Friday, March 1, 2024

The art of collecting


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FIELDING BABB is fast approaching age 80. These days, the retired tug master at the Bridgetown Port and well known Barbadian artist is more likely to be found at home lazing on an easy chair that is older than he. All around him are treasured antiques he has been collecting for over 50 years.

Gallery No. 2 houses the spoils from decades of collecting relics thrown out of Barbadian chattel houses, antique pieces bought at auction sales, and gifts from people who know of his love of antiques.

There is hardly enough room to move around amidst the hundreds of items on display  from the ceiling to the floor and even on the walls. He has documented every piece, though he cannot give an exact figure for the total collection off the top of his head.

Sitting on the white-painted easy chair, he reveals this is the antique piece that got him started in what has been a lifelong hobby.

“When I left my mother’s home in 1957 and I married in 1958, the only thing my grandmother gave me was this easy chair . . . . That is all she had to give me,” the graying artist says with a glint in his eyes.

He is not ashamed to let it be known that as a newly married man in 1958, he had nothing in the way of household furniture. “My larder at the time was an Exeter corned beef box” when he married Cynthia, he disclosed.

“After my grandmother gave me the easy chair I realised that when I go around painting old houses, people would throw away their furniture and I started collecting these items”, he said, adding that he found enough to furnish his small rented Government housing unit.

The multi-skilled Babb worked variously as tinsmith, plumber and even as a movie operator at the Royal Theatre that used to be situated at the foot of Rendezvous Hill, Christ Church.  In the ensuing years he was able to move his growing family to more spacious accommodation.

Taking Easy through Gallery 2, he stops and takes up an old piece of ship navigation equipment which immediately triggers memories of his years in shipping. He flashes back to 1957 “when I got a job in shipping at the harbour . . . . I began as an ordinary seaman scrubbing decks, cleaning brass, painting and doing everything on the deck of Barbados’ first water boat, the Combermere.”

And he launches into stories about his 35 years in shipping, his job as tug master from 1972 to 1992, moving into a different set of stories when his eyes fall on the shelf with a display of coalpots and “sad irons” or flat irons, along with a variety of coal-fuelled old-time heaters showing the wear of being used from pressing clothes in yesteryears Barbadian homes.

Some of these he says he acquired from auctions at chattel houses, source of “real indigenous Bajan folk pieces”.

“If you are looking for folk pieces other than that, it would have to be an antique sale which would have to be at a Great House and it is not easy picking up things there because of the price.

“In the late 1980s people started giving me items after they realised I was collecting,” Babb said. “Andrew Hatch had given my name to a lot of the old guys who would call the call-in the programme [hosted by Hatch] and “Submission” (one of the popular, frequent callers) gave me an old cold pot with a few of the old “sad irons” or flat irons” he disclosed.

But it is at auction sales, this collector revealed, that he has had some of his best finds. The pro explained, “There are two types of antique collectors – the serious one is the one that would collect and would not sell again. There is another one that would sell for profit.  He would go and bid at the cheapest price he could get it at, and resell it . . . . The one like me who collects for the sake of collecting is a different type, so you know we would be very selective – only one or two pieces at most. It helps when you have limited space. Right now I don’t go to every sale. I pick and choose because my space is very limited.”

Carefully picking his steps between the narrow aisles filled with bottles, pieces of costume jewellery, books, cooking utensils, cutlery, crockery and so much more, Babb says he has cut back on visits to auctions. It is a change from the early years when every weekend would find him pouring over the auction sale listings in the newspapers to determine what attracted his fancy and to ensure he was there to put in a bid. His frequent attendance made his a familiar face to auctioneers.

Years ago Babb could be seen driving around with pieces of furniture securely strapped on to the roof of his small car, not caring what curious onlookers thought when they saw “that young man with furniture on top his car.”

“For me the piece was more valuable to me at the time, or more important than the car.”

He recalled wasting no time getting to the home of late undertaker Owen Sealy when someone told him an item he wanted, a gramophone, had been thrown out in the garbage from that home. The bonus was a stack of newspapers dated 1945.

He has done a lot of the work himself to create the three additional spaces in his home that accommodate his art and his antiques, mainly because his wife has laid down the law when it comes to the latter – no antiques in her living area.

He does his painting in Gallery No. 3 where all his artist equipment is stored, and the walls of Gallery No 2 are dotted with over 60 paintings. This second room also holds the spill-over from Gallery No 1. There are an antique, intricately-carved single-ended mahogany couch, cameras from the days of “dark room” photography processing and other furniture representative of Barbadian craftsmanship of yesterday among several other items.

Making his way up the stairs from Gallery 1, Babb pauses, exchanging the cap he is wearing for a stylish felt hat taken from a heavily stacked mahogany hat rack that must have held pride of place in the living room of some Barbadian home many years ago.

Settling down again on a decades-old three-cornered Bajan chair, the antique collector takes one swig from a miniature bottle of vintage brandy: “One thing for sure: I have no intention of selling my antiques.”

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