and the decision was unwillingly taken that the mortgage had to take precedence.

Another highlight of the auction saw the highest price achieved for a plate that - in spite of having a riveted repair - featured on the cover of the splendid catalogue which had been compiled by the equally splendid Claire Durham.

This plate had formed part of the first service made in the original factory at Vincennes in 1754 for no less a customer than King Louis XV and as you might expect an item of such provenance was keenly contested, eventually selling for £37,100.00 (including premium). Judith had found the plate languishing in a cabinet in an antique arcade in Hungerford back in 1983 and rescued it from oblivion for the marginally less extravagant purchase price of £13.00 - how utterly typical of her !

I would like to think that on the day she was looking down on this fascinating auction, wearing that same big smile; her only regret would perhaps have been that she was unable to have registered just a few, modest bids…


Eric Knowles FRSA. TR.

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