Interview with John Bly – A life inspired by history
PUBLISHED: 17:21 17 March 2014 | UPDATED: 17:21 17 March 2014
Long-time Antiques Roadshow furniture expert John Bly has a deep connection with his home town of Tring, where five generations of his family were antique dealers. Gillian Thornton visited him at his treasure-filled home
I always imagine an antique dealer’s home to be packed with collectables, so John Bly’s delightful Tring home doesn’t disappoint. Pictures jostle for space on every wall, curios crowd the shelves, and each homely room is filled with a gloriously eclectic mix of furniture and memorabilia.
‘Nothing here is any good though,’ insists John cheerfully as we settle down in front of a real log fire in the sitting room. ‘I used to collect Oriental porcelain but it went to pay my boys’ school fees long ago, which is how it should be.
‘All too often, things you think are going to be your pension suddenly plummet in value as tastes change. This table, for instance, is worth a quarter of its value ten years ago. So most of our treasures are just items that have been handed down through the family and been kept because we like them.’
Among John’s treasures is an engraved glass (shown on the opening page) that his father once kept on the mantelpiece. ‘In glorious memory of King William III’ reads the inscription, a dedication to ‘the only king to be killed by a gentleman in brown velvet’ after his horse tripped on a mole hill and threw him.
‘I was about eight when my father told me that story and it seemed such an interesting way to learn history,’ says John, who has been a furniture expert on BBC One’s Antiques Roadshow since it began in 1978. ‘When my father was in the army during the war, my mother and grandmother ran the shop and would tell me stories about the pieces as they packed them away in the cellar each night in case a bomb dropped.’
John’s links with Tring date back to 1483 when a French knight from the court of Stephen of Blois arrived in Hertfordshire, set up his own court, and sired a large number of children who went on to be farmhands, horsemen and dealers. The local pronunciation was originally ‘Bloy’ which gradually morphed into ‘Bligh’, one relative being Captain Bligh of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. Then in 1863, a church recorder insisted on simplifying the spelling to Bly.
Another of John’s most treasured possessions is a letterhead labelled ‘William Bly, Antique Dealers since the reign of William IV’. A slight exaggeration perhaps, although Solomon Bly certainly sold old furniture in the 1820s. But it was William, John’s grandfather, and then his father John, who really set the family antiques firm in motion, officially launching in 1891.
In 1912, the company moved into premises on Tring High Street, where John was born above the shop. On leaving Berkhamsted School in 1957 ‘where I was absolutely useless’, John spent four years training at Sotheby’s before joining the family firm. In 1991, the shop moved from Tring into St James’s, London, where it catered for a predominantly American clientele for 12 years.
Today, he spends two days a week at 533 Kings Road, a spacious new shop in Chelsea that he runs with son James. Two more days are devoted to the Antiques Association on Woburn High Street in Bedfordshire, a beautiful Georgian shop which he shares with other refugees from the former antiques centre at Woburn Abbey.
‘I’m a shopkeeper at heart,’ John grins. ‘I love buying and selling. In London we deal in high-end items, but at Woburn it’s a lovely mix of what I’ve always done – silver, furniture and general items.
‘My father was a furniture dealer, a contemporary of Arthur Negus, and it was Arthur who was responsible for me joining the Antiques Roadshow, but he wouldn’t let me anywhere near the furniture, so I did miscellanea for the first five years. When I worked at Sotheby’s, I had chosen to work in silver and decorative items as a change from my father’s specialisation in furniture.’
John may have moved shop a few times but his links with Tring remain as strong as ever. He lives with his wife Virginia (pictured bottom left) in a 1920s’ house built for a member of the Whitbread brewing family. The couple bought it in 1982 as a temporary base and just never left, adding to it to fit the growing demands of work and family. Both their boys followed their father to Berkhamsted School and eldest son Julian is now an interior designer specialising in furniture from 1720 to 1770, while James manages John Bly London and overseas operations.
James and his father also share another passion, which becomes instantly clear as John shows me into the billiard room. His earliest ambition was to be a jazz drummer and in the corner stands a full-size drum kit surrounded by bongos and percussion. John had his own Latin band in the 1960s and still plays regular gigs with the James Bly Blues Band and Anything Goes.
Somehow, he also finds time to write books, give talks, and make personal appearances, and this spring will see the publication of his second DVD masterclass on where and how to buy antiques.
‘Never, ever pass an antiques centre!’ he says firmly. ‘You never know what you will find. But only spend what you can afford and only buy what you like. Antiques are rarely an investment until you get to the high end. So buy for fun and then if you find you’ve paid too much, it really doesn’t matter at all!’