Antiques Roadshow expert Will Farmer chats about his career so far
Will Farmer, Antiques Roadshow ceramics specialist and director of Fieldings Auctioneers Ltd, discusses his early collections, the women who inspired him, and an exciting film cameo
Not many five-year-olds have a passion for antiques but, thanks to his mother and grandmother, Will Farmer’s fascination was ignited at an early age and has never been extinguished. The two energetic ladies were both avid antiques enthusiasts and toured local auction rooms and antiques shops every weekend.
‘My mother loved Georgian furniture, Victorian animal paintings, barometers, and she had an amazing collection of Mauchline and tartanware. Writing slopes and workboxes were other passions – there were pyramids of them all over the house. Meanwhile, my grandmother collected beer steins and lidded tankards,’ he recalls.
The family lived near Bakewell, Derbyshire, and their antiques-hunting trips radiated out to encompass Sheffield, Chesterfield, Derby and the Peaks. ‘I thought this was a lot more fun than sitting at home with my grandad, so I piled into the car with them and off we’d go.’
At his mother’s suggestion, young Will started to collect silver-backed prayer books, which then (in the early 1970s) could be bought for under a pound. Many were decorated with a design adapted from a famous Joshua Reynolds painting of cherubs’ heads. They led Will on to other silver objects decorated with cherubs, before he turned his attention to Steiff bears.
Then came a turning point: hidden in his grandmother’s sideboard, Will discovered a wonderful Art Deco Shelley coffee service, and a passion that was to found his collecting and working life was sparked.
At Newark Antiques Fair, on one of many trips (signed off with sick notes from his mother), 11-year-old Will came across a stall belonging to a dealer called Beverley. There, he encountered shelves full of Clarice Cliff’s vibrant Art Deco wares and instantly fell in love with them. ‘Beverley was the grande dame of Deco,’ says Will. ‘I bombarded her with questions: “Who? Where? Why? What?” She could have swatted me away but, realising my limited funds, she started me collecting salt and peppers.’
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By the age of 14, Will was travelling to London during the summer holidays to stay with Beverley, help in her shop, and view auctions at Christie’s. ‘I thought I was terribly important, holding my catalogue, making notes, hoping someone would talk to me.’
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Thanks to his knowledge of Art Deco and 20th-century ceramics, Will self-funded his way through university in Birmingham, where he studied silversmithing and jewellery making. ‘When everyone else was nursing hangovers on Sunday morning, I’d be at car boot sales with my best friend Sally, buying and selling,’ he laughs.
By the end of his course, he’d decided that jewellery making and silversmithing weren’t for him; dealing in antiques was the only career he wanted. ‘My dad lent me £5,000 to get started, but within a year I was struggling. “You have the best collection and the worst stock; don’t ever deal in what you collect” my dad said.’
It was at this low point that a friend suggested auctioneering: ‘I’d get the joy of the objects, without the outlay,’ explains Will. He listened and joined a local firm, remaining there for two years until Nick Davies, an auctioneer at a rival firm, offered him a job in a new saleroom he was opening.
Will joined, not as an employee but as a partner, and Fieldings opened its doors in Stourbridge in 2001. ‘Twenty years on, we’re still here. We’ve made it our home and the town is proud of us; we are part of the community and do a lot for local charities.’
Alongside his auctioneering business, Will’s media career also burgeoned. ‘I chatted to a friend who was a producer for the BBC’s Inside Out about car booting and Clarice Cliff and we did a couple of programmes. Then Flog It! came to Fieldings, and I did the pieces to camera.’ After that, Will was summoned to Bristol for a screen test and appeared on 20th Century Roadshow followed by Children’s Roadshow, before joining the main team of Antiques Roadshow.
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‘I remember filming my first Antiques Roadshow. I was put on a table with David Battie, who was terrifying, and he said, “And you are?”. When I told him he replied, “Are you any good?”. I sat next to him, and we became great friends.’ After 17 years on the expert team, Will still feels it’s a huge privilege to be on the show. ‘I love the joy and the excitement of discovering something, sharing my knowledge in an entertaining way, and being put on my metal.’
At home, his passion for Art Deco hasn’t waned and, although his taste has matured, Clarice Cliff remains a constant. ‘It’s what unlocked my passion, and there was a time when my bedroom was like a recreation of a Poirot set. It’s not that now, but she’s always been in my life. Our house is a mixture of modern British art, mid-century modern furniture, Swedish, Italian and British studio glass, Fornasetti, as well as Art Deco ceramics, Poole Pottery and contemporary studio work.’
A recent high point in Will’s life came when he was asked to be the historical advisor on The Colour Room, a film about Clarice Cliff. ‘I helped with sourcing and vetting things and was given a cameo role. Then, in October, I attended my first premiere. It’s a beautiful film and it made me reflect how I’ve always been surrounded by strong female role models: Mum, Gran, Beverley and Clarice – they have driven and formed my career. I hope they would think I made the most of my opportunities, and now, thanks to the film, there will always be me, linked with Clarice and my world.’