As a journalist, I’ve had to become very aware of people’s facial expressions and how they react to questions so I love watching the faces of the Antique Roadshow experts when they’re first presented with ‘Great Aunt Maud’s treasured teapot’ or some flea bitten teddy found in an attic. Their range and depth of knowledge is staggering but, as they listen intently to each owner’s story, I can’t help wondering whether they’re actually thinking, ‘Wow what a gem!’ or ‘Crikey what can I tell them about that?’ So when I was offerred the opportunity to talk to Jonathan Riley, a painting and sculpture specialist based at Grand Auctions, by Jeff Sims at Edwards Harvey Limited, I jumped at the chance.
Jonathan was holding a valuation day at the Indian Restaurant ‘Flavours by Kumar’ in Ramsgate when I managed to catch a few moments with him and watch his partner Robin Newcombe in action. No two valuation days are ever the same and Jonathan says ‘you never know what will come through the door’ although, usually, ‘70% will be rubbish and 30% will be interesting’. Every item and owner is treated with the same respect, however, and Jonathan says that ‘art has become very much part of my life’.
It hasn’t always been that way and he reveals that his personal ‘damascene moment’ occurred while visiting the Uffizi gallery in Florence on his way back from a cricket tour he took while at university. He says, ‘I had never been in an art gallery before because all the art I had ever seen was utterly boring, dull religious pictures. Anyway, I decided I had better go and what did I see? Dull, boring, religious pictures but then I turned a corner and there was the Birth of Venus by Botticelli and I was absolutely transfixed. I had never seen anything like it and the colours… it had been done in 1480’s and it looked like it had been done yesterday. It was so bright and colourful and that was me, totally hooked.’
From that moment on Jonathan became passionate about paintings and although his ‘original interest was Modern British’ he’s also ‘had to learn German, French, Chinese and God knows what – you have to widen out as you see things from all over the world all the time.’ Jonathan is now the leading authority for certain English artists but he has strong interest in Indian art, and food, due to spending the first eight years of his life in Gwalior. He says he was so immersed in the Hindu culture that Hindi was his first language and it was only when his parents were travelling back to the UK that he realised he was different. He says, ‘we went to the swimming pool and apparently I rushed back to my mother howling ‘Mummy, Mummy, they’re all white!’
Jonathan’s deep-seated love of the country has remained with him so, when asked him what his favourite antique object was, it was no surprise to learn that it too was Indian. With a rustle of paper and bubble wrap Jonathan revealed a small, smooth sandstone sculpture about 30cm high. Its delicate, slightly feminine, facial features are compellingly tactile and Jonathan explained that it’s the image of Shiva, one of the top three Gods within the Hindu Pantheon. The other two, Brahma and Vishnu are credited with creating and preserving the universe but Jonathan says that Shiva is said to have ‘destroyed the universe in order to recreate it.’ The God ‘represents all the contradictions of man – of good and evil, kindness and unkindness and ignorance and knowledge etc.’ and by destroying the world he hoped to ‘bring back kindness and peace but, as a God, he is also known to lose his temper very easily.’ Dating from the 13th Century, Jonathan’s sandstone temple statue was bought at auction some 15 years ago and now stands in his sunroom as ‘there’s no chance it’s going to fade.’ As a child Jonathan says he ‘spent hours and hours talking about the gods’ and, as he holds it close while I take a photograph, he adds ,‘It’s not worth very much but to me it’s worth a great deal.’
With his ingrained love of Indian art and the admission that, to him, ‘Indian food is a drug’ which he has to have every week , Jonathan reveals that he’s recently been working hard to bring his two passions together through a special art exhibition called the ‘Best of the Best: Homage to Indian’. With the aim of ‘celebrating and rewarding excellence’ Jonathan says this event will ‘bring together what I regard as the best two local people in their fields. It’s especially hard for people in the art world to get recognition for what they really are’ and Charles Newington, ‘is the best local artist by a street’. He ‘is a painter of exceptional ability and originality’ and ‘a fabulous painter of Indian art’. The exhibition will showcase some of Charles’ work which, in Jonathan’s opinion ‘captures what I would call the sensuality of India’ his work is ‘tactile, with very gentle curved lines and I think that’s the great joy of Indian work. To me all art has to have an element of poetry, if it doesn’t its boring.’
Hosted at Flavours by Kumar in Ramsgate, which was recently lauded the ‘best South Asian Restaurant in the UK’, the event, which begins on Sunday 6 March 2016, will also provide visitors with an opportunity to taste ‘exceptionally good and exceptionally reasonably priced’ Indian food made by restaurant owner Anil Kumar. Jonathan has been enjoying Anil’s food for several years now and is thrilled that this ‘humble, decent man’ recently gained the recognition he deserves by winning the prestigious Tiffin Cup. Beating off competition from 121 other chefs, Anil was presented the award at the House of Commons where judges included celebrity chef Ainsley Harriet and EastEnders star Nina Wadia. Anil says he’s, ‘excited and happy to see the exhibition happening in my place and that people are learning about the culture and seeing what the paintings are. At the same time, I’m happy that people are also seeing my restaurant and trying my dishes.’
Following a private viewing on Sunday 6 March, ‘Best of the Best: Homage to India’ will continue until 16 March 2016 and be open from noon to 3pm every day. All ages are welcome to dine at the restaurant, although the paintings on display during this period are of a very sensual nature, and guests wishing to taste Anil’s food are encouraged to book a table by calling 01843 852631.
The entire event is sponsored by Grand Auctions and Flavours by Kumar is based at 2 Effingham Street, Ramsgate, Kent CT11 9AT. Further information about both businesses can be found at www.grandauctions.co.uk and www.flavourbykumar.co.uk