July 24, 2024

How to choose antique garden furniture, from Roman to wrought-iron

How to choose antique garden furniture, from Roman to wrought-iron

On weekends from now until September, you’ll often find me wandering around a National Garden Scheme open garden, wondering why everyone else seems to be better at weeding, and desperately trying to identify plants I want. But also wishing that I had the budget for the antiques that some of the best gardens feature: because nothing seems to ground a garden quite like a wrought-iron gate or a painted bench, perfectly parked at the end of an avenue of trees. 

The world of antiques — particularly for the garden — can sometimes appear hard to navigate. Where do people begin? That depends on the style of your house and garden, explains Travers Nettleton, who runs Garden Art Plus, a two-acre site in Hungerford, Berkshire, full of garden antiques from early Roman pieces to tiered fountains and Victorian benches. “I’d start with something to sit on and something to eat at. We have clients coming to us and saying, ‘We’ve just bought a beautiful Georgian house — what would be in keeping?’”

“I’d start with some beautiful Georgian strapwork metal benches, produced by high-quality blacksmiths. And then, if you are a purist, 18th-century statues and urns and planters.”

stone urn in a garden
A mid 19th-century Margam vase made by James Pulham & Son in buff terracotta, from Garden Art Plus

Such items not only look beautiful, they also help to create a sense of history or tell a story about our homes. “Sculpture and architectural antiques have always been used through the centuries to draw your eye to a different part of the garden,” says Nettleton. And clever placement of the items can make a big difference: “It can introduce harmony and peace as well as help the gardener draw the person around the garden.”

Gates, for example, can frame a view — Nettleton recently took a huge, 3-metre-high pair of blacksmith-worked gates to display at Chelsea Flower Show. “People like putting gates up even if they don’t own the land beyond it,” he says.

It will come as no surprise to hear that the garden antiques scene is not really a place where trends apply. However, there are certain items that are ever popular and collectable. One notable example is the Coalbrookdale bench, made from cast iron at the Coalbrookdale foundry in Shropshire, and enjoying its heyday in the Victorian era.

carved stone base with metal sundial
Balustrade sundial made of Portland stone, with bronze armillary sphere, mid 19th century, Garden Art Plus

Michael Thompson, who runs Thompson’s Garden Emporium, is a Coalbrookdale bench specialist (a dealer, restorer and passionate collector). Their desirability, he explains, is down to the quality, both in terms of the manufacturing process but also the designs — the most famous of which is the Convolvulus pattern of twisting vines, first registered in 1842. Other examples include Fern and Blackberry and Nasturtium, highly detailed floral patterns, recognisably Victorian in style. 

The designs were first produced in wood, pressed into sand to make a mould, before molten iron was poured in. If you look closely at the back of an original Coalbrookdale bench, you’ll see that it is actually quite thin and beautifully crafted, says Thompson. So antique hunters beware: “The modern reproductions are a lot heavier than the original Coalbrookdales so it’s a bit of a myth when people say ‘that’s heavy, it must be a Victorian one’, because it’s actually the other way around.”

Thompson says that Queen Victoria purchased Coalbrookdale benches for Osborne, her home on the Isle of Wight. They were, and still are, expensive. To buy an original, says Thompson, will cost from £3,000 and could escalate to £12,000 depending on desirability, so it’s an investment piece. But they have stood the test of time and should continue to do so if looked after and restored when needed.

reddish-brown iron with wooden seat
Thompson’s Garden Emporium specialises in Victorian cast-iron Coalbrookdale benches; this one has a Fern and Blackberry pattern

Of course, if your house and garden predates the Victorian era, an 18th-century bench might be more in keeping. Unlike the Coalbrookdale benches that were produced in a large foundry, these were made as one-offs, often by estate blacksmiths. They tend to be simpler in design than the later Victorian models, with little turned-out feet to stop them sinking into the earth. To find examples, try auctions or specialist antique garden furniture dealers such as Lichen Garden Antiques or Garden Art Plus.

French antique garden furniture is also highly sought after. Caryl Tincknell runs Violet Grey, which sources furniture from Europe from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Arras pieces, hand-forged decorative furniture with distinctive claw or hoof feet. Much of it is found at déballages — huge antique fairs in the south of France. The company also specialises in unusual planters — it currently has an enormous, metre-wide copper pot for sale, used to make marmalade in the south of France circa 1900. It’s a striking piece with huge rivets — ideal for flowers or even for conversion into a water feature.  

It is garden table sets, however, that have proven to be hugely successful for Violet Grey. Its approach is to find pieces — usually iron tables with marble tops, and then match them with sets of chairs from similar eras. Most pieces are grit blasted and powder coated (often in green) before being sold on to clients. It’s a less traditional process but Tincknell says it protects the pieces from the weather. Demand has been huge. “As soon as they [the table sets] go online they’ve been selling out. We can’t keep up with it.”  

Most antique garden furniture does show its age through patina and imperfections, but if you would rather ensure that the end aesthetic is less shabby chic and more contemporary chic, architecture and interior design practice De Rosee Sa has just launched a new collection of restored garden pieces, with a sleek and modern finish.

big copper pot being used as a planter
Enormous copper pot, used to make marmalade in the south of France circa 1900, from Violet Grey

The collection includes 1960s French wrought-iron foldable chairs, painted, restored and kitted out with square striped-linen seat pads, and a 1950s French garden set that the founder and director, Claire Sá, says has been “reimagined as a homage to the coastal furniture found in Positano patios”. It has a new paint job, a new marble top and vibrant orange linen seat cushions.

Sá says that there is “an appetite for a romantic and whimsical garden” and says that the new collection “aims to tap into a more environmentally conscious consumer who understands the importance of ‘buy once, buy well’.” Its careful paint choices and new upholstery, including stripes in different thicknesses, show just what can be done to make these older pieces appeal to a new generation of collectors.

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