Anything goes in the County Durham home of TV antiques expert David Harper. Karen Wilson gets the tour.
MIXED up is how David Harper describes his home style. And looking around his three-bedroom converted cow byre near Barnard Castle, it’s easy to see why.
Antiques from all eras are mixed with new pottery and lamps, re-upholstered sofas, quirky junk shop finds and artwork from around the world. In the garden room, an Indian bronze from a temple sits alongside an English Regency table from 1820. On the other side of the room, you’ll find a late 17th Century corner cabinet decorated in a Japanese style next to a pot-bellied Chinese god of wealth.
David is certainly no purist when it comes to antiques.
“It’s anything that takes your eye really,” he says. “I don’t care where they come from as long as I like them. And I don’t really care whether they go or not. I don’t like rules.”
The 42-year-old is best known as an antiques expert and TV presenter on shows such as BBC1’s Bargain Hunt and BBC2’s Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.
Originally from Yarm, Cleveland, he launched a TV Talent Agency earlier this year and has a new BBC2 show coming out in January called Antiques Road Trip.
While he’s often travelling back and forth to London pitching new ideas for TV shows, David’s sanctuary is his eclectic home in Lartington, just outside Barnard Castle, which he shares with wife Wendy and daughter Henrietta, 14.
With a garage stuffed full of furniture and trinkets, David often rotates pieces to refresh the look. And he can remember exactly how much he paid for every single item in his home, as well as where it came from.
“I love living in a house with big thick walls where nothing’s perfect,” he says. “I don’t like straight lines. When we bought the house, it had just been converted but it wasn’t really habitable.
“Over the years, we’ve just had to break it up and start building outwards, so there are lots of bits that jut out. It’s a work in progress.”
Making over the garden, which had been damaged by the previous owner’s collection of cars, has also been a major job. “It was absolutely shot,” says David. “It was just full of oil, petrol and car bumpers.”
At the heart of the home is a charming, country-style kitchen with wide and wonky floorboards. Dominating the space is an early 19th Century rustic table bought from Barnard Castle and an 18th Century English dresser from Tennants auction house in Leyburn, North Yorkshire.
Displayed in a recessed shelving area is David’s collection of Royal Worcester china with his winner’s plate from Ready Steady Cook plonked proudly in the middle. Next to this is a 500-year-old Ming Dynasty vase, which surprisingly cost just £100. “It’s provincial Ming Dynasty,” explains David. “Mass produced for the peasants.”
His study off the kitchen is equally “mixed up”. It features a large dresser from the Isle of Man carved with three-legged Manx symbols, an English library chair from 1840 that’s perfectly designed for reading and a framed portrait of a matronly looking woman with her granddaughter, which David loves but everyone else seems to hate.
But while he loves a good bargain – his last buy being a £10 African hand carving from the Newark Antiques Fair – when it comes to big pieces of furniture, quality counts.
“I love buying old sofas,” says David, as he points to the late 19th Century sofa I’m sitting on, now re-upholstered in leather.
“When I bought that, there were springs hanging out and bits of horsehair all over the place, but the frame is absolutely unbelievable quality. I bought it for £500 and it cost £1,500 to restore, but it would cost £10,000 to make one like it, if you could find a good enough cabinet maker.”
David has been interested in antiques since he was five years old. “It came from my mum,” he says. “We lived in Africa for a few years when I was a young boy and I used to go round antiques shops with her. To get money out of the country, we came back to England with loads of antiques and sold them. It was such a buzz because they made quite a profit.”
From the age of 18, David worked as a self-employed antiques dealer. After marrying Wendy in 1997, the couple moved to Florida for six months and then returned to England with a container load of antiques to sell.
They were drawn to Barnard Castle because of the plethora of antiques shops and David opened his own shop on “the bank.”
“In those days, it was a great place to have an antiques shop, it was so busy,” he says. “There used to be about 12 of them, but now there are only about five or six.
A lot of the stuff in our house is from the shop days. If something didn’t sell very quickly, I’d bring it home.”
One day, David was approached by Elizabeth Conran, the curator of Bowes museum, as Radio Cleveland needed a local antiques expert for an outside broadcast. The conversation would change his life entirely.
“I didn’t sleep the night before,” he admits. “I was absolutely petrified. But then I did it and I absolutely loved it. I got the bug immediately.”
His success, however, was hard won. He spent the next four years ringing radio stations, relentlessly pitching ideas and working for free on radio phone-ins and valuing goods off-camera for TV shows.
“I just assumed a producer would ring me and say ‘You’re really good. Do you want a job on telly?’ but of course, it just doesn’t happen like that,” he laughs.
Eventually a producer asked him to do a screen test for a Channel 4 pilot, but his observations were pretty brutal. Remembers David: “He said I want you to shave your hair off, shave your beard off, pluck your eyebrows, smarten yourself up, put a jacket on, get a suntan and come back next week. Luckily I’m thick skinned.”
Eventually David gave up his antiques dealing to concentrate on the TV work full-time.
His latest show is a new series for BBC2 called The Antiques Road Trip, which will air in January. It features eight paired-up experts who travel round the country in classic cars – another of David’s passions. Each expert is given £200 to buy antiques, trading up along the way.
“It was a complete jolly throughout the whole summer, travelling around in an old convertible Merc and getting paid for it,” says David, who is paired up with James Lewis.
Earlier this year, David set up a talent agency, when he decided to ditch his own agent and look after his own affairs. “People would ask me if I would look after them too and it sprang from there,” he says.
Now David is looking after a wide range of presenters and experts, including interior designer George Bond, millionaire businessman Mo Chaudry, who appeared on The Secret Millionaire, ex Big Brother housemate Charlie Drummond and Rita Sangha, a cougar coach who helps older women bag a toyboy.
“It’s as exciting getting a TV job for someone else as it is for yourself,” he says. As for the future, although David and Wendy love their sprawling home, they admit they’d consider selling.
“I love older properties and have always lived in them,” says David. “But if I could afford it, I’d buy a smaller home up here and a modern pied-a-terre in London with 60s or 70s funky retro furniture.”
And while the talent agency is going so well, David hopes to make hay while the sun shines. “TV is so unstable, but it’s never boring,” he says. “I don’t have a pension, but I can always sell my antiques!”
GET THE LOOK: WHERE DAVID LIKES TO BUY ANTIQUES
Barnard Castle: Most of the antiques shops are situated on or near “the bank” including The Collector, Robsons Antiques, White's Antiques, Farmhouse Antiques, Vintage Graphics and Mission Hall Antiques Centre.
Newark Antiques Fair: “A mind bogglingly huge fair,” according to David. Europe’s largest antiques event features around 4,000 stalls over 84 acres. The next one is being held on December 3 and 4 at Newark & Nottinghamshire showground, Winthorpe, near Newark. Visit www.dmgantiquefairs.com
Wetherby Racecourse, Yorkshire, holds monthly antiques events. It’s on today and tomorrow. Visit www.jaguarfairs.com
Tennants, The Auction Centre, Leyburn, North Yorkshire, has weekly sales. Visit www.tennants.co.uk