This is a love story about Tim and Betsan Bowen, authors of “The Welsh Stick Chair: A Visual Record” and owners of Tim Bowen Antiques. Their courtship is, in part, how their business and marriage, both of 20 years, came to be (and also, their book!). But it’s also a story of the love they have for Welsh country furniture, folk art, textiles, cottages and history, items and places and periods and people, which they refuse to overlook, instead seeking out, sensitively caring for and passing along.
Discovering a Love for Antiques and Each Other
Tim and Betsan’s childhoods were quite different. Tim was brought up in West Wales in an English-speaking home that didn’t have many antiques but with a father who was interested in the past and tradition. Tim fished a lot as a child, and spent quite a lot of time on neighboring farms, helping friends with haymaking, milking and the like.
“I was the complete opposite,” says Betsan, who was brought up in the suburbs of London in a Welsh-speaking family. They had a few antiques but her grandfather, who lived in Wales, was a big collector.
“Although he didn’t collect the type of furniture and the type of things that we like now, he had a house that was jam-packed full of pottery and bits of furniture, and he was always off at auctions buying things,” Betsan says. “And so it was sort of somehow indoctrinated into me, this kind of Welsh culture and history that was really important. And so it carried on. I can’t stop now.”
As a teenager, Tim left school and found work as a decorator and painter, as well as doing farm work and building things. One day he received a phone call from Terry Thomas, an auctioneer, who needed help clearing out a house for an auction he was holding in town that Saturday. Tim agreed to the job.
“I turned up to basically just help load and the first thing somebody brought in was a chair that I just thought was rubbish because it was falling apart,” he says. “Every time I picked it up a leg would drop off and the arm was wobbling and then I remember carrying it and Mr. Thomas said to put a note on it that said, ‘handle with care.’ And I thought that was a bit of a joke because I was the new guy. And then it came up for sale and I remember it going for a £1,000, which I just couldn’t believe. I think was earning £25, £30 a week. And here was a pile of wood that just made a £1,000. That was the moment I thought, ‘There’s something going on here that I don’t really know much about.’”
Tim ended up working for Mr. Thomas for a few years. During that time Tim started buying books, reading articles, visiting museums and befriending many of the local antique dealers, picking their brains.
“It became the thing I wanted to do, I suppose, or be involved in,” he says. “I tried to learn about everything from silver to claret jugs to Art Deco but it was always Welsh furniture that interested me. But I gained a bit of knowledge about the antique world.”
Betsan also left school as a teenager and ended up working in the property business in London. By the time Betsan met Tim she was pretty high up in the organization, a large public limited company, and she was one of the few senior women who worked there.
“I was quite keen on buying things for my flat in London,” she says. “And I went down to Wales and went into the antique shop that Tim was working in and bought a chair from him, which was kind of vernacular, not a stick chair, but it was quite nice, an interesting thing with a drawer in the seat, which we still have in the house.”
This would have been in the late 1990s, when Tim was working as general manager at Country Antiques Kidwelly.
“And then I started going back and buying bits and pieces,” Betsan says. “And you know what it’s like – you buy a bigger apartment and then you buy a bigger house … one day he came up to deliver two or three pieces of furniture for me. And he was at the door at 7 o’clock in the morning, which I thought, ‘To come all this way from West Wales at 7 o’clock in the morning! I think this guy likes me!‘ Then Tim said he wanted to go to this British exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington. And so we went, he came to stay, and we went together and that was it! We’ve never looked back, have we?”
Their courtship began in 2000. Tim was immersed in the antiques world but Betsan says she was still immersed in the property business, although as time went on, she realized that she wasn’t enjoying it as much and she wanted to be with Tim. And they both recognized their shared passion for Welsh country furniture and art, something they had never shared so intimately with anyone else.
“We realized, when we got together, how many of the same books we owned,” Tim says. “Books on quilts, furniture and folk art.”
They both knew they wanted to have children – a family.
“And so we decided to get married and start the business,” Tim says.
They bought a house in West Wales together, and married in 2003.
“He gradually weaned me away from London,” Betsan says, laughing. “I’m joking, actually, because I wanted to leave London. I was actually quite happy to go.”
They both use the word “derelict” when describing their first house.
“It was what we were looking for,” Tim says. “We wanted something that hadn’t been too modernized, which happens to a lot of properties in West Wales. They just get updated. I think all our family thought we were a bit mad. They don’t quite get it. But it was a lovely house.”
The official start of their business, Tim Bowen Antiques, is the same date as their wedding anniversary – they celebrate the 20th anniversary of both this year.
“We went to an antique fair on our honeymoon,” Betsan says. “It wasn’t really much, but we enjoyed it.”
Early on, Tim spotted a skip on the street (akin to renting a dumpster in the U.S.) and took a look through it. In it, he found an old Art Deco rug and he asked the owner if he could have it. The owner said yes.
“It turned out to be quite a valuable rug,” Betsan says. “He sold it in Christie’s in London and made quite a bit of money.”
Soon after, the same thing happened again. Tim found an Art Nouveau cupboard literally in the trash, which he was able to sell, again, for quite a bit of money
“I thought, ‘Gosh this is fantastic!’” Betsan says. “We started the business with that money. Which wasn’t much, we started small, didn’t we?”
“We did, yeah,” Tim says.
“We’re still pretty small, really,” Betsan adds. “I don’t want to give you the idea that we’re big.”
“But we always wanted to sell the things that we liked,” Tim says. “I didn’t really like the Art Deco rug but I recognized it as something that we could make money on. But we almost always choose Welsh furniture, folk art, the vernacular country style of things.”
It’s simply what they both love, as indicated by their 18th-century bed and 19th-century kitchen table.
“We’re surrounded by very old things,” Betsan says.
Looking through their online collection, it’s clear that Betsan and Tim have keen eyes.
“I think it evolves over lots of looking,” Tim says. “We spent a lot of time looking in galleries and museums and over time you learn to sort of be in tune with what you like.”
A similar effect occurs when Tim takes photos for their regularly emailed Stock Updates (you can sign up to receive it here).
“I take thousands of photos and I think some of them I don’t hate and every now and then I think, ‘That one works,’” he says. “You just end up knowing a lot of stuff by looking.”
Betsan jumps in at this point and tells Tim that she does believe he has an innate skill here though, especially with how Tim now plays with natural light.
Here, Tim recalls a conversation he recently had with a friend.
“Over the last 30 years I don’t think that a day has gone past when I haven’t thought about furniture,” Tim says. “It’s not something where you think, ‘Well, I won’t do that today,’ because it’s just who you are. Even when you get away on holiday we tend to visit old places, National Trust houses – the poor kids get dragged down to every museum.”
“We build whole holidays around the delivery of a piece of furniture or the picking up of a piece of furniture and all the museums that are near,” Betsan says. “But only the older children are sympathetic. Our youngest, in particular, near the end of the holiday is saying, ‘No museums! No old churches! No artifacts! And definitely, no antique shops!’” She laughs.
The Bowens have become good friends with many of their customers.
“You end up becoming quite friendly with them because you share similar interests,” Tim says. He talks about good friends in Suffolk, a six-hour journey from their home in Ferryside, a small village in Carmarthenshire, West Wales. They bought a cottage, took pictures and videos, and asked the Bowens to furnish it.
“That was a great project,” Tim says. “We’re often involved in projects where people buy an old house, move to Wales, restore an 18th-century, 19th-century house and then they want to furnish it with the appropriate things I suppose. But you become friends with people. It can take a long time to find everything, projects can take ages to do. But it’s great. You end up helping furnish some amazing houses.”
Betsan notes that she often hears Tim talking on the phone to clients from around the world, including Australia and the United States.
“I have quite a large number of Welsh people dotted around the world who want – there’s a Welsh term called hiraeth, which is longing for something,” Tim says. “They don’t live here, but they want a piece of Welsh furniture or a bit of Welsh folk art.”
“So many people, they long for this thing which is ethereal, I suppose, this hiraeth thing,” Betsan says. “It’s a longing for something that is home, really.”
‘It’s a Privilege’
The Bowens eventually moved to “another lovely house in the village,” they say, not far from their first house in Ferryside.
“It has a view of the estuary, and out to sea, so it’s a really magical place to be actually,” Betsan says. “And we never tire of it. Well, I never tire of it.”
“No, I never,” Tim says.
“Just looking out the windows, I’m talking to you, looking straight out to sea,” Betsan says. “And you see all the weather happen and the wind – it’s actually a grey day today, not particularly beautiful, but it kind of is though, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Tim says.
“Even when it’s grey,” Betsan says.
From their home they also have a view of Llansteffan Castle, built in the 12th century and located across the Tywi Estuary.
When asked about a typical day they laugh as most parents of three children do and say their entire lives are dominated by their kids, ages 16, 13 and 12. They have a gallery, also located in Ferryside, but almost all of their sales are done online, and Tim and Betsan work from home.
“It’s an online business, really,” Tim says. “So it’s quite a sensible working day.”
It’s a model that allows both of them to be available to get their kids off to school on the bus, pick them up after school and manage after-school activities. Any given day might involve updating things on the website, delivering furniture, visiting with a client or picking things up from a restorer.
“So I wouldn’t say there is a typical day, which is part of what we like,” Tim says.
“We’re sitting now at the kitchen table,” Betsan says. “And the kitchen table is where we work. We’ve tried having offices but it just didn’t work. We always gravitate back to the kitchen table.”
“And the tea,” Tim says.
“The kettle, yeah,” Betsan says. “And it’s nice and warm in here. We put a stove in here.”
Betsan’s day is also not complete without walking her dogs, Selsig and Sglodion, Welsh for Sausage and Chips.
“We’ve got two dachshunds, and they’re very naughty,” she says. “They’re at my feet right now.”
Betsan and Tim keep busy with other projects as well, and their book, “The Welsh Stick Chair – A Visual Record,” which they published in 2020, is a good example. During the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, they took on a new project.
“We bought a quite rare, tiny Welsh, Grade II cottage,” Tim says. “It has to be sensitively conserved, so we spend time when we can up at the cottage.”
Tim has already been taking pieces up to the cottage and photographing them, which has worked out quite wonderfully, he says, and it’s been exciting to see how they look in an original setting. In addition to serving as a photo studio, the plan is to rent out the cottage for holidays.
“But it will be quite a particular person who is prepared to stay there because in the cottage itself, there is no running water and no loo,” Betsan says.
A kitchen and bathroom will exist in a building they’ve built alongside the cottage.
“They’re so rare, these cottages,” Tim says. “They’re basically made of mud walls, two tiny rooms downstairs and a loft. They were dotted around Wales but they just didn’t survive. Once they deteriorate, they can disappear very quickly.”
“It was a heart rules the head kind of moment,” Betsan says. “But we don’t regret it for one minute.”
“Oh no, it was an amazing thing to do,” Tim says.
“It is,” Betsan says.
“It’s a privilege to look after it.” Tim says.
Championing Humble Furniture
Tim talks about a recent chair they bought which had been stored in the loft of a barn in a farm.
“It had such a hard life,” he says. “It’s missing components, it’s been broken, but it’s just the most amazing thing.”
“Hang on, you haven’t said the most important part,” Betsan says. “That it’s got at least one, if not 10, layers of thick gray paint all over it. You know, not nice paint, it is, isn’t it?”
“It’s tractor paint,” Tim says.
“And you can see it’s exactly that color,” Betsan says. “It used to be on a Massey Ferguson.”
“I think a lot of people would think it’s not worth saving but it’s such an amazing thing,” Tim says. “We’re still pondering what to do. You have to be so sensitive to the restoration, conservation of these things. We’re giving this some thought to see how far we go with it or do we just try to stabilize it and leave it as an object as it is now, which I think is what we’re trying to do. It might stay with us forever.”
“You can read that as he wants it to stay here forever,” Betsan says, laughing. “I am just thinking of another chair that we bought, which had a beautiful seat. The seat was about 4” or 5” thick, one piece of wood, but at some point it had obviously been used for somebody who was an invalid and they cut a hole in it, in the seat. And so it was used as a commode. And I mean, I don’t know what it would have been worth if it hadn’t had this hole cut into it. But actually, we sold it, didn’t we?”
“It’s in our book,” Tim says. “It’s probably one of the most remarkable chairs, really. But when we bought it, it was in such a neglected state. But the idea is being sensitive to it, really, not trying to get it as good as new.”
“Yeah, not trying to hide what happened to it,” Betsan says. “This is what happened to it – you either love it or you don’t love it. What we’re saying is that we love the chairs the way they are.”
“I think we’re always mindful of the things that we pick,” Tim says. “They aren’t fine works of art or antiques. They are very humble, everyday things. It’s always good to remember that they had a life. They’ve been used and sometimes been neglected and put out in the shed because they’re no longer needed. I think that’s in part what we like about them. They’re not perfect in a sense. So we won’t go looking for pristine-looking antiques.”
Tim and Betsan say they always buy things that they really love. But that can come with its own difficulties.
“There is always a little bit of regret when something you’ve never seen before goes,” Tim says. “But you learn to know that a phone call or an email or something will come up where you will say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get that, that’s fantastic!’ It’s full of surprises, the antiques. You have to let them go, I suppose, sometimes. Of course, there are a lot in this house.”
“I’m glad you said that,” Betsan says. “That’s quite an epiphany. He usually says things like, ‘Oh, you can never have enough! Actually, I’m just joking because we really are as bad as each other. There’ll be something where I’ll say, ‘You can’t sell that!’”
“I think in the antique business, you’re only really as good as what you can sell,” Tim says. “You try to find good things and offer good things and so you build a reputation on having good, original things and if you keep everything, well, that’s not going to be the case. How are you going to put food on the table?”
Betsan and Tim regularly seek out what they call “the humbler pieces of furniture,” the things that were used by everyday people and built by everyday people.
“They weren’t works of art in prestigious buildings,” Tim says. “I think sometimes, perhaps, these things have been overlooked in the world of antiques. Often they get sorted as primitive or basic and it’s mostly when people compare a primitive or simple stick chair to a fine Chippendale chair. They’re quite different things but they were also made totally differently by totally different people. I think we champion it a bit more.”
Tim says it’s the same for the little cottage he and Betsan bought.
“It’s very important,” he says. “There are the big houses in West Wales that the National Trust will love over and conserve but sometimes the cottages, they are here one moment and gone the next or they’ve been modernized and there’s no trace of them. So I think I’m right in saying it that way, that that’s what interests us. The things that are made by — not ‘honest’ people because we don’t really know a lot about them — but just the people who lived and worked in West Wales in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. We try to champion that, I think.”
Betsan says they’re working on their next book, but progress has been slow, in part because they can’t agree on the title.
“It’s a term for folk art, and it’s a modern term, really, for things that have been made as art but they might be made for a particular purpose,” she says. “Can you call a turned wooden bowl a piece of art? I mean, you do, because we think of it as art, don’t we? Because it’s such a beautiful object. But it wasn’t made for that. It was made to be used.”
“For people, the term ‘folk art’ conjures up a style or an image or a way of art,” Tim says. “It’s a tricky one, that.”
“But it’s really more to do with the fact that we’ve got three children and it’s really busy!” Betsan says, laughing. “We do have a number of books that we’re thinking about.”
“The stick chair one took us a bit by surprise, how many people wanted to know about stick chairs,” Tim says. “It’s a lovely thing to do, to have for people who don’t know about these things. It’s good for business – we’ve got a good archive of photographs. But I think it’s always that way with business. You have to keep thinking, ‘How do you keep it going?’”
“Yeah,” Betsan says.
“Not just rest on your laurels and do what you’ve always done, I suppose,” Tim says.
I can’t imagine the Bowens ever doing that at all.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl