The formal, glass-fronted facade of Ronald Phillips, in London’s Mayfair district, may at first seem intimidating, but march into the elegant shop on Bruton Street, right off Berkeley Square, and you will find a welcoming atmosphere filled with untold delights. Comprising a series of wood-paneled rooms entirely fitted with Georgian consoles, Regency mirrors, 18th-century crystal chandeliers and antique globes, the gallery is a sanctuary of supremely good English taste. Take, for example, the intimate private dining room, furnished with a magnificent mahogany table, where current owner Simon Phillips (son of Ronald the founder) has a chef prepare gourmet meals for clients that he pairs with fine vintages from his own cellar.
Simon is a gracious host and wonderful conversationalist, full of trade gossip and great tales of furniture history, as well as a devoted father, a passionate gourmand and a loyal friend.
His father opened the shop in 1952 and always sold good English antiques, ranging from the Queen Anne period to the Regency (about 1700 to 1840), but after taking over in the late 1990s, Simon decided to bring the gallery’s offerings to the next level.
“There were many more collectors of English antiques in those days,” Simon says, “and more competitors.” So to set himself apart, he moved away from providing what he calls “dining-room furniture” so that he could focus solely on “works of art.” These include carved and gilded Georgian consoles, Queen Anne bureau bookcases, Regency mahogany tables and chairs and George III pier glass mirrors.
Doing so has earned him a new and loyal clientele, comprising Americans, foreigners living in England and English collectors. Many of his pieces are by renowned 18th-century designers and cabinetmakers, not least of all Thomas Chippendale, Robert Adam, George Hepplewhite, Thomas Hope and William Kent. And he is only too happy to talk about provenance: Recently dropped names include the Earl of Hardwick, Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., Barbara Hutton and the Duke of Leeds, all of whom once owned pieces he’s sold or acquired in the last little while. (He is, in contrast, utterly discreet about current customers.)
Phillips knows his subject cold. He attended the prestigious boarding school Harrow, took a decorative arts course at the Victoria and Albert Museum and worked briefly at a London auction house. He joined his father in 1979, at the age of 18, and so can speak with authority about the stock. He is also proactive as he surveys the uncertain market for 18th-century antiques. When the Grosvenor House antiques show (arguably, London’s most prestigious fair) closed in 2009, he, along with two other top antiques dealers, Mallett and Apter-Fredericks, organized a new fair to take its place: Masterpiece London, which starts tomorrow (June 26) and runs through July 2. Located on the South Grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the fair, now in its fifth year, brings in thousands of connoisseurs, attracting them not just with antiques from some 150 exhibitors but also with such enticements as vintage wines, gleaming Riva speedboats and shiny new sports cars.
Simon says most of his new clients these days find him by word of mouth, but he leaves little to chance. He regularly produces luxurious but scholarly catalogs, organizes special exhibitions abroad and participates in other high-caliber fairs, including the International Fine Art & Antique Dealers Show, in New York, every October.
In recent years, several prominent dealers of English antiques, including Jeremy Hotspur and Frank Partridge & Sons, have shuttered as family members passed on, retired or squabbled. Yet Simon Phillips is forging full-speed ahead, confident that an insistence on top quality, rarity, original condition and enviable provenance — plus great quantities of good cheer — will continue to draw new customers and keep the loyal ones returning, again and again.