Living with very old things

By Caitlin Kelly

No, not me or Jose!

A decade ago my mother had to suddenly sell all her belongings and go into a nursing home, and into a small room. She was able to take a few pieces of art but lost a lot of it to auction.

I shipped home, across a border and country, a pair of her early textiles, framed. I have no idea where she bought them or when or if my grandmother had owned them. I wish I’d asked when we were still cordial, but of course I didn’t.

I’m a massive fan of textiles, old and new, and always wondered what these two pieces were — and I follow a serious antique textiles dealer in Britain on Instagram. I recently asked her if these were what I suspected — 17th century Italian.

They are!

Wow.

I’m now wildly fantasizing who used them, and when and where and for what purpose. They are velvet and gold thread and the centerpiece, I believe, is linen.

Italy in the 1600s was quite the place…1.7 million Italians died of plague in the first years of that century. In 1656 around 300,000 people in Naples, this was half the population of Naples at that time….Good God, why is this so awfully familiar?!

We own a few other quite old objects, which have been gifts or bought at auction or antique stores or shows. I know some people have zero interest in old stuff or owning old stuff, but I really love living with, enjoying and using lovely and material bits of history.

I find it extraordinary to tap away on a laptop on top of a gate-leg oak table, probably British, someone made in the 18th century. Ours looks almost exactly like this one, without a drawer.

The craftsmanship is amazing — finely curved edges, smoothly fitted leaves and legs. My father gave it to us a few years ago and I love it. It easily seats four, six at a pinch.

Then there’s a tiny teacup, hand-painted. I love its designs — also very unusual, and someone said, maybe made for the Islamic market. I’ve studied ceramics and silver and furniture and textiles because they fascinate me, so when I spot something potentially that’s very early (for me, anything 18th or 17th century) — and undervalued — I know what it is!

Like this 18th century teapot, missing a lid — $3.50 in an upstate NY junk shop; if it had a lid, it would sell for about $1,000.

The teapot on the table…

If I could own something really ancient, it might be a piece of Greek, Roman or Middle Eastern sculpture or art.

Do really old pieces interest you?

Ten Things I Value Most

Canadian Passport
This is one of them! Image via Wikipedia

Having recently gone through all my Mom’s things, fast, as required to move her into a nursing home, I’ve been thinking much harder about what possessions I value most, and why.

I was awed, and saddened and humbled, by my Mom’s willingness to sort through soft red leather boots and Japanese prints and clothes and say “Toss!”, knowing there was simply no room in her new room and no extra storage space there.

So I returned home to my New York one-bedroom apartment and started thinking hard about what I value most, physically, and why:

Three small bears:

One is tiny, the height of my thumb, a Steiff bear in black and white with moveable arms and legs. I went off to boarding school at the age of eight, and every Sunday, was trotted off to church. I couldn’t stand it, so this dear small bear nestled nicely in my pocket or sat between the prayer books and hymnals in the shelf behind the pew. He kept me sane.

The small white bear is someone who’s been in my life as long as I can remember. He is very worn, his fur mostly gone, and has a quizzical expression I treasure, and often share. He’s been all over the world with me, stuffed uncomplainingly into a pocket of a suitcase, delighting and amusing chambermaids — who know I’m older than five.

The soapstone bear, aka Spring Bear, was carved in an Arctic village for me by an Inuit man my father met while making a film there. He fits into the palm of my hand and has a lovely shy aspect to him. I’ve had him since I was little, and he always made me deeply curious about the Arctic and all the people out there waiting for me to meet.

My passport

Indispensable. I’ve been traveling across borders since I was an infant and my parents drove from Vancouver, Canada (my birthplace) to Mexico (where I’ve since visited many times.) On any given day, I can easily misplace my cellphone or hairbrush but I always know exactly where my passport is and when it expires. Passport = freedom!

My camera

I started shooting when I was about 15, and wanted to become a professional photographer. A family friend loaned me his Pentax SLR and, while a high school senior, I sold three color photos to Toronto Calendar magazine. I realized early I had talent, and could sell it into a competitive marketplace. Cool! I’ve since had my photos published by Time, The Washington Post, New York Times and others. Some of my most precious items are the photos I’ve taken, whether the Eiffel tower under glass (in a Paris department store) or the Rockies at dawn. I use a Canon G7, digital.

My pen

I love my alumunim Lamy fountain pen, and its ink cartridges in blue, black and purple. As a writer, I always need a pen handy. I love how sensual and beautiful even the most mundane writing — the phone bill! — can be with a nice pen.

Scarves

These are my number one style signifier: silk, cashmere, wool, cotton, linen. I am rarely, in any season, without a colorful muffler or scarf of some kind. Faves include a leopard-print linen (bought at Nordstrom), two Hermes carres (Christmas gifts) and four crinkled silk mufflers so long and wide they double as shawls, in cream, dark brown, fuchsia and ashes of roses. (Banana Republic.)

Rings

I have a tradition of buying jewelry to commemorate special occasions, so have rings I bought for my 26th. birthday (Montreal, antique cameo and marcasite) and a sterling one (Saks, Barry Kieselstein Cord, on sale), I giddily purchased the day I sold my first book. I love the heart-shaped pearl and sapphire ring my mom gave me many years ago, the one I’d already spotted in a favorite store and never told her I loved. She knew! On the most stressful days, I armor up with a few of them.

Antique Textiles

This started with my Mom, who traveled the world alone for many years. She came home with mantas, molas and exquisite cashmere Indian shawls, the original pashminas. Her love for these materials ignited mine, and I now buy early textiles whenever I can find them, wearing some,  and using others to make throw pillows. These include an orange-and-cream crane-printed Japanese silk obi sash, 1930s blue and white check linen found in a Paris flea market and 19th. century paisley wool shawls, both printed and woven.

Cookbooks

I love to cook! Having happy people eating food around our table is such a pleasure. I knew the sweetie and I had a shot (now 11 years together) when we started dating and had the same, fantastic cookbook, Bistro Cooking.

What are some of the items you most treasure?

Why?