Perusing the auction catalogue for Robert Kime’s Personal Collection is like taking a ride on a roller coaster of desire, finds Sarah Hyde. Join her as she journeys through Kime’s treasures, and discovers the Big Cabana Family’s picks.
BY SARAH HYDE | 2 OCTOBER 2023
George I Oak Bookcase, pictured in Robert Kime's London home © Brett Wood
This week (4-6 October 2023), an extraordinary collection will go on sale: hundreds of objects, artworks and pieces of furniture acquired and fastidiously collected by the late great decorator and antiquarian, Robert Kime. The highly anticipated auction, at Dreweatts in Newbury, Berkshire, has caused such excitement that it's rumoured helicopters have been landing in the grounds of their charming sale rooms.
Comprised of 918 lots from Kime’s large apartment in Warwick Square, London, and Le Grannier, his property in the south of France, the auction is vast and varied. Looking through the catalogue is like taking a ride on a roller coaster of desire, lurching from one stomach-churningly desirable item to the next.
"Has ever one person owned so much that is covetable?!" asks writer and antique dealer, Ros Byam Shaw. "You could stick a pin anywhere [in the auction catalogue] and find yourself the owner of something fabulous," she tells Cabana. Indeed, if Kime’s collection teaches us anything, it is to buy with your heart.
No dilletante, Robert Kime was a dealer’s dealer, while his reputation as a great “eye” imbued his talents with significant mystique. When working, surveying the sale room, he did not want to be disturbed or guided, and was always easy to spot in his uniform of jeans, loafers and a jacket. If spotted, he would smile and quietly carry on.
As a decorator, his work was both gentle and full of wonder; the houses he decorated felt like homes that had been there for ever. His discreet signature was a curious visual vibration, achieved through simultaneously linking and clashing colors and patterns. His genius for arrangement may have appeared effortless, and was certainly an intuitive gift, but required huge knowledge and an innate understanding of proportion and style. Although cut price copyists followed suit, it was never the same, and while everyone was trying to be Robert Kime, he was just being himself.
Flora's Favorite: William and Mary Walnut and Turkey-work stool, 17th-century © Dreweatts
It is incredible to consider the volume of objects, paintings and furniture that Robert must have looked at during his career. It makes this sale, of the things he wanted to keep for himself, so special. Robert loved to play with scale, if his enormous Plough Horse painting is anything to go by. He had a great affection for stump-work embroidery, delftware and the romance of faded fabrics, all the delights of country sale rooms, charm often trumping condition and good sense.
Who knows if these objects embody a momentary curiosity, were a souvenir of a bigger story, a fleeting passion, or an enduring love affair. Regardless of price, each item is equal in charm, posing questions and telling stories, from important pieces, like the Farringdon Mirror - a considerable conversation piece from the home of Lord Berners, on whom Nancy Mitford based Lord Merlin in The Pursuit of Love - to giant castle chess pieces for a few hundred pounds.
Ros' Favorite: Green Painted and Parcel Gilt Mahogany Four Poster © Dreweatts
When pressed for a favorite, Ros had a clear choice: "I plump for the four-poster bed, which is a bit of mongrel - 18th century posts, a 19th century canopy, antique chintz and modern fabric hangings - but is charming, looks comfortable, and ever since I was a little girl, I have always wanted a four-poster bed.” Decorator and textile designer, Flora Soames, is clear on her favorites too - a William and Mary Walnut and Turkey-work stool and pair of side chairs. “I’m completely crazy about the rich colors and faded pattern of the late 17th-century floral Turkey-work."
Rose, Marchioness of Cholmondeley, highlights a more personal, nostalgic lot - a George I Oak Bookcase, sold in 2005 from Houghton Hall, the ancestral home of Rose's husband, David, Marquess of Cholmondeley. The antique was sold at Christie's in London as part of a large sale of items from the Norfolk estate.
"When Robert first took me to his flat in London, he pointed [the bookcase] out to my husband and asked him if he recognised it," Rose tells Cabana. "I love that he kept all the labels on the drawers and didn’t change the interior fabric; he saw its charm and didn’t want to erase its history. I am so pleased Robert gave it a new life in his London home … he was someone I admired greatly."
Robert Kime had a significant collection of pictures, and was particularly keen on Modern British and Bloomsbury artists, usually buying a few pieces by each artist, including Christopher Wood, Duncan Grant, GF Watts, Walter Sickett and Eric Ravillous. His collection reveals themes among his interests - flowers and interiors, as well as hills and sheep - and he created an ingenious system for hanging his pictures. Using a picture rail and chains, he would hang up to five together.
“He simply put two nails in the back of the frame and pushed them into the chains, it was a very simple system, [with] the added advantage of leaving no marks on the walls,”says Will Porter, co-head of Dreweatts’ Modern and Contemporary Art department. The system also enabled Robert to move his pictures around as he chose, Will adds. Does he have his eye on a particular piece in the sale? “The Walter Sickett of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice - [it is] a remarkable picture.”
The Cabana Team are clear on their most coveted lots too. Editor-in-Chief, Martina Mondadori, plumps for Kime's marvellous Syrian tapestry, pictured top behind the desk in his London study, while Social Media Editor, Jamie Sharp, loves the 17th-century embroidered velvet tunic of a Sherwood forester, pictured below.
The tunic came from one of England’s ancient homes, Rufford Abbey, and was owned by the great English decorator, Christopher Gibbs, before it was acquired by Kime. "To imagine it worn in the 17th-century in the very wild Sherwood forest, home of the legend of Robin Hood, is incredibly compelling to my mind," Jamie says.
Jamie's Favorite: Velvet Tunic of a Sherwood Forester, 17th-century © Dreweatts
My own first-hand experience of Robert Kime’s work was during my student days. While writing up my MPhil thesis, I decided to work as a tour guide at Clarence House, with the secret ambition of somehow learning something incredible from Robert Kime before going back to the London-based auction house, Christie’s (where I later worked for 13 years), and becoming the greatest antique dealer alive! However, it was an endless summer and I found giving ‘the tour’ to expectant bus loads rather overwhelming, so, when I could, I’d ask my boss to put me on ‘guard duty’ in the Garden Room - by far the best spot for the afternoon.
Once the tour had moved on, I’d have the room to myself and would start trying to crack what I now realise is an imaginary Kime code. I now wonder if creating this laid-back and incredibly cool room - in which the then Prince of Wales received state visitors - next-door to the grandeur of Buckingham Palace was Robert’s greatest play between the grand and humble. To my inexperienced eye it defined deconstructed palatial chic – with only the most subtle hint of power in the striped waxed cotton desk chair, which had more than a whiff of throne about it.
As for the auction, bidding starts this week and will inevitably be fierce. Buying something special, especially in the lower price bracket, may well be a white-knuckle ride. But as the Robert Kime collection is released back into the market, it is mostly just as it was found, with one extra layer of provenance - something which Robert, it is universally agreed upon, would have adored.
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Sarah Hyde is a London and France based Arts writer. Before moving to the south of France to write full-time, she spent 13 years at Christie's in London and Paris.
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