Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

EDWARD OLIVER

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

 It's early morning on Trendle Street. Frost lies on the ground and Edward Oliver Smith is busily arranging furniture at the entrance to his workshop and showroom. We wander inside, hot coffee in mind, to the old stable block, now home to Edward’s gently prospering decorative antiques business. Our breath forms a fog in the lingering chill before the very welcome warmth of the workshop’s wood-burner takes hold. We pull two chairs close to the fire – their careworn seats leaking dark wisps of horsehair. “I’ve just got these,” says Ed, sweeping a hand over their backs. “They are made of oak rather than glossy mahogany, which is rather unusual for this carver-shaped chair,” he muses. For a while we debate whether or not it is worth having the seats upholstered. We sit for a while admiring the inviting decorative patina of the old leather and the idea is soon rejected. 

Edward has quietly gone about his business for the last 13 years. Living close to Bath with his wife and young daughter, Olive, who is now two, he savours the days he spends in Sherborne, where he opens the doors of his atelier to the public. Edward is a Dorset boy and spent much of his childhood in the villages close to Dorchester, where he went to school. His early days, spent largely outdoors, have much to answer for. “I remember, even at the age of 8, my bedroom was colour-coordinated and everything had its place. I used to ask my mum to buy different paint colours just for me and I always had an eye for arranging things I’d found on the beach.” As a teen, Edward visited Kettles Yard in Cambridge and was fascinated by ex-Tate gallery curator Jim Ede’s collection of abstract and modern pieces from the mid twentieth century, including works by Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and Alfred Wallis. The arrangements of found objects including, stone, wood and vernacular furniture inspired Edward to continue his accumulation of materials from country walks and coastal visits. Further inspiration was to be found in the kitchens, outbuildings and servants quarters of country homes.

“I was drawn far more to the visual stories of old lichen covered bricks and peeling paint than the austere, heavily polished portraits to be found upstairs.”

Edward didn’t head to art school, as one might have expected. Instead, at 19, he decided to go travelling and spent a year exploring Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Inevitably, on his return he was broke, but fortunately his friend, Guy Schwinge (now a partner at Dukes Auctioneers), introduced him to Simon Dodge, who was after someone to work in his shop in Sherborne. “I got to know the restorer who worked in the shed at the back of the shop,” says Edward. “I used to spend my lunch hour with him and he began to teach me furniture restoration.

Soon I was starting to buy stuff at auction myself and doing them up in my spare time. Then Simon let me sell them in his shop and that got me interested in this business.” .After 18 months, the itch to move on came and Edward headed to London. He took on a range of jobs including landscape gardener and estate agent before settling for a course in product and furniture design at High Wycombe Furniture College. After just a couple of years, Edward found himself back in Sherborne. “I worked at Charterhouse Auctioneers for a while,” he explains, “where I would buy bits and pieces of furniture and do them up, just like I had done before. In January 2004, when I was 28, I opened my own shop, here.”

“At first I literally had four or five pieces of furniture at a time in the front, then someone in the trade would come and buy the lot and the shop would be empty,” laughs Edward. “But luckily my mother lent me some money. I was able ditch my Ford Escort, buy a van and extend the shop – that was when I really got into it.”

At the back of the showroom is his workshop – all whitewashed walls, crackling log-burner and music turned up – where Edward works on his furniture restoration. “I am not really a salesman,” he says. “People come in and I will say, ‘hi,’ but really I just let them wander round.” We muse on why it is people still feel the need to touch and see, despite the many possibilities of shopping on the Internet. “A lot of people come in here and run their hand along a table or cupboard – they like to touch furniture in the flesh – and it is what they feel that makes them buy a certain piece,” says Edward.

So what draws him to a certain piece of furniture? “Well, of course, I do think about my market – but often I get excited because it is a great thing, often a one-off, and I have got to have it. Each piece of furniture is individual – that is why it is so interesting. I am never

bored. Often I sell things and get upset, because I don’t have it any more.” In fact, his attachment to objects has meant that several pieces will never leave his workshop. “I buy furniture that I would happily have in my own home. Although my wife finds it frustrating when I keep swapping items from the shop kitchen tables, cupboards, paintings.” In way of an example, Edward pulls out an old elm stool that he recently found covered in mud.

It’s most likely a milking stool, and is deeply weathered. “It’s like an old relic,” he enthuses.

Then there are the paintings that he would never part with, paintings he knows nothing about but which are naïve in style and inspire his own work. “I particularly like Alfred Wallis,” says Edward. “His paintings inspire me because he was self-taught and hard-working. He had a humble life, often painting on found objects or pieces of cardboard.” When he is not sourcing and restoring furniture, Edward himself paints. His large works, reminiscent of Ben Nicholson, are seascapes painted onto recycled floorboards or ‘found’ pieces that he incorporates into a larger landscape. Smaller works meanwhile find their way onto old discarded items such as garden spades, bread boards and fruit crates. They are not drawn by freehand but carefully worked out, angular and striking. So much so that Edward constantly finds himself working on commissions despite having, similarly to his hero Wallis, not attended art school. “I like the fact that Wallis’s work became important and desirable, despite not having connections in the art world,” he explains.

This year Edward is working on producing another series of paintings and a move towards deeper greys, greens and blues in his furniture. “When I started out everything was cream and then more recently French grey and blue. Now though, I think people are gravitating to bold colours and rich patinas” he remarks. But, as with every sale he makes, this is not something that will happen overnight. “It’s not just a question of people seeing things and buying them outright. Often it will take a week because someone might ask me to source something, or have very specific measurements, or want me to customise a cupboard they have seen here into a stand for a basin, for example.” This is never a problem. He has carefully selected and restored every piece and considers it important that each one finds the right home. Edward is quite happy to take his time.

edward-oliver.co.uk