COLLECTORS – AND WHY by Eric Knowles

Collectors – and why…


Many years ago I arrived at the conclusion that in this world there are only two types of people – those who collect and those who don’t.

For me it all began in the school playground, swapping Brooke Bond tea cards; Flags of the World proved to be a interesting way to learn geography – especially when consumed alongside the family copy of the Times Concise Atlas of the World.

I eventually graduated (regresses, some may say) to stamps – which proved to be another aid to learning more about other countries. This was followed by coins especially British currency, which had me learning about our kings and queens from Victoria to the present incumbent. It’s incredible to recall that in those days of pounds, shillings and pence that coinage minted in the reign of Victoria was still legal tender.

Perhaps my most offbeat collection was that of fruit wrapping paper, at a time (I’m talking early 1960’s) when apples and oranges appeared on most greengrocers’ shelves individually wrapped in tissue paper. When unwrapped it became apparent that this tissue paper was printed in a multitude of colours – sometimes even gilded – with elaborate graphics alongside the details of the supplier, which gave away the country of origin. The most important criteria was, however, that these fruits of far flung places all arrived in my hand for free, which was probably just as well given that pocket money for your dutiful and antioxidant and vitamin-laden scribe did not make an appearance until secondary school.

I feel sure that many of you can probably identify with similar acquisitive childhood habits, but whilst some of us outgrew or tired of such pursuits, others have become aware in later life that it had somehow became hard-wired into our psyche.

Many years ago, I was invited to view an exhibition adjacent to London’s OXO Tower on the South Bank, at a ‘pop-up’ venue known as The Museum of Now. At first glance this seemed to house an off-beat variety of collections, though let me make it clear that no matter now bizarre the subject matter may be, I would never look down my nose at anyone’s hoard for the simple reason that the choice of objects anyone may desire is entirely their prerogative, and that the fact that they are able to derive pleasure from their particular fancy should be pretty much all that matters.

I have to say, though, that the eclectic collections on display all those years ago were most – well – intriguing, included themes such as Kinder Eggs and kitsch LP 12” album covers (with the collector in question specialising in anything of questionable taste). The collector who most demanded my attention was, however, a middle-aged gentleman who had a predilection for Dolly Parton memorabilia.

I well remember our brief conversation regarding a piece of brown shagpile carpet that had once graced the fragrant Ms Parton’s eponymous home of ‘Dollywood’ (not a name of my invention, I would hasten to add !)

I also remember the conversation for all the wrong reasons having asked Dolly’s covetous adherent if he had ever actually met his heroine. He revealed somewhat breathlessly that he had indeed managed to approach within three feet of her at some event or other, at which point I suggested that for logistical reasons she must therefore have had her back to him; clearly her legendary embonpoint is not something that should be alluded to in such terms to a devotee, as my comment was met with a deathly silence; I was left wondering whatever had possessed me to say such a thing…

Now, this all took place during the course of an hour-long seminar which I was asked to host as part of the exhibition, which – unsurprisingly – majored on collectors and collecting; in truth – my own faux pas notwithstanding – I found the whole thing most enlightening.

So, is collecting a result of some innate hunter-gatherer instinct or, in the case of Dinky car enthusiasts, perhaps a reaction to childhood poverty that rendered the most sought-after examples of their fancy wholly unattainable? Should they, somewhat later in life, manage to ‘make something’ of themselves is it a yearning to fill the aching void in their collection, or to simply revisit their youth, which prompts them to spend several thousands of pounds on a mint version of a particular advertising van which they may once have marvelled at in the window of their local toy shop?

With regard to my own youthful interests, which ultimately lead me in the world of antiques, they were cultivated by an initial interest in architecture during my formative years. So much so that by the age of about twelve I became a member of the local vernacular architecture society.

By then I was already a total museum addict and stared in wonder at the armour worn by Crowmell’s Roundheads, or the contents of Mr Terry’s chocolate shop in York’s Castle Museum Kirkgate recreation of a Victorian street scene.

The Kirgate exhibition was named after Dr John Lamplugh Kirk who had his practice in the market town of Pickering and, as a sideline, developing a rather curious passion for rescuing original Victorian shop fronts.

I am told that he had the benefit of a large barn in which to store his growing collection before ultimately donating them to the museum where they were re-assembled and stocked with period contents, thus setting the trend for many other evocative tableaux of yesteryear up and down the country.

Since opening in 1938, it has been estimated that over 32 million people have visited the good doctor’s manifestation of 19th century retail premises.

My own most recent visit was almost two years ago when I filmed an insert featuring the same Terry’s sweet shop for the BBC’s Bargain Hunt and – although it may seem a little fanciful – for your writer this was tantamount to a trip back to my own childhood;  visits to installations such as this remain the nearest thing to time travel.

From a personal perspective, I have to admit that as time has passed my own collecting habits have become increasingly varied. There is, however, one unbroken thread which is my fancy for Moorcroft pottery (and, having mentioned that, as a matter of compliance with BBC strictures, I must state that I have been a non-executive director of said ceramicists for the past twenty years).

There is another area towards which I have managed to concentrate my efforts, which relates to my growing appreciation for full-bodied red wines and which has become manifest in the appropriation of decanters, 19th century drinking rummers, goblets and other related table glass which were intended for the presentation and enjoyment of this fine beverage.

I particularly love the idea of buying – for relatively little cost – glasses that have been caressed and enjoyed by our forebears, with no bias shown to those right or left-handed.

I make no apologies for directing you to the website where you will discover myriad examples of what your money can buy, with some exceptionally good value purchases to be found (whilst also bearing in mind that the asking price includes professional packing and delivery to your front door.)

I would particularly draw your attention to the following:

A handsome pair of panel-cut decanters with hexagonal cut hollow mushroom stoppers.

A pair of terraced foot rummers dating to about 1820 that each hold a pint of beer – their purpose indicated by the splendid engraved bowls featuring ears of barley, hop leaves and flowers.

A classic George III rummer with its lemon squeezer base, unquestionably stylish, with the heavy base anchoring it four-square to any table.

This wide rim or pan top rummer dating to about 1820, and offered at a particularly beguiling price.

Should your roots lay close to the River Tees or Wearside you may consider pushing the boat out for this stunning engraved Sunderland Bridge rummer. Whilst its price may be a little rich for some, if I was a glass collector of Mackem extraction, this would unquestionably be first on my wish list. (and please remember, dear reader, never to confuse Mackems and Geordies – such a seemingly trivial mistake can land you in hot water !)

Above all, however, remember my real message of the day – that you should always be mindful that all of the items featured above come properly alive and look so much better when put to their originally intended use – cheers, one and all !


Take care, and keep washing those hands


Eric Knowles FRSA