18 Questions with James McWhirter

James McWhirter has been running his unique Langton Street business for over 25 years, dealing in charming furniture and art from the 18th century to the present day. We caught up with James to discuss what he loves about his job, where he does his sourcing and why he doesn't believe that restoration is always the answer.

James McWhirter (right) pictured with fellow antique dealer Alexander di Carcaci.

What inspired you to become an antique dealer?

A childhood love of the decorative arts – I spent most of my pocket money on late 18th and early 19th century tea wares making me much the youngest member of a local ceramics circle. I started ‘dealing’ in antiques with the other members - I must have been about 10.

What part of your job gets you out of bed in the morning?

The constant (and sometimes successful) hunt for treasures is one of the most stimulating parts of any antiques dealer’s job. Placing pieces within an interior and long-term design and building projects coming to fruition are also particularly fun and rewarding.

What is your favourite thing about the industry?

At best it still retains its civilized and polite atmosphere and contains many such passionate and knowledgeable people, from whom one can always learn.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the antiques world?

To develop their own unique personal style – customers need a reason to come to you specifically.

What are your top tips for buying antiques and vintage?

You should always try to buy something that’s good of its type. You’ll get more enjoyment if it’s a good example when compared to similar objects. It’ll also be easier to sell in the long run.

How did you come about setting up shop in Chelsea?

I was offered my first shop in Park Walk by a friend – I love Chelsea, the village atmosphere and its diversity are charming and the wackiness of some of my neighbours means life here is never dull.

What are your favourite places to eat near your shop?

I like Frantoio, an excellent neighbourhood Italian restaurant on the King’s Road and we recently had a staff birthday party in Oka, opposite Carlisle Square. However our daily lunches, prepared by one of us at the shop, are our main focus.

What makes your business unique?

We try to sell things that you don’t find everywhere else, that are usable, and that have personality.

If your shop was an artist, who would it be?

Eric Ravilious, absolutely. There’s a gentility to his work that I find very appealing and he was the son of an antiques dealer.

"Sensitively done, good restoration can give an object a new lease of life but, if in doubt, leave well alone"
James McWhirter

Where do you source your pieces from?

From auction houses, runners, private dealers, and occasionally antique fairs.

When sourcing, how do you know what to look for?

It’s really just a gut feeling, whether something speaks to me and feels ‘right’. Whether I can imagine living with a piece myself is also very important.

How do you ensure that a piece is authentic?

30 years of experience, constant study and exposure to antiques I hope have helped develop a sixth sense. One is continually learning and broadening one’s knowledge.

Who are your favourite interior designers?

My friend and colleague Sarah Morris (who co-owns our interior design business – McWhirter Morris) has fabulous taste and a great eye. My neighbour, Guy Goodfellow, also has a beautiful shop and a sensitive aesthetic.

If you could only save one piece from a burning building, what would it be?

That’s a terribly difficult question –some pieces of pottery made by my children which I particularly treasure.

What is your stance on restoration?

Sensitively done, good restoration can give an object a new lease of life but, if in doubt, leave well alone.

If you weren’t an antiques dealer, what would you be doing?

Perhaps be an architectural draughtsman or a garden designer – so not entirely dissimilar.

If you could travel back in time, when and where would you go?

Post-Revolutionary France has always had an appeal for me – I adore the Directoire style - people using their ingenuity to create beauty and elegance out of chaos.

What is on the horizon for your business?

I’m starting to think about BADA 2019, where Alexander di Carcaci and I will have a stand. I am to celebrating my 30th anniversary of antique dealing with a party for employees past and current.