BY SARAH HYDE | MASTERS & MUSES | 28 DECEMBER 2023

 

Sarah Hyde explores the life and legacy of Christopher Gibbs, the legendary antique dealer whose exceptional homes and unrivalled eye for beauty influenced a whole generation, affecting some of the world's greatest institutions and revitalizing the antiques trade. 

 

BY SARAH HYDE | MASTERS & MUSES | 28 DECEMBER 2023

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

 


According to the New York Times, the late great Christopher Gibbs - collector and tastemaker extraordinaire - once declared that taste could not be taught. It was something you catch, “rather like the measles or religion”. If this is the case, then Christopher’s “distressed bohemian style of interior design” was absolutely contagious, tearing through the fashionable set in 1960s Chelsea, and beyond. His eclectic, eccentric taste, endless search for beauty and insatiable curiosity introduced a generation of designers and aesthetes to this influential style. 

Born, along with his twin sister, in July 1938 - the youngest children of Sir Geoffrey Cockayne Gibbs and Helen Margaret - Christopher identified as a dandy from a young age, affecting velvet slippers, a monocle and a silver-topped cane with blue tassels while still at school. In a 1982 interview with the World of Interiors, he recalled his early attraction to antiques: “I was drawn, as a moth to the candle, by the antique shop window. At first, I would press my rosy snout to the glass and marvel at the wonders within, but pretty soon I dared to open the door… I was swiftly seduced by this new-found world, and learned how to beat down prices to something just beyond my slim means, punting my pennies on a cracked Persian tile or grubby drawing. By the time I discovered the cornucopia of the country house sale I was hooked, and when I strayed into Christie’s months later, in my grey flannel shorts, my case became hopeless.”

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

Expelled from Eton - where Nicky Haslam was a contemporary - for “illicit drinking” and schoolboy pranks, Christopher used his time to indulge his passion for antiques and later continue his education in France, at the University of Poitiers, and Morocco, where he embarked on a life-changing trip aged 20. There he discovered the “chimeric city” of Tangier, returning months later with a museum-quality haul of rugs, ceramics, tapestries and lamps. Morocco was “a mystic hangover,” Christopher told the New York Times, a place where “the ancient world [was] still kicking along.” It marked the start of a lifelong love affair with Morocco, where Christopher ultimately settled.

The trip prompted Christopher, backed by his mother, to open his first antique shop in north London. It proved so successful that, by 1964, he’d moved to Elystan Street at the epicentre of swinging Chelsea. The Royal Borough was then a meritocracy where talent and style met on their own terms. Retailers and rock stars, princes and playboys, designers and drug dealers, aristocrats and art students all came together around Chelsea’s famous King’s Road, where Christopher was on every guest list.

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

 


Is it an urban myth that he was the first man to wear the flared trouser? It could well be true for Christopher soon expanded his creativity beyond antiques and interiors, writing a quarterly men’s shopping supplement in British Vogue. Meanwhile, his shop’s close proximity to Michael Rainey’s Hung on You ensured a strong fashion connection and a steady flow of rock stars.

With the demise of the English Country House, it paid to be an antique dealer with all the right connections. As the '60s drew to a close, Christopher moved to Bond Street, filling Kasamin Gallery with wonderful things of all ages. His eye was legendary, mixing oddities and masterpieces, always with glorious provenances. For his clients, who often included the newly ennobled “rock aristocracy”, Christopher sourced beautiful pieces with provenances that, when described by Gibbs, felt almost priceless - and yet they were not; he was reassuringly expensive.

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

 


Charming and social, Chrissie - as he was universally known - worked as hard as he played, never failing to rise and head to work after a heavy night. According to his godson, Cosimo Sesti, Chrissie was fascinated by the narrative history of his collections, describing objects as “simply a thing without its story”. Christopher loved family history, country houses and genealogy, Cosimo tells Cabana, and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the interaction between all three. “He would talk about a 14th century maker of bronzes in Italy as though he was alive today,” Cosimo says. “He really was an incredible person and he treated everyone equally, he thought it was very important that you were allowed to be yourself.”

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

 

Writing in 2018, antique dealer and Jamb founder, Will Fisher, recalled the influence Christopher Gibbs had on his own career, stating: “Everything about him exuded not only magnificent style, but the most extraordinary academic knowledge about the antiques he was selling. He was always so generous and wanted the younger generations to learn and prosper.”

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6


Christopher’s apartment at Lindsey House was one of the ultimate party destinations, even appearing in the party scene of the 1966 film, Blow Up. It is perhaps there that Christopher first introduced Mick Jagger - who he was teaching to be ‘a gentleman’ - to another client, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, a merchant banker who later became the Rolling Stones’ manager. While the beautiful people drifted from one gathering to the next, with unmapped intuitive fluidity, Christopher - a handsome 6’2”, blue-eyed old Etonian dandy - held his elegant (often tripping) audience in raptures as he told the stories that made his beautiful possessions come alive. It must have been spellbinding, and of course the talk of the town.

As the ‘70s rolled on, the ‘60s generation grew up and started taking responsibility for the demise of the English Country House, establishing SAVE in 1975 (the campaign to save Britain’s historic buildings). Christopher was no longer just working for profit, but also with museums, making sure the right pieces found the right homes. The long list of not-for-profits and museums he worked with, including the magnificent British Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum, is impressive.

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

 

An advisor to John Paul Getty, he brokered a £50m grant from Getty to London’s National Gallery, aiding the building of the Sainsbury Wing. Christopher was also a trusted member of Lord Rothschild’s Committee of Taste, which oversaw the regeneration of Spencer House; a trustee of the American Friends of the National Gallery and on the arts panel of the National Trust.

While Christopher appeared to survive ‘60s hedonism relatively unscathed - a fact his godson put down to his powerful work ethic - he was loyal to friends recovering from its excesses, and seemed to seek a quieter life himself. In 1972 he left London and moved to Davington Priory, a former Benedictine nunnery in Kent, then, in 1980, moved to his family house, Clifton Hampden (sold, along with its contents, at Christie’s in 2000). Following a second Christie’s sale, he retired and moved to Tangier in 2006.

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

 

Indeed, the best way to experience Christopher’s taste is to look at his own homes, and Christie’s catalogues. “Everywhere you look, there is something to seduce the eyes,” couturier Stephan Janson said of El Foolk, Christopher’s home in Tangier. “Each object, each fabric hanging, each piece of furniture, painting, cushion, watercolor, down to cutlery and China, has its own story, its own message.”

From the Pompeii red rich walls and classical 17th century Italian painting to the Fez needlework cushions and chintz fabric, El Foolk serves as a decorative bridge between Europe and Tangier, layering history and found objects, wrote Emily Post in Cabana Issue 6. A mantlepiece display of 16th century Italian Majolica saltcellars, a wall hanging of Rabat embroideries, an American flag draped across a trunk, 15th century English stained glass… Christopher Gibbs’ mastery is not only in the search, but his ability to marry these objects harmoniously in one space.

 

El Foolk: Christopher's home in Tangier © Ngoc Minh Ngo, Cabana N6

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