THE HAIR is the first thing you notice. It’s big. “Explosive”, according to the art historian George Melly. But you are barely through Anissa El Helou’s front door and there are a hundred other distractions. The walls are smothered in drawings, fishing rods, paintings, wooden casts of fish. At the far end of the corridor, by the kitchen door, landing nets are poised, as if in mid-flight. The stairs, straight ahead, have paintings wedged between the steps and fishing reels balanced on each tread. The effect is overwhelming, and El Helou, whose calm demeanour seems strangely at odds with her surroundings, appears to have come to the same conclusion.
“I’ve had enough of the clutter,” says the art advisor and cookery writer, “and I’m tired of living in a Victorian atmosphere.” Her solution is a radical one: to sell the whole lot. But whereas most of us would cart our possessions off to a car-boot sale, El Helou is selling her things by auction at Christie’s, where the 400 lots are expected to make over £250,000.
The “El Helou Collection”, as Christie’s describes it, consists of four main groups: the piscatorial collection which includes antique tackle and reels, fishing pictures (a 1891 Millais watercolour of his daughter and her catch of 11 salmon, with a letter on the back detailing the day’s fishing, is expected to fetch over £2,000. She is also selling three Sir Edward Coley Burne Jones sketches); treen (the collective term for turned wooden domestic items); Arts and Crafts furniture, and Pre-Raphaelite art.
El Helou’s home, a three-storey Edwardian house in south-west London, is also on the market. When that too is sold, she will start afresh, this time in a completely different type of environment. “I want to live on one floor, with very few objects. Somewhere sparse and open plan.” A “searcher” has been instructed to find a 2,000sq ft warehouse in Bermondsey or Rotherhithe which, El Helou insists, she won’t be filling with hundreds of objects. “I’m not selling all this stuff just to start collecting again. I just want one or two really nice, bold pieces. No clutter.”
This extreme shedding of skin would suggest something traumatic has happened to the 47-year-old Lebanese born El Helou, but it hasn’t. It took her a few years to arrive at this decision, and it is born out of nothing more dramatic than wanting a change (“And if I don’t do it now, when on earth will I?”).
Her collection has been almost half a lifetime in the making, starting in the late Seventies when she arrived in London from Paris – where she owned an antiques shop – and was staying at her sister’s Chelsea Embankment flat. It was cavernous and empty, and El Helou enthusiastically set about furnishing it.
This was relatively easy since her job as an art consultant meant that she was used to hunting out finds at auctions and had many friends who were antique dealers. The only difference was that for her clients, price was no object. “I tried to buy things for myself that were on the fringes of what were regarded as “collector’s pieces” – pieces that I liked but could also afford.”
At the time she never thought of her purchases as investments; she merely felt that buying modern furniture was “like throwing money away”. So instead of going to IKEA, El Helou bought a late 19th century oak dining table, “probably by Story & Co”, which is a good example of how well-chosen pieces can appreciate in value. It first came up for sale over 20 years ago at an auction she went to with two dealer friends. One dealer bought it for £35 and sold it to the other dealer for £75. A couple of years later, when she had room for it, El Helou bought it off him for £150. The table is now expected to sell for between £500 and £800.
The piscatorial collection was more personal: El Helou has been keen on fishing since 1977 when she was introduced to the sport by a boyfriend. Non-anglers might find these pieces hard to understand, but certain items, such as the 18 framed fishing tackle display panels, dating from the turn of the century, are works of art in their own right. El Helou considered hanging them all along one wall in her new flat but decided they would look too fussy. The panels were produced by the famous tackle makers Wyers Freres for their shop in Paris, and were sold when they closed down in the early Eighties.
El Helou moved into her house 13 years ago. She chose it because it was big enough to accommodate the collection which had already almost reached maturity. She stopped adding to it when she ran out of space eight years ago and has been living like this ever since. It’s the sort of house you’re glad someone else has – there’s so much to look at – but you can’t help feeling relieved that you don’t have to cope with the cleaning. El Helou has learnt to “love the dust” – and, since there is not a speck to be seen, presumably dusting, too.
The kitchen and two downstairs rooms are relatively free of fishing references, but are crammed with Arts and Crafts furniture, including a fine Philip Webb chair. In the kitchen, dozens of wooden bowls, once in daily service but now too valuable to use, crowd the shelves. The rarity of one of the pieces, an early 17th century burr maple and silver mounted mazer bowl, is reflected in the pre-sale estimate of £12,000 to £18,000. Spice boxes, drinking vessels, ladles and all manner of wooden utensils, evocatively shaped by years of handling, are wedged between more familiar boxes and packets of 20th century comestibles.
The atmosphere in the house changes as you move from the ground floor to her workroom in the loft. The sheer volume of objects lessens as you go up the stairs, though pictures continue to devour all available wall space. El Helou is not snobbish in her tastes; some paintings are unsigned and unattributed and were bought for their beauty, not provenance. As Melly writes in the catalogue introduction, “the astute collector, who doesn’t care about star names, will find rich pickings”. He is right.
There is a new picture to be discovered each time you venture upstairs. Trips to the bathroom, on the first floor, must take some time; “Yes, they do,” El Helou laughs. “Sometimes people disappear for so long I wonder what’s happened to them.”
The paintings in between the steps of the first flight of stairs were done by “a girl who used to do pub signs whom the man doing my bathroom told me about”. The guest bedroom on the first landing is dominated by an Annie Louisa Swynnerton painting of a winged soldier (in the workroom upstairs is the more evocative Study of Hands by the same artist).
Striking a discordantly kitsch note amidst all this formidable good taste are a number of Ken and Barbie dolls scattered around the house; popping up in matching tutus from beneath delicate sketches or standing atop Liberty & Co bookcases dressed as nuns. It turns out that they belong to a friend’s son who won’t let her get rid of them.
Few people could sleep with so much stuff all over the place, and El Helou’s bedroom feels like a refuge. It is pale and calm with white painted floorboards and sandblasted windows which diffuse the light. Her bathroom is more reminiscent of her childhood home in Lebanon, where carved wood prevailed. The bath is encased in carved wood and the shower and washing machine are concealed in huge confessional booth style cupboards.
The clutter begins again in her workroom, though, which is upstairs, in the roof space. Here, there are so many books on the floor that you can barely walk, and the desk is only just big enough for her computer to perch on. She dreams of custom-built shelves. “I cannot work like this any more,” she groans, surveying the scene.
The catalyst for change came last year when El Helou spent some time house-sitting for a friend in a huge, open- plan flat in France, “it was so calm: my dream flat. And I thought, `I could work and live so well in a space like this'”. On her return she rang Christie’s.
She says that she is unsentimental about her things, but admits that she will miss her treen. In any case most of her friends will be going to the auction, no doubt delighted at the opportunity to buy long-coveted items.
In between the auction and moving house, El Helou will have to live in an empty house, a period she is dreading. “It will be awful,” she says, “but at least I will have my bed.” The few practical things in her life; her desk, pottery and books are also staying, so she won’t be going completely cold turkey. And a friend is going to make a video of the whole collection – just in case.
I got on really well with Anissa. So much so that she invited me and my partner to her house for a drink and we’ve remained friends ever since.
First published in The Independent on Sunday Review magazine.