From skeletons and Charlie Chaplin’s suit to a hand grenade, a new exhibition looks at what you can find in the cluttered world of antique, curiosity and junk shops. RACHEL JONES reports.
Anyone desperately searching for non-pc furnishings, television memorabilia and space age artefacts need look no further.
Unlikely as it seems, there’s one man who can probably point you in the right direction. And he also might be able to help you find a jar of tadpoles, a sheep’s skull, a hand grenade and Charlie Chaplin’s suit.
Over the past few years, Gosport photographer Philip Woolway has become fascinated with shops selling antiques, collectables and curiosities or, as they are sometimes affectionately known, ‘junk’ shops.
He has been visiting places from the West Country to Hastings, rummaging through the myriad objects and taking photographs of a huge array of treasures and tat.
It all started when Philip was in Southsea for a very different photographic project. The weather and light conditions weren’t right and he was looking for something to do.
‘I thought rather than go home and be miserable all day, I’d look around some of the shops, so I popped into Langfords in Albert Road,’ he says. ‘As soon as I walked in, I thought wow this is really something. There were so many things crammed in, it was amazing.’
The incredible collection of objects in Langford Antiques included war helmets, trilby hats, Edwardian furniture, statues of Buddha, eastern trinkets and much more.
There seemed to be endless picture opportunities and suddenly Philip had a brand new project on his hands – the interiors of these unusual shops.
‘I decided to look for more ‘junk’ shops – and I say that in a loose sense. It isn’t often the best term but there didn’t seem to be a name for them – antiques, collectables and curios was the best I could come up with. But I wanted a certain type of shop, the sort of place where you walk in and worry about turning around in case you knock something over,’ he says.
Philip thought it would be an easy search but he was in for a shock. ‘I travel around for exhibitions and things and always take my camera. I thought I’d be able to find them quite easily but I soon discovered it was going to be difficult. I’d do google searches before I went and when I got there, they’d be gone.’
But he found a few and decided it was important to document the last examples of this vanishing type of store.
Philip’s pictures are on display in Le Cafe Parisien in Portsmouth until the end of the month and he hopes people will spend time examining them closely.
The images have been taken with a special lens so more of each shop is crammed into the frame. Philip says: ‘I wanted to get as much in the picture as possible. So that you can look at it in a few months’ time and think I’ve never noticed that before. You have to really look to discover new things.
‘It’s like going into the shops and rummaging around, you always find new and surprising things.’
As Philip discovered, those things can range from the strange to the shocking.
It was in Frome in Somerset that he came across the real polar bear skin rug, draped over a suitcase with mouth wide open and paws hanging over the sides.
‘I thought what the hell is that doing there. I don’t think you’d get away with making those now. I think it had come from someone who was trying to sell it through the shop,’ he says.
He discovered Chale Antiques on the Isle of Wight was full of curiosities. ‘The chap had things like old prison doors from Parkhurst. I went in there once and there was a box of teeth from a Victorian dentist.
‘I thought who would buy those, but the next time I went they’d gone, so I guess the answer is ‘somebody.’
It was in Chale that he discovered a biology shelf, complete with sheep’s skull and jars of tadpoles. There was also a macabre cabinet displaying death masks, skulls and even a hand grenade.
Philip also unearthed a 1950s Russian space helmet in Southampton and was shown Charlie Chaplin’s suit and Hermann Goering’s uniform in Plymouth.
‘That was quite a surprise. I think they were actually the real thing. It’s those sorts of things that made me realise I’d keep going back and this will always be a work in progress.’
Philip wasn’t tempted to buy any of those things, but parted with his money for plenty of other ‘treasures’.
‘As a photographer I’m always looking for props. If you’re a painter you can create these things but a photographer obviously needs to have the actual objects. So I’ve come away with lots of rubbish. I’ve bought old telephones and we even have a skeleton in the house,’ he laughs.
His local shop is ABC in Gosport and a picture taken in there forms part of the exhibition. It shows a range of weird, wonderful and ordinary items threatening to obscure the till.
Philip says: ‘It’s a house clearance shop but there are loads of other things. You never know what you’re going to find in there. The chap even repairs old car tyres.’
The shops Philip has visited are the kind where mystery novelists set their stories. And they form the exciting and interesting backdrop for many other tales, including Charles Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop.
Sadly they’re becoming a thing of the past, but Philip has mixed feelings about the demise of the ‘junk’ shop.
‘Its a great shame, I think people love these places. A lot of the stuff you can buy is really good quality because things were made to last. But at the same time it’s great fun trying to find these shops.’
Philip says he learned plenty of new things from the owners. ‘There was a silver Mandarin fingernail in one shop. I didn’t even know they existed. They were used to protect the fingernail. The owners can tell you all kinds of things, they have an amazing amount of knowledge.’
And he says it’s a shame that the traditional ‘junk’ shop is being replaced by something less interesting. ‘When I went looking for them I’d often find in their place a tidy, upmarket shop with things in glass cases, not the sort of place where you might uncover a diamond.’
Unfortunately he can’t point you in the direction of one of those, but he does recommend people go and have a rummage – around his pictures and the shops.
WIN A PRINT
Head to Philip Woolway’s exhibition and have fun finding a hand grenade, a spotted pig tray, Mona Lisa, a top hat and a tin of tomato soup.
Visitors have the chance of winning a print by finding selected items in the ‘junk’ shop pictures.
The exhibition Where Can You Buy? Will be at Le Cafe Parisien in Montgomery Road, Portsmouth until March 31. Admission is free.
Enter the competition by finding the items and filling in the answers on entry forms at the cafe.
Another part of the display is Where On Earth? – images of places, including Netley Abbey, Gunwharf and Portmeirion in Wales, fused from several different angles.
The Gosport-based photographer initially built a reputation for live concert and gig images. He has photographed performances by Morrissey, Queens of the Stone Age, Manic Street Preachers and Kaiser Chiefs.
One of his biggest commercial successes came when keyboards specialist KORG USA used his image of band Dragonforce in an advert.
In 2009 Philip organised his debut exhibition focusing on the New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth. He captured 16 images of the historic building for a self-funded display.
Philip, 56, has exhibited in art and photographic exhibitions throughout England and Wales. His Biology Shelf image, taken at Chale Antiques on the Isle of Wight, is on display at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.
Philip is always on the lookout for shops to visit and would love to hear from anybody who knows of a cluttered place full of curiosities.
His e-mail is email@example.com
For further information on the exhibition and Philip’s work, visit philipwoolway.com
WHERE TO RUMMAGE
Fancy rummaging for the fascinating, the fun and the odd hidden gem? Philip’s pictures were taken at the following shops:
ABC, Elson Road
Chale Antiques, Church Place, Chale, Isle of Wight
Cobwebs, Northam Road, Southampton
Crowman, Catherine Hill, Frome
Exeter Antiques Centre, The Quay, Exeter
Hungerford Arcade, High Street, Hungerford
Langford Antiques, Albert Road, Southsea
Lyndhurst Antiques, High Street, Lyndhurst
Rob Willis, Machynlleth, Mid Wales
Roberts Rummage, High Street, Hastings
Strand Quay Antiques, The Strand, Rye
Utter Clutter, West Street, Leominster
Parade Antiques, New Street, Plymouth