Our series of photographic portraits by Neill Menneer shows Bath people at work
My dad John became an auctioneer in Torquay after the Second World War. He settled in Bath in 1961 and eventually became head of the auction rooms in Jollys. In those days it was an old-fashioned department store offering a range of services including estate agency, removals, storage, decorating and funerals.
The auction rooms were purpose built in Old King Street, on the site of the present day Hall and Woodhouse. In 1975 House of Fraser bought Jollys and dispensed with all the non-retail businesses including the auction rooms. An investor, David Wickins, backed my father to set up Aldridges in the old Walcot Junior School. This was a brilliant site for auctioneering as it had 18,000 square feet of space on four floors. It was right in the heart of Bath in an attractive building with good light. We had many happy and prosperous years there.
In 1978 I finished school and went to work in the business. My father had always shown me antiques and had tried to interest me in his work but, to be frank, I wasn’t initially that enthusiastic. However this was soon to change and after about a year something happened that really lit my fuse. It was during a china sale. Some works by Clarice Cliff were up for sale with a guide price of £40. There was some frantic bidding, complete with an excitable but hushed atmosphere. The tea set went for £200! I was astounded as I had never heard of this famous ceramic artist before.
But this was soon to change. I started to research not just this artist but all Art Deco ware. Then Art Nouveau. Then china more generally. I had truly got the bug. Dealers in those days were a secretive lot, but eventually I got to know them and they began to share their knowledge with me. I got really interested in the history of English porcelain. The Chinese were the masters, but before 1740 we had no idea how to make it. It was chemists including Dr Wall, founder of the Worcester Porcelain factory, who transformed the industry. By the 19th century the British were making the finest porcelain in the world at the Nantgarw works.
I have never collected antiques myself as my dad taught me that it could be a conflict of interest but anyway I had the best of both worlds. I could see, hold and admire items every day but didn’t need to spend money to own them.
The antiques business in Bath has changed beyond recognition now. The Americans used to be big spenders and supported the whole industry. Furniture had been a store of value. Nowadays the younger generation are not interested in old furniture and the economics and fashions have changed with credit cards, online shopping and disposable furniture. Luckily auctioneering is a self-levelling business. When some things go down, other items become sought after and more valuable (like Clarice Cliff). Business rates pushed us out of Walcot and we moved in 1999 to Cheltenham Street.
We’re now on the Lower Bristol Road and although much smaller than the old school it suits us well enough. I’ve always loved Bath. You don’t need to travel very far to realise how lucky we all are to live and work here.