Mary Brown (1926-2007), with her glittering hoard of vintage costume jewellery, and quirky collection of clothing and accessories, from furs and sequins to beaded bags, was one of Portobello’s most colourful stallholders.
Brown lived on Portobello Road for almost 50 years, through the period when W11 was afflicted by racial tension and dilapidated housing rather than American bankers and rom-coms as it is now.
Her husband, Peter, who is selling her collection, describes the couple’s first night in Notting Hill, in 1958, as somewhat disturbed: it was the time of the Notting Hill riots, and Oswald Mosley was holding a meeting on the corner opposite their flat.
Brown’s taste for vivid colour stemmed from her training as an artist. She studied at West of England Art School in Bristol and nurtured a vibrant painting style that soon developed into a magpie urge to possess colourful vintage trifles: pretty hats, cocktail rings and sequinned wraps among other things.
Collecting turned to dealing, and Brown traded her wares in Portobello for 30 years, and she cut an unmistakable figure with her raven-dark hair and selection of neat headgear. Later in life, she became a campaigner for the preservation of the area of London she had grown to love.
When, in the 1980s, a property developer proposed to demolish a section of Portobello Road, which would have destroyed a handsome row of Victorian arcade windows above the shopfronts, Brown and her husband galvanised local support, and started a petition that contributed to making that part of the street a conservation area.
When Peter decided to sell his wife’s remaining stock, Auction Atrium specialist Emma Hill was overwhelmed with the sheer size of the collection. She took delivery of armfuls of beaded and sequinned dresses from the 1920s and 1930s; a host of handbags, from croc to Bakelite; 250 boxes of costume jewellery from the turn of the century to the present day, including all the collectable names (Dior, Chanel, Miriam Haskell, Vendome, Butler & Wilson, Regency); and a sparkly feast of Bohemian glass jewellery and diamante clips.
Bargains are to be had in the mixed lots – a trio of 1930s necklaces are estimated at less than £50. Among the highlights of the sale are a bias cut 1930s dress with bolero jacket (est. £250-£400) and a Christian Dior brooch, dated 1960 (est. £150-£200). A 1920s beaded, embroidered chiffon dress is valued at £180 to £250, while a 1930s set of clamper bracelet and matching dress clips, in the original box, in pink Bakelite and decorated with seahorses, is expected to fetch £100 to £200. Evening bags abound: a typical example, a 1930s leather purse, is estimated at £50 to £80.
Up to 400 lots from Brown’s collection will be on display online from 25 February for 10 days, at www.auctionatrium.com, with even more in the saleroom from 25 February at 101B Kensington Church Street, W8.