To visit Shaftesbury businessman, John Morgan, is to discover a time now recognisable only from the period films for which he provides props and authentic costume items. Sam Fraser has been to see his collection.
Published in March ’10
Stepping into the cavernous stone barn that is John Morgan’s main premises, one’s eye is immediately drawn to the taxidermy on the walls, the prizes of big-game hunters in far-flung imperial outposts: mounted heads of leopard, tiger, boar and a huge, immortally fierce rhino. Tribal weapons, flags and sepia photographs of colonial polo teams also adorn the grey, Chilmark limestone walls, and animal skins cover the flagged floor. A stone’s throw away, shoppers stream along Shaftesbury’s narrow High Street in relentless pursuit of the trappings of modern life, oblivious to the aged treasures housed in the buildings behind it.
Disposability may have been the watchword of the past fifty years, but John Morgan’s passion is for the enduring craftsmanship of previous eras: hand-tooled leather goods, the beautifully made contents of Edwardian dressing tables, wardrobes and desks, the faded detritus of long-forgotten lives. For 25 years he has trawled the country’s finest attics in search of ‘colonial leftovers’ like high-quality old luggage, Victorian military uniforms and sporting gear, which he hires to TV, film and photographic sets.
John has amassed an extraordinary and unique collection of the sort of objects you will have seen grace the sets of films from period classics such as Gosford Park and Out of Africa to the Harry Potter and Tomb Raider series. Exceptional finds or fragile pieces too precious to stand the rigours of filming are housed and exhibited in the museum he opens, by appointment, in the heart of Shaftesbury. ‘We have some wonderful things,’ comments John, ‘beautifully made objects that still resonate with the stories of their owners. Personally commissioned items give you a real insight into character. Take, for example, the high-heeled riding boots made for the Hon. Pamela Mountbatten, who refused to ride side-saddle but who wanted to retain femininity, or the expensive copper campaign wash-basin ordered by an officer in the Boer War, who demanded it should have a lid that was “beyond function and look beautiful and extravagant!”’
A self-confessed lover of what he terms the ‘Brideshead aesthetic’, John recognised the market for old, well-made artefacts as a schoolboy. Inheriting a number of pieces of beautiful luggage, he began building his collection from charity shops and auctions before branching out into vintage clothing, trading jumble sale finds with his school friends. Before long, items from his collection were dressing the windows of London’s top stores and he was hiring luggage to film-makers and photographers. ‘By this point,’ John confesses, ‘formal education held little appeal, so I opted instead to follow my passion and build on the connections I’d already made.’
As the ‘country house’ look took off through the ’eighties, John found the demand for his goods dizzying. He became the first port of call for the capital’s visual merchandisers, and designers such as Ralph Lauren approached him for interesting pieces of Victorian clothing, military wear and formal evening dress for use by their research and development departments. In 1984 the John Morgan Hire Company was born, operating from premises on London’s Fulham Road. ‘It was a frenetic period in my life,’ he recalls. ‘I spent a lot of time in gentlemen’s clubs like Boodle’s, Pratt’s and White’s, purchasing interesting things from the members and learning how to spot a good single malt! I bought some wonderful items from the Carlton Club following the awful bombing by the IRA, including a lot of old billiard cues and an aged, rather damaged ballot box – perfect for blackballing! Everything was covered in semtex dust; quite eerie, really.’
A commission from a restaurant chain to decorate its premises with rivercraft suspended from the ceilings and other boating accessories saw John making a daily journey over a month-long period to the rowing clubs of various Oxford colleges, buying up damaged boats, painted blades, old club photos and other paraphernalia. The success of his venture was hard to take in: ‘I had to pinch myself to believe I could make a living from this kind of treasure-hunting!’
John has since relocated the business to Shaftesbury. ‘I was looking for a substantial building to exhibit the collection and was inspired by the possibilities of these buildings set in the heart of such a pretty town,’ he says of his decision, in 1996, to purchase the 18th-century barn which had operated for many years as a family-owned garden centre. ‘I had passed through Shaftesbury many times on buying trips and it struck me as having the sort of peculiar charm and atmosphere of those rather lost little towns in Cumbria, the Scottish borders or furthest reaches of Devon. I hadn’t thought such a place could exist within striking distance of London. The personality of the town, dignified, unpretentious and spiritual, made a fitting match for my rather idiosyncratic business.’
John certainly enjoys the sense of community that prevails in the town and considers himself a true man of Dorset, in spite of his upbringing in the north-west of England. A long-serving member of the Territorial Army, he is now Officer Commanding A (Dorset Yeomanry) Squadron, The Royal Wessex Yeomanry, and takes his commitment seriously. ‘Being a TA officer gives me a sense of my own place in history,’ he explains. ‘The traditional relationship between the county, its landowners and the volunteer forces is still very much active and manifests itself everywhere I go. Many of the people I’ve bought from have been involved in the armed services and they have often recommended me to friends with interesting items for sale.’
Among the ‘interesting items’ to which he refers is a fine, early 19th-century family road coach bought some years ago. Complete with related items such as coachmen’s liveries, a harness, whips and lamps, it was what John describes as a ‘life-defining’ purchase. ‘I could barely speak when I saw it,’ he confesses. ‘It was a most unexpected find, housed in an old outbuilding.’ Likewise, the fearsome rhino. ‘I was called to a council estate in Croydon where an old gentleman had been living with this enormous rhino head on the floor next to his television set. He’d offered it to a firm of auctioneers, but they’d decided it wasn’t PC. Happily for me, that’s an alien concept. When I got it back to Shaftesbury, we were faced with the difficulty of mounting it above the fireplace. Fortunately, the local fire brigade were willing to undertake ladder drill in my barn!’
From time to time, however, searching through the effects of the dead can give him pause for thought. ‘I visited a stately home in Norfolk where the family were emptying their attics in preparation for re-roofing. I was offered uniforms and personal items of an officer killed in the First World War,’ says John. ‘They were still wrapped in 1916 newspaper. I felt like an intruder opening these things that clearly hadn’t been touched for the best part of a century.’
As his hire business expanded, so did John’s need for space, and he recently acquired an adjacent stable building, previously owned by the Crown Inn. ‘We bought the stable in terrible condition,’ says John, ‘derelict and in need of re-roofing. A developer would have knocked it down, but I was keen to maintain its integrity and restore it to its former glory. The stalls now provide office and storage space, while the loft is used as a studio for the photography of artefacts and uniforms.’
Britain may be struggling through recession, but the John Morgan Hire Company remains as busy as ever. ‘In hard times, we look to history for reassurance. Film makers use nostalgia to evoke a feeling of warmth, comfort and familiarity. As long as there’s a demand for period drama, these lovely old things will continue to be enjoyed in all sorts of new contexts.’
And shutting the door of the museum, he leaves the exhibits, neatly ordered and highly polished, to await their next story.
1. Photography by James McMillan