World of Interiors: December 2006

World of Interiors CoverOn a blustery summer's day, Edward Hurst and I drive some miles from his home, up to the chicken shed that he bought five years ago to house his stock of antiques. Hurst, like the furniture he loves to buy and deal in, is a quirky character. Well-spoken and charming, he has the Edwardian good looks and demeanour that could have been the model for one of Agatha Christie's inscrutable heroes. His knowledge of the 17th- and 18th-century English and Irish furniture in which he specialises is encyclopaedic.
It is disconcerting, then, to find such an urbane character hanging about in a chicken shed. From the outside the building is unremarkable and intentionally nondescript. But inside, past a simple office, in a windowless space lit with halogen lights, you are confronted by a huge mirror with exuberant gold-leaf scrolls round the plate. It sits above a table with a sarcophagus-like appearance and more delirious decoration. It must, I presume, be South American Spanish Baroque from a 17th-century monastery. Wrong. Hurst corrects me: the mirror is Irish, c1735.

By another wall is a massive oak table of about 1630, from Sutton Place. Next to this is a sculpted semicircular chair made from one piece of elm in around 1780. It looks almost African in origin, though again I'm wide of the mark: it came from an Axminster farmhouse. Behind a partition is a late 18th-century break-front cabinet, over 3m tall, which takes one's breath away.

Hurst's criteria are strict, his standards high. It is not just the technical quality of the furniture he is concerned with – that goes without saying. Each piece he acquires has to, in his words, 'break the rules'. 'The standard 18th-century "whatever" just doesn't interest me,' he says. It has to be something he is genuinely excited about. Something he wants for himself.

Where did this obsession with the pure and offbeat come from? Hurst grew up in London. Aged six, he was taken by his father, a horologist and collector, on his first visit to the British Museum. 'There was a wonderful Viking longboat, which had been excavated in the 1920s, with a fabulous hoard of masks and helmets,' says Hurst. It sparked his imagination. The romance of marauding pirates, highwaymen, treasure and the 'reliving of history' – along with Hurst's own childhood desires to be a rag-and-bone man – led him into the world of rummaging. 'I still have the ancient hammer I found in a rubbish dump in Norfolk,' he says.

Magazine Picture 1While still at school, he began selling and exchanging unusual objects that he had found in local markets and, soon after leaving, became a junior partner in a shop in Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, owned by Robert Foulkes, a retired valuer. Selling, though, was always secondary. The enterprise was driven by idealism. 'I have always bought things I love,' says Hurst. 'At Nettlebed we used to deal in "romantic wrecks". A chair may have collapsed when you sat on it, but the important thing was that it was a unique piece.' Christopher Gibbs was a weekly visitor, and Hurst freely admits taking inspiration from that dealer's philosophy.

When Foulkes died, the business was left to Hurst. 'I really hadn't the experience. Luckily, times were good and one could survive.' He stayed on a further two years before moving, at the age of 22, to a late 17th-century town house in Salisbury. It had panelled rooms and, importantly, space for a shop on the ground floor.

'But I never spent much time in the shop,' says Hurst. 'I was always on the road. That's where the passion lay, the excitement, the discovery, chasing after a paper trail, a tip-off, or even an auctioneer's mistake.' It was on one of these road trips, delivering an antique box, that he met – and married in 1994 – Jane, not just a beautiful English rose but a gifted ceramicist too.

Hurst's bachelordom came to an end. Jane longed for a garden – which they didn't have in Salisbury – so, two years later, they found their present home, a late 18th-century farmhouse. 'It was all over the place,' says Hurst. 'It had been aggressively modernised in the 1960s and painted a sort of Soviet-bloc green all over.' But the idea of 'getting the builders in' at once was abhorrent to Hurst. 'I'm a great believer that you should live in a place for at least two years before deciding what to do.' So they camped in different rooms for this gestation period, without lifting a hammer.

Magazine Picture 2Unorthodox, certainly, but the house does now feel 'right'. 'Because we did it slowly it now works well.'
A chance discovery of a photograph of the house from 1905 helped them with the architectural side of things. They extended the building at the back to create their kitchen. Then they restructured the interior to suit their needs while retaining the building's character. 'It's often difficult for Jane,' says Hurst, sympathetically. 'She may say we need a mirror here, and then I won't find the right one for ages. Because I won't put in stopgaps, it can be very annoying for her.'

In the house, in the corner of the sitting room, stands a Queen Anne escritoire, which he opens up to reveal his desk. It's equipped only with headed paper and a few ink pens. There is not a wire, a cable, let alone a laptop in sight. Hurst hates computers and does everything longhand. 'I find the idea of communicating via a computer rather depressing,' he says.

While many dealers spend hours on the internet studying catalogues, for Hurst pixilated pictures on a screen distort the form of an antique and, of course, deny the piece's tactile aspect, which he rates so highly. He prefers to trawl through old copies of Connoisseur and Country Life, 'identifying groups of furniture made by the same hand, absorbing the shapes and designs, and linking them, when possible, to their influences'.

This care, love and enthusiasm for the things he deals in are what strike you about Hurst's attitude, and it is why his clients rate him so highly. His home is a mirror image of the man.

Text and photography: Tim Beddow