Madam Tessier, and her brother

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walking in the park

In the late 1980’s when we were antique shopping in Quebec on a regular basis, we would follow up on leads for new sources that were offered to us by other dealers.  We were told about a great shop in the town of Deschambault, which is on Rt. 138 on the north shore of the St. Lawrence river between Trois Rivieres and Quebec city.  Rte. 138 was a popular tourist route back in the heyday of motoring vacations in the fifties and the sixties, but traffic dropped dramatically when the auto-route 40 opened and people’s attitude changed, and they started to just want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible.  There wasn’t much of the old “motoring” culture left along the route, but it was a gorgeous drive and every so often you would spot a handmade sign in front of a little roadside shack indicating “Souvenirs”.   Naturally we would stop and check it out.  You never know when and where you may find the next great folk artist or crafts-person. Most of these shops were a disappointment however in that they contained the St. Jean-Port-Jolie style tourist carvings, and the typical plastic commercial schlock, but once in a while we would find some crazy, old guy making something interesting, or in this case of this story, a great source of charming, original designed hand hooked rugs.

woven runners and mats

woven runners and mats

It was a fine summer morning as we rounded the bend just a few klicks from our destination of Deschambault, when we noticed several signs around an old frame house indicating “Souvenirs” “Quebec textiles”, “hand hooked rugs”, etc.  These signs had a charm all their own so we were hopeful that we may be on to something.  We went through the door indicated as “shop”, and entered into a long thin room which had an end to end run of long, thin, fabric cutting style tables, stacked with dozens of different varieties of hooked rugs and woven runners, and mats.  The back wall was covered with examples of rugs, and behind the tables stood a lovely looking elderly woman looking every bit the Victorian lady with piled up hair and white powder makeup.  Right out of central casting.  She had a radiant smile and seemed truly delighted to meet us.  She told us her name was Madam Tessier and all the textiles on sale where either made by her, or one of her three or four rug hooking neighbors.

a geometric

a geometric

Our attention moved from her to the rugs, and we were immediately taken with the charming original subjects, the vibrant colors, and the workmanship.  The expected florals and geometrics were interesting, but what caught our attention were the many depictions of rural Quebec life.  Scenes of bringing in the ducks at night, of workers stopping in the field to observe the “angelus” or moment of prayer at 6 pm, a sugaring scene in early spring, a farmer about to feed the animals, and so on.  There were also riffs on classic themes like a beaver on a log, a maple leaf. As well there were tables full of multi coloured runners. Rainbows in fabric everywhere you looked.  The prices were very reasonable considering the amount of work that went into them, and you could see that they were well made, and would wear well.  She was surprised and delighted when instead of choosing one or two, we bought a dozen or so.  We explained who we were and that we were buying for resale, and that if they should sell as we thought they would we would soon be back for more.  And so it was. They went like hotcakes and within a month we were back buying about twice as many as before.  Madam Tessier grew to look forward to us pulling up.

farmer and his yellow wagon

farmer and his yellow wagon

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farmer in the yard

After a few visits she asked us into the adjacent house for tea.  She explained that she had lived there all her life with her brother, but that he had recently passed away so she was now there on her own.  She said she didn’t mind because she had many friends in the village and was never alone for very long. It was lovely to sit in her kitchen and have tea and listen to her story.  It took me several minutes before I noticed something peculiar about the walls.  As I looked more closely at the tongue and groove wood grained boards which ran from floor to ceiling, I realized that they were not wood paneling at all, but rather a hand painted facsimile.  I couldn’t believe it.  The whole room had been meticulously grain painted by hand.  Every groove and the wood grain was done free hand, one at time. Then I realized that where there was a painting on the wall, that the painting had been done in the same hand right on the wall with a painted frame around it, as it should be. Amazing.  Can you imagine how long it would take to do something like that?  I had to ask her.  “oh that.  Yes, that was my brother’s project later in life.  He volunteered to paint the place but then he got the idea of the wood grain so it took him several years.”  He completed many rooms before he died.”  You could see she was proud of her brother’s accomplishment.

beaver on a log

beaver on a log

It’s funny what sticks with you in life.  Sitting in that room, drinking tea with Madam Tessier and coming to the realization that the entire room I was sitting in was faux painted freehand by her brother remains as vivid in my memory today as the day it occurred.  I’d imagine that the conclusion of a psychiatrist would be obsessive/ compulsive behavior, but to me it felt like an act of a deep dedication to the concept of beauty and love of environment, not to mention persistence.  I had a deep feeling of warmth come over me, and I knew I was in the presence of true inspiration.   Madam Tessier there smiling benevolently with her white powder make up and piled up Victorian hair.

farmers pausing to pray the Angelus

farmers pausing to pray – the Angelus

 

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An Irish-Canadian table makes its way to the Motherland

irishtab2In 1998 we had the great fortune to be asked to purchase an entire house full of Canadian antique furnishings for a country home near Galway, Ireland.  A lovely couple whom we had done good business with over the years wanted to make their newly purchased Irish retreat contain the warmth and aesthetic of early Canadiana furniture, of Irish-Canadian decent where possible.  They had a long wish list, and entrusted us to search and come up with a few best candidates for each item.  We sent photographs and particulars, from which they would pick the winner.  Then we would buy the items and bring them to a shipper in Toronto, who held them until the list was complete when they packed and shipped them in one large container.  It worked well, and we made a lot of our fellow dealers happy by buying up their expensive items.  It’s fun spending other people’s money.

The one thing our friends were keen on having was a great, original harvest table of about 9 or ten feet in length.  Something solid at the right height, with a naturally smooth and attractive original finish.  Not an easy order to fill.  We bought many wonderful pieces over the next 12 months but the all-important harvest table continued to eluded us.  Lots of well-made re-builds on offer, but nothing original.  We were growing concerned because the shipping date loomed, so I started calling everyone I knew, dealer and collector alike to ask if they didn’t know of something.  Eventually  it was Bill Dobson (thanks again Bill) who recalled that a retired, Eastern Ontario collector/dealer of high repute had been storing away just such a table. He did not know if it would still be there, or if it was for sale, but he gave me a name and number, along with a warning that if it was available it would be a lot of money and deservedly so. He also advised me to tread softly as this gentleman was an honest and reliable person, but was not known to suffer fools.  I called the next morning.irishtab4

The fellow who answered was indeed a bit stern and suspicious at first, but after several minutes of establishing mutual friendships, and exchanging philosophies that we arrived at the point where I was told that yes there was a table, and it could be for sale, but for a price that was non-negotiable.  I became excited as he described it. Nine feet long, decent width, Irish-Canadian family from Eastern Ontario, circa 1840,  ”H” shaped stretcher base, original red stained pine boards on top, bottom with early apple green oil paint over the red stain.  No repairs, and no apologies.  It ticked all the boxes.  “Can I come and see it” “Sure, if you are seriously interested, and o.k. with the price which is $_,000, and as I said before non-negotiable.”  A chunk of cash for sure, but if it was as described, it was rare and exclusive and therefore a piece were the seller can pretty much name his price.  I assured him I was serious and so we made the arrangement for me to come the very next day. A twelve-hour drive, there and back to look at a table. I’d say I was serious. On arriving I felt a bit anxious, but soon relaxed when I found my host to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and interesting.  We had a great talk and a good look around his home and out buildings before heading out to an open drive shed in the middle of a cattle field.  There, covered with a tarp, resting upside down about eye level on top of a large piece of farm machinery rose the magnificent green tapered legs with stretcher. What I could see of the top was covered with linoleum, and so I asked “what about the top?”  Are there are any problems like it being gouged or badly stained?”  “The top is excellent and untouched. There’s no problem.”  To bring it down and flip it over was a big deal, and his reputation and my gut told me to trust him so I did some measurements, took some pictures and went home.  After talking with my clients, and getting an enthusiastic thumbs up, I found myself arranging to pick up the table the following week on our way back home from a Quebec trip.  Jeanine was on board this time.

In Quebec we happily filled our van with smalls, and then started home.  About two in the afternoon we were near Cornwall, when I phoned ahead to make sure we were still on track for picking up the table.  “I’m here and ready for you, and by the way you are bringing cash, right.”  “Cash? That’s a lot of money to be walking around with. No, I just assumed you would take my cheque.”  “No I’m sorry, not that I don’t trust you, but it has to be cash or no deal”.   “O.k. I understand. leave it with me and I’ll figure something out and call you if there is a problem. Otherwise we’ll see you soon.”  We banked with Canada Trust and so we drove directly to a Cornwall branch in a suburban strip mall near the highway to see what we could do.  We were fortunate in that as the staff explained, they do not usually have that amount of cash available with such short notice, but as it happened they had just received a large cash deposit so they could do it.  We left a few minutes later with a big brown grocery bag full of mostly small bills.  It felt like a heist.irishtab3

We drove directly to our destination and after a long counting session, and a lot of friendly talk along with a nice cool beverage, we found ourselves out at the drive shed with the cows mulling around us, trying to see what the action was.  I backed up the van to the table, and saw that it lined up perfectly to be slid directly onto the roof rack.  There had been talk of bringing it down and lifting the linoleum but I could see that it would be best to leave the linoleum in place to protect the surface, and it was so damned convenient to just slide it forward. “So if you’re sure that the top is O.K., let’s just slide it on and tie it down.”  “If it is not as I told you, and you are unhappy, bring it back and I’ll return your money.”  I knew he was sincere so off we went, paying out all that cash for a table without having seen the top of it. Well placed faith in your fellow-man, or just plain fool hardy.  It would soon be revealed.

We got home about midnight and so it was first thing the following morning that I had my worker help me take the table up into the church.  I gingerly lifted the linoleum which was held on by just a few small tacks around the perimeter and after peeling off a couple of layers of old newspaper I beheld just what I wanted to see.  A superb, original top with undisturbed patina and no gouges or ugly stains. Just as advertised.  It cleaned up beautifully, and a few days later I dropped it off at the shippers, soon to be on it’s way.  We had the thrill and honor of visiting our friends/clients in Ireland the following year to see the finished project, and it was an absolute delight for us to sit and dine with them at this splendid Irish-Canadian table that had made it’s way to a new home in Ireland.

the table at it's new home in Ireland

the table at it’s new home in Ireland

Our times at The North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show

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a giant moose head that came along for the ride.

When, in about 1986 we decided to expand our show calendar beyond the weekly Toronto Harbourfront Market and the spring and fall Christie shows, we decided that we would like to include the North Hatley Antique and Folk Art Show, held annually in early July in the beautiful Eastern Townships region of Quebec. Known as Canada’s oldest antique show, it also had and still has a deserved reputation for presenting top quality antique and folk art to an exclusive and appreciative clientele.  North Hatley is a picturesque charmer of a small town on the banks of Lake Massawippi, and a playground to the affluent and powerful of Montreal and surrounding areas. The show, put on by the local Recreational Society is held in the old curling club with about fifteen dealers set up where the ice would be, and another 6 or so set up in the onlooking lounge.  For the years we attended, until his death in 2007 it was run by the legendary Sam Pollock, who among many other things was the manager of the Montreal Canadians for 14 years, during which they won the Stanley Cup nine times.  As you can imagine, Sam ran a tight ship. Every year he, and his loyal fellow volunteers would do everything from planning and preparing, to set up, and everything else involved in running a top notch show right down to the  making of the delicious home-made egg salad sandwiches at the lunch bar. They may have been up in years, but those ladies knew their way around a good egg salad sandwich. northhat4

In those days, it was not easy to get invited to do the show.  We were lucky to have friends like Peter Baker and Gerry Marks who had been doing the show for years to recommend us.  The first year we had a tiny 10’ x 10’ booth wedged into a corner of the lounge area, which was mostly dedicated to book, pottery, and silver sellers, with the furniture dealers all being in the main room.  We didn’t mind because being an unknown in terms of results, the rent was cheaper and we came with a smaller truck. We focused mainly on folk art, which was what the promoters wanted from us because it was becoming increasingly popular with this crowd. It went very well, and we had a great time to boot.  Good sales, lovely people, and a stunning area to explore.

An interesting feature of the show is the gala Friday night opening.  From 6:30 to 9:00 on the Friday night a $30 ticket buys you first crack at the stuff, and all the delicious hors-d’oeuvres, and wine you want. Lovely young waiters and waitresses passing amongst the crowd with trays. The experienced dealers warned us that opening night it is packed, and it may seem that all they do is talk to each other, and glance over your stuff.  It is a big social event after all.  But not to despair because when they see something they like they are in a good and competitive mood to buy.  Also, they may go home and discuss it, and come back Saturday morning to buy.  It worked out pretty much just like that.  A few sales Friday night, then good sales all day Saturday, and even a few more on Sunday.

We kept the same booth for a couple of years and then moved to a bigger one in the same room when it became available. Then one year when I was doing the show by myself; I can’t remember when exactly, it must have been the late nineties, Sam came up to me and asked me if I would be interested in taking over a large room upstairs they had for the same price.  He pitched “You can spread out the art and make it like a gallery.  I think you can do well up there.”  I knew the space.  It was a big space, about 20’ x 30’ with two front facing windows which brought in a lot of natural light.  It must have been used for meetings.

my "gallery"  at the North Hatley show

my “gallery”
at the North Hatley show

“Well, yes Sam the space is great, but not to mention that everything has to go up and down the fire escape, I will be on my own up there, apart from the show. It might get pretty lonely”.  “Ah, but don’t forget Phil, that’s where the woman’s washroom is.  All the ladies will pass by eventually, and they’ll drag their husband’s up”.  I thought about it for a minute and decided he was probably right.  It just might work, and if it did the price was right. So I agreed, and started to haul everything up the steep fire escape that led directly to the room. A big task, but much easier than dragging everything through the inside.  It took the whole afternoon to set up, but in the end it looked like a gallery. I even had a table and chairs in front of the window where I could sit and do business, or read the paper in slow times. Not to mention eating egg salad sandwiches. So close. So tasty. So affordable.  I put up a little sign with an arrow pointing up at the base of the inside staircase announcing “Folk Art Upstairs”. I hoped that somebody might see it.

looking into my "gallery" from the hall

looking into my “gallery”
from the hall

6:30 arrived and at first I wondered if I had made a horrible mistake because I could hear the people coming in, chatting and having fun for a full thirty minutes before anyone showed their face.  But then it started.   The first lady poked her nose in, and was surprised to find me and my offerings.  Fortunately she was a folk art enthusiast and went directly to several pieces of carvers she recognized.   She bought three things right then and there, and I was off to the races.  It was out of the way, but when the folk art people found me, they really connected, and would not only buy, but go down and drag their friends up.   I met several people that year that became long -time friends and customers.  It was already a great show by Saturday at noon and then Pierre Riverin walked in.  I’d heard about the “collecting” mayor of the town of Eastman for several years but we had never crossed paths. We talked for over an hour, he bought several pieces, and it was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.  It is a rare and precious moment when you find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right stuff.   Even with all the effort of getting everything up and down those stairs, it was worth it many times over. I had a wonderful show and I was happy up there.  I repeated this for a few more years before the hauling up and down began to outweigh the benefit, so when a bigger booth on the main floor became available I grabbed it.

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

myself and Tom DeVolpi enjoying a beverage

Over the years we got to know several of the Quebec dealers, designers, and collectors who frequent this unique annual show.  For a time many of us participating dealers would get together on Saturday night and enjoy the evening together at some wonderful local Inn or restaurant.  There are several to choose from.  Then through our friend Tom De Volpi, and our friends Jim and Ilona Fleming, we were invited to an annual Saturday night dealer’s dinner held at the nearby summer home of a lovely Montreal designer named Valery.  It was always a wonderful, warm get together, not to mention a delicious dinner; and we were grateful for her hospitality and the chance to spend some happy time with our fellows.

Eventually, as in all stories, the pages turn, and times change, and so it was that by 2008, (I remember it because, although still a good show, it just didn’t feel the same without Sam being there), along with slumping sales, we reached the point and age where we just couldn’t justify the ten hour drive to and from home, and all the work that doing the show entailed.  Mind you this was part of a larger retreat from doing shows altogether.  We truly don’t miss the work, but we do miss the people.  They were some very good times.

the "gang"  at Valerie and Henri's

the “gang”
at Valerie and Henri’s

Going further than Faux

green and orange "spool" table

It started innocently enough.  It was in the 80’s when we were either selling as found, or on occasion if the surface was bad, but the natural wood was good, we would strip and refinishing as was popular at the time.  One day we bought a small handmade side table made from empty thread spools and crate wood because it was charmingly made. However, it lacked a good surface.  The original white paint over the entire surface hadn’t developed a nice patina, and therefore could not be considered “shabby chic”.  We were going to sell it as is and let the new owner figure out what they wanted to do with it.

But, as it happened we were at coffee break in the workshop one fine winter morning when Jeanine silently looked over at the table for several minutes and then said, “I think I want to do a decorative paint job on that little table. I’ve got an idea for it”.  Jeanine is a talented visual artist in her own right, and had taught art at Beal Art in London, and St. Clair College, so great.  Go for it.  Knock yourself out.

Right after break she set to work by painting the entire table with leaf green oil paint. When that was dry she created a stencil of a leaf and proceeded to paint orange leaves radiating out from the center of the top, and in graceful arches on the lower shelf. Next she highlighted the edges in a buttery yellow and put a potato stamp texture of black on the background.  What followed was a time consuming task of detailing each spool in orange.  This took a while and a steady hand, but when she was finished the piece was transformed.  Finally, when it was thoroughly dry she took 0000 steel wool and gently burnished the oil paint surface to soften the look.   She signed and dated the paint job on the bottom, and we took it an outdoor show we were doing near Collingwood the following weekend.repaint3

It didn’t take long before it was noticed by a vibrant, and well- appointed middle aged woman who went into raptures about it’s “freshness”, and warmth of the design.  She loved it and bought it without hesitation, obviously pleased to be buying from the artist.  It quickly followed that she asked Jeanine if she would be willing to paint other pieces of furniture for her.  She had inherited some pieces from her parents that had sentimental value to her, but did not appeal to her aesthetically.  They were all quite typical turn of the century manufactured maple furniture. Well made, but not particularly interesting.  She explained that she was an interior designer, and wanted the pieces to be transformed into something that would fit in to a modern décor.  Some would go to the cottage. A few others to the house in the city.  She gave Jeanine carte blanche to do as she wish, and urged her to push the limits of her imagination.  Jeanine offered that she would be interested in “riffing” on traditional faux graining techniques, by using traditional tools and techniques, but shifting to a more vibrant palette, and freer organic designs.  An hourly rate was established and it was agreed that she would start on a typical two door, over two drawer sideboard.  But one that at least had quite a free style headboard and side pillars. repaint1We picked the piece up and took it home, and three weeks later we were dropping it off the back of our truck at her home in Toronto.  It was an almost psychedelic sunburst pattern of multi coloured sponge painting.  All free hand, and in a wide range of muted greens, and blues, with highlights in reds and yellows, as was discussed with the client beforehand, and after observing the room it was going into.  We loved the piece, but it was definitely a statement, and we were anxious as to how she would react.  A moment of anticipation as the shipping blanket comes off, and then big smiles all around.  She loves it.  She would have never imagined it, but she loves it.  We were off to the races.repaint2

What followed was several years of regular commissions from the same patron, who collected many pieces herself, and before long had friends and clients looking for something similar.  We never took any pieces of Jeanine’s work to shows, because she was as busy as she wanted to be with commissions, and antique shows of the time, generally frowned upon pieces that have been “repainted”, so we didn’t need the hassle.   She signed and dated all the work not only as recognition, but also to assure that the age of the paint was not misrepresented in the future.

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This rainbow table in vinegar paint is the last piece Jeanine painted, about the year 2000.  Looking over these photos I wish she would do more.

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