17 Jul 2007

Mrs. G.E.P. How’s Arms & Armour Collection

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The late G.E.P. How enjoyed great wines, opera, fishing, shooting, edged weapons, beekeeping, cricket, cars, and mastiffs.

On July 25, Bonham’s at its Knightsbridge branch will be auctioning Arms & Armour from the collections of the late G.E.P. How and others.

The London Times said in its obituary of Mrs. How:

Mrs G. E. P. How, silver expert, was born on January 2, 1915. She died on June 26, 2004, aged 89.

A legend in the art world almost as much for the startling trenchancy of her utterance as for her impeccable scholarship and taste, Mrs. G. E. P. How was perhaps the last surviving link to the heroic age of antique dealing before the war, when great discoveries were made and dealers were becoming more than mere merchants of curios. Mrs. How stood out from the first by her scholarly energy and integrity, and she became one of the most influential dealers of her time. …

Jane Penrice Benson was born in 1915, the posthumous daughter of an officer killed in the war. The family had been based in South Wales, though she herself grew up in the Home Counties. Her early ambition was to be an archaeologist; it was accidentally transmuted into silver when a neighbour suggested that she would enjoy helping to catalogue his collection of early spoons. (The fascination of spoons is that they are the only form of silver to survive in any quantity from the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance; without them it would be impossible to map the early history of the craft.) The expert she was to assist was Commander G. E. P. How, RN (retd), who turned out to be a jovial gentleman dealer with some considerable knowledge and a not entirely unpiratical bent. It was not long before the young Miss Benson was enthralled by man and subject alike.

The Ellis catalogue on which they worked is still a useful reference book, and Miss Benson moved to work with George How, and eventually, after his divorce, to marry him. The Commander and the Commando, as they were soon known, threw themselves into new research, living, breathing and in some cases sleeping with their spoons. …

As dealers, the Hows were a new breed, coming from a background very different from that of the traditional silver merchant, and they owed a lot to their contacts, to their social ease and an unquestionable sense of gentlemanly integrity. Their shops were fitted out to look like a collector’s drawing room, and indeed they held open house in the evenings for collectors to come to talk about silver. The Hows also offered more intellectually than much of the competition. They were among the first to persuade collectors to insist on the highest quality and untouched condition, however modest the piece. The greater importance this placed on the historical value of silver appealed to discerning customers, even of small means, and to museums here and in America. …

(Her) pugnacity could make her seem a fearsome, if diminutive, figure, especially when encountered on the serious ground of silver. But though few were spared the rougher edge of her tongue, no one could be in doubt as to her enormous underlying generosity. No serious scholar was ever refused help, and her personal kindness was great, if discreetly performed.

And she could be compelling company, with a great sense of the pleasures of life. Her offices, particularly the Queen Anne houses in Pickering Place behind Berry’s in St James’s, were glamorous in a peculiarly Dickensian way, with a creaking cage staircase and an Ali Babaesque twinkle of precious metal. To see silver gilt cups gleaming against cherry-red velvet in the sombre drawing room was an irresistible invitation to any sensual collector, and the lucky were further treated to a view of her own collection of spoons and early rarities. Parties at Pickering Place were equally fulfilling, with Mrs. How uncorking bottles of champagne apparently larger than herself. Little else except smoked salmon or caviar would be on offer. Great wines, opera, fishing, shooting, edged weapons, beekeeping and cricket were all enjoyed to the full.

Cars were a passion “I wear a car,” she said — and well into her eighth decade she sold a beloved silverplated Jaguar SS100 to Alan Clark in order to buy the latest Bentley Turbo, with which she liked to burn off all-comers at the lights. Anyone overtaken by her was liable to a fright, since she was so small as to be almost invisible at the wheel. By way of balance the back of the car was usually occupied by terrifyingly outsize dogs. She helped to save the Old English mastiff from oblivion, and one of her proudest achievements was to have won best of breed at Crufts twice with her dog Don Juan. Characteristically, she refused to show him again, as she did not want to prevent others having a decent crack at the title.

A sample item:

Lot No: 123

A Viking Sword Of Petersen Type M And Wheeler Type I
9th/10th Century
In excavated condition, with broad pattern-welded double-edged blade, tapering flat pattern-welded tang, cruciform hilt comprising short flat ovoidal cross, and shorter pommel en suite surmounted by a flat rectangular button
76.3 cm. blade

Estimate: £10,000 – 15,000
See J. Petersen, De Norske Vikingesverd, Kristiania, 1919; R.E. Mortimer Wheeler, London and The Vikings, London Museum Catalogue: No.1, 1927, pp. 31-32, fig. 13, 1; and J.G. Peirce, Swords of the Viking Age, 2002, pp. 84-86

One Feedback on "Mrs. G.E.P. How’s Arms & Armour Collection"

Lucille L. Hamilton

Melted. I worked as a secretary to Mrs. How
the year after the Commander died. She
obviously didn’t know what she was doing, as I could neither spell American nor British, unless one accepted the style of
G.B.Shaw, which Mrs. How did not.

The first day, I typed her dictation, putting
an “e” to taxi. She came storming down
the stairs, demanding to know “what was
this.” I said I thought that it might be the
British spelling, and so we were off to a
lively year.

I hope I am writing to the author of her
obituary. Whoever you are, you most
certainly have depicted the very active
Mrs. How. I will treasure your piece
about her with delight.

Sincerely yours,

Lucille Hamilton


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