John Edmund Hobbs Eulogy - April 2011
Firstly my sincere apologies to the minister here (who thank God is a humanist) since any meaningful tribute to John must surely include one or two expletives. Secondly to make it clear that in the short time I have I could never begin to do justice to this most colourful ,charismatic, complicated, charming, stylish, talented, flamboyant, generous and ultimately most tragic and self destructive of men. It would be impossible to be indifferent to John Hobbs. John was passionate in every area of his life and consequently everyone who came into contact with him felt equally passionate about him. I promised John that if I were ever asked to speak at his funeral I would repeat the following. Several years ago when he was suffering from suspected cancer of the kidneys I asked John if the worst came to the worst did he have any specific final wishes he would like me to carry out on his behalf. He thought for a moment and simply replied in only the way that John could "Make sure there are no wankers at my funeral!"
When I first met John in the summer of 1973 he was without doubt the most interesting and magnetic personality I had ever come across with a humorous and thoroughly disrespectful attitude for any form of authority and in particular the background I came from. Our seriously wild mutual friend Charlie Shearer described him then as being possessed of a star quality. Around that time we went out for dinner with Charlie's rather self important father who decided during the meal to give John a lecture on Old Etonians. " Which" he said " come in two types. Either they are the most loyal, trustworthy and dependable friends or they are complete shits". John waited for a few seconds before responding " And into which category do you put yourself then Mr Shearer?" John was the absolute master of the the art of 'wind up' and I like every member of his family would be a regular victim of his mischievousness. Nothing amused him more than if we went to a serious business meeting for him to introduce me in the following way: " This is my managing director Charlie. He's a poof ............and he's got AIDS" Or to terrorise some poor accountant who unwittingly drank his coffee out of my mug in the gallery " Oh you're in big trouble now. You've just just drunk out of the AIDS mug. It's very catching you know". The colour would drain from the accountant's face and I would be left to try to console him with medical fact. On the plus side I will always be grateful to both John and Carlton for employing me when I was unemployable and giving me a chance when no one else would. I remember now a John classic. He had just been sitting around in the kitchen at the gallery with some friends from Alcoholics Anonymous. When they left I asked him how come he seemed to be the local doyen of AA and yet he was still drinking. "Oh" he said "you don't understand it is just the DESIRE to stop drinking that is the requirement for membership." He then continued "and do you know what my favorite moment is? it's sitting in my car outside the Walton Street AA meeting and while I'm rolling a joint I keep thinking to myself that even if I was the richest geezer in the whole world no money could buy the entertainment that I'm about to have for the next hour and a half". John also had the knack of himself becoming the quasi-victim in really bizarre Pinteresque scenarios. Such as in his 20's when he feared for his mind he consulted a psychiatrist in Knightsbridge who promptly fell in love with John, who I can assure you was about as alpha male and as hetero as they come, and persuaded him to drive him around as a form of therapy and then subsequently confessed to John that he had murdered his wife. Only this sort of thing seemed to happen to John and regularly did. Going anywhere with John was always an adventure however mundane the mission. There was the evening in the 1970's when John and half a dozen or so others including Charlie Shearer were enjoying a late night poker session in the Salamis Restaurant, Fulham Road when a man with a gun and a grievance charged in. Within seconds at least 7 fairly well built geezers had managed to barricade themselves into a toilet on the landing designed for one medium sized individual. Another time when living in Tite Street, I guess around 1970, John quite innocently lent his Saab to Nicholas Van Hoogstraten for a weekend. The following week much to John's surprise he was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder. It subsequently turned out that the now infamous Van Hoogstraten had used John's car to fire bomb two Rabbi's in Brighton he had taken against. These are a mere three examples from thousands.
Some history. John was born in 1946 and lived when very young in St Albans before the family moved to Fulham. To describe his parents Sid and Kitty as characters would frankly be an understatement. The same could be said of his siblings Linda, Nina and Carlton. Nina tragically died when she was barely 20 years old which had a devastating effect on John and the rest of the family. It was, I remember, the formidable Kitty who held the family together and it was only after her death from cancer in 1992 that John and Carlton split the business and went their own ways. Kitty came from Bradford originally and was possessed of a true Northern grit. Their father Sid had a shop in the Kings Road which sold all sorts of old things called 'Odds and Hobbs'. I am told that Sid liked hanging out with prominent members of the underworld and certainly to this day I can remember him very clearly and with some affection. Like John he was usually simply referred to as 'Hobbs'. This and knocking with Jack Leach was John's introduction to the antiques business and he soon became very adept at using his youth, looks and charisma to charm wonderful objects and furniture from grand homes, clubs and offices in the West End. To quote Christopher Gibbs " He was then a youth of striking beauty who looked as if he'd strayed from a band of angels in a quatrocentro painting".
He was also very fashion conscious and an extremely snappy dresser getting, I believe, his suits made even then by tailor to the stars Dimi Major. He was also somewhat of a ladies man. However I will not attempt here to delve into John's rich personal life as it is not my place to (and I'd like to get out of here alive!) That said I must pay tribute to the mothers of his children, Nell, Loretta and Sonia and his former wife Lola. When I met John he operated entirely from from a 1968 Maroon Peugeot 404 Estate. A car which I believe to this day still holds the world record for unpaid parking tickets. It took sometime and several false starts for John and Carlton to form the unstoppable partnership which propelled them in a few short years from 'running furniture' to being major antiques dealers on the world stage.
I think the first major deal John did with his brother (who was some 9 years younger than him) went as follows. Carlton was still in his teens and had bought a rather wonderful carpet which John really rated but was too astute to let on. John enticed Carlton complete with carpet into his Peugeot. Carlton had never before taken a valium and John persuaded him that if he took one he would feel pleasantly relaxed. One hour and two valium later Carlton left the car slightly bemused as to why he had sold the carpet to his brother for a knock down price when only an hour earlier he had made it clear that he had no intention whatsoever of selling it until it had been professionally appraised. I am not sure Carlton ever forgave him.
However in those more carefree days all was fair in love and war and not long after they acquired a base together in the 'Furniture Cave'. Largely because John had never paid a penny tax in his life every transaction was in Carlton's name thus subsequently the company they formed was called 'Carlton Hobbs'.
It always amused both John and Carlton that having met them once for all of ten minuets my father summed them and their company up as follows " In my opinion" he said "one day you all going to be taken away in a black maria". My mother on the other hand had a very soft spot for John and he for her stemming perhaps from the fact they both suffered from extreme self destructive tendencies and periodic bouts of depression.
It was also around this time that John embarked on a decade of psycho analysis. I clearly remember asking him why he was doing it. His answer I guess referring to his wild days hanging out with John Bindon and picking up boys for Lionel Bart was classic John "For years" he said " I thought I was so clever fucking everyone else and then I woke up one morning and realised that the only person I was really fucking was myself". I think these early days of success at the 'Cave' were perhaps John's happiest. It was a very different place to what it is now being then more like a club. People I remember particularly well from then were John's old friend 'Chick', John's brother in law John Casper (who had a wonderful turn of phrase), Chas(Godson), Fletcher, Dave Guy (who worked for John until recently) and of course Charlie Shearer, Leslie Spitz and who could forget John Bradbury. There were of course many more (Terry Butts) It was often said of John that he was born 'lucky' and the brothers complemented themselves in so much as John was always the front man, the showman whereas Carlton preferred to stay in the background. (John and I nick-named him the Colonel) John absolutely loved to hold court at the cave playing poker and backgammon almost always dressed in an ankle length leather overcoat with the collar up. He once flew to Dallas with Fletcher ( a close friend of both brothers) and somehow managed to relieve poor old Fletch of a six figure sum playing backgammon during the flight. My memory is that you never wanted to bet against John because he had an uncanny habit of always winning. I think it was the next level of success, after the failure of Ledbury road, when in 1987 they moved to Pimlico Road that sat so uncomfortably with John. By 1990 the cracks in the relationship between him and his brother were all too apparent for those of us working closely with them. In 1993 almost immediately after Kitty's death the previous year John and Carlton split the company into two halves in a de-merger. It was Carlton who forced the issue and I'm certain that John never forgave him. With the split John moved into the huge gallery in Dove Walk where he could indulge his own fantasies and whims unrestrained. Rupert his son and I worked with him and we had a lot of fun. We somehow even managed to acquire a working brothel in Slough. In theory I was the managing director. In practice things were rather different and if I questioned any of John's decisions, which I did regularly, the response would be along lines of "and what do you know about anything mug!" and if which I did on one occasion bring to his attention that I was the only other director the response was " Only a real mug would ever be a director in my company!" Apart from the odd ill advised joint venture with the glamorous French dealer Ariane Dandois, for it's first 10 years John Hobbs Ltd was a world class success on every front. A spectacular gallery displaying amazingly glamorous pieces in a truly dramatic and theatrical way. John worked very closely with Dennis Buggins whom he shared with Carlton despite their split. Dennis had been their restorer since 1985 and the eventual, frankly suicidal,bust up with him instigated by Carlton is hardly a secret. The clients were as ritzy and as exotic as the furniture and works of art and included amongst many,many others: Valentino, Hubert Givenchy, Bill Blass and Gianni Versace. They were all mesmerized by John.
Of all the clients nobody loved John more than his great buddy and billionaire client Jeffrey Steiner who had wandered into the original Pimlico Road shop one Saturday afternoon in 1988 and breezily spent over one million pounds. I used to describe them as two old men behaving disgracefully. Frankly they were as bad as each other. Once at Jeff's mansion in the South of France John was persuaded to give an elderly and very straight laced guest a joint. The guest, who was also in the billionaire club, promptly collapsed and it was assumed he was dead. (I'm sorry John tells this a lot better than I could ) But in short Jeff went into total panic shouting " If they find a fucking corpse here I'll be ruined. Just get rid of it. I don't care how." In a plan worthy of Peter Sellers someone produced a Mercedes limo and John and Jeff tried to heave the 'body' into the trunk of the car only to crack it's head on the boot lid. At this point the lifeless came to life and not unreasonably inquired " What the fuck is going on here?"
I think that this was a fairly typical John and Jeff evening. Jeff sadly died several years ago. If he hadn't I can assure you I wouldn't be telling this story. I have quite enough on my plate sorting out John's lawsuits without being sued for defamation by Jeff as well. The highest point of financial success at John Hobbs came with the sale at Phillips in New York in 2002 where all the genuine ( for want of a better word) stock was sold and John received a massive multi million pound pay off which he promptly, in true John style, spent within weeks. The battle between Dennis and Carlton into which John was unwittingly drawn proved to be catastrophic for both the company and John personally. The company closed in mid 2008 and John never recovered.
John had a very human and compassionate side to him and I know that there are several people here who have received unprecedented acts of generosity from him over the years. However tributes to John as a father,former husband,former partner, brother,grandfather, uncle and brother in law are entirely a family matter and thus I will leave them entirely to the family. I can however say that from my perspective John was always good to his family and for all of them there will be a huge void left in their lives. For myself ,and I suspect many others life and the world generally will be that much less entertaining, that much less colourful and let's face it that much less crazy without John.
By Charlie Mortimer
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