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Although we haven’t had much of a break over the summer in Fernhurst, like others the beginning of September marks the start of the new season for us. We have just relaunched our website to make it more user friendly, and this is part of the drive further along the road of demystifying the auction process. The fact is that while people are used to going down to the shops and increasingly buying things online from the likes of Amazon, a significant number still avoid the best way of buying: at auction.

It’s no use people like me complaining about this; it’s up to us to prove our point and make the whole process as easy and accessible as possible so that the general public discover this truth for themselves.

That’s not to say that auctions haven’t come on leaps and bounds over the past decade or two. Catalogues? Estimates? Time was when you would have been lucky to find either, a state of affairs that dealers were only too happy about as it meant they didn’t get any competition for bargains from private buyers. I’m glad to say that times have changed and many more people are happy to consign their belongings and bid in the room, via the phone, on commission or live via the Internet. But we could be doing more still and I intend to continue doing my bit.


From practical accessory to pure artform

Nowadays people dress in all sorts of peculiar clothing, but it’s less than 100 years since simple everyday etiquette determined that ladies and gentlemen would not dream of leaving the house without a hat and cane.

While the hat persisted well into the 1960s, the cane or walking stick started to fall out of use in the early 1930s, but as Cane Mania, the International Society of Cane Collectors and the recent annual seminar in Kensington attest to, this is a rich field of collecting, and you will find any number of exotic, entrancing and elegant examples at auction.

The tradition of carrying a cane dates back to the 1550s and, along with the wide variety that developed came a whole field of etiquette about the way to carry a cane and what it could be used for. Obvious uses include its role as a defensive weapon and a support while walking or climbing steep slopes, although as early as the 16th century it was deemed unseemly for a gentleman to lean on his cane.

They have also provided an outlet for master carvers to pursue their art, as well as inventive souls to develop hidden contents or gadgets, such as swords, compasses and even mini hipflasks.

We may have no practical use for canes any more, but as an art form they are as fascinating as ever.

Einstein’s chauffeur – the real genius

The recent auction of a famous photo of Albert Einstein (the one where he is sticking out his tongue from 1951) reminds me of the apocryphal tale of his lecture tour of the US on Relativity. Throughout the tour the great scientific genius employed the same chauffeur, who would sit at the back of the lecture hall each night waiting for his employer to finish before driving him back to his hotel.

After a while, the chauffeur told Einstein that he had heard the lecture so many times he believed he would be able to deliver it himself. Einstein decided to let him take up the challenge, knowing that their next stop was a place where he was not well known and so it was possible no one would guess that they had swapped roles.

Sure enough, on the night, the chauffeur took to the stage and completed the lecture without anyone being the wiser. Meanwhile Einstein took a quiet nap at the back of the lecture hall posing as the chauffeur.

However, just as the real chauffeur was leaving the stage, a research student asked him a very complex question to which he did not know the answer. Thinking quickly, he said: “The answer to that question is so simple that I am going to let my chauffeur answer it for me.” Now that’s genius.

Why the Glorious Twelfth means Thorburn to me

This is an area of pheasant shoots, and while those ready to take aim will have to wait until October 1 for that, August 12 is the start of the Red Grouse season.

While blasting birds out of the sky has never been my passion, the paintings of game birds by Archibald Thorburn are. His depictions of pheasant, grouse and ptarmigan are pre-eminent among British bird painters of the past century, as prices at auction will confirm. A decent watercolour of any of these birds in a moorland setting will have no problem encouraging bids up to the £25,000 mark.

Collectors have long taken aim at Thorburn but I suppose he really came into his own when the popularity of shooting spread from the landed gentry to commercial shoots in the 1980s. Born the son of a miniaturist painter who worked for Queen Victoria near Edinburgh in 1860, Thorburn had little to no formal training except for a brief stint at art school in St John’s Wood. What really set him on the road to his life’s work was a stroke of luck. In 1887 when the Dutch artist J.G. Keulemans fell ill, Thorburn took over the commission from Lord Lilford of Northampton to complete the illustrations for the seven-volume Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands. By the time he finished his career had taken flight.