Ray Beckett, Prince of Prints

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“He was writing to another hangman and saying, ‘I hope trade’s brisk’!”


Ray Beckett takes the long view. I’d spent maybe a year or two looking over his selection of Georgian and Maritime prints, every week or so, before he asked if I was going to buy one. Now a beautiful print of Sweet William’s Farewell to Black Eyed Susan hangs on the wall of my work room. I admire his patience, and his skill at sourcing his stock. Prints have always been a key part of Greenwich market, but in recent years the quality has gone down, with more modern reproductions, and mundane, mass-produced Victorian prints. Ray’s stall has brought us back to those halcyon days, when you’re never quite sure what you’ll find – but know there’ll be something interesting.

I’ve always liked your selection of prints and paintings, and I know you’ve got a fair collection at home. So how many paintings do you have in your house?
Not that many that are framed… there a couple of really nice watercolours I bought about 35 years ago, Art Deco ones.  But I have got a lot of unframed pictures around, I tell you, you wouldn’t believe how many.

And is your loft crammed with pictures and prints?
It is. I’ve got a lot of stuff but then I’ve been buying a long time, I bought these drawings of Wind In The Willows you can see here, but they came with a lot of other items. I’ve been buying and selling for so long – I’m forever buying, that’s the thing, and it’s the new stuff that sells most quickly.

When did you start out in Antiques?
That would have been 1975 – my circuit was Rochester Market and Maidstone, I started off in Maidstone casual, and just travelled around really. I  was dealing in general antiques and then just specialised in prints – I actually prefer them, it’s what I like really. You stick to what you know, don’t you? I’ve been in Greenwich for three years now.

Are you looking forward to the Olympics?
No I’m not. I don’t think it’s going to be very good for Greenwich. Are people going to come here? You’ve got road closures already. I came here when they had the dummy run and the town was deserted. The restaurants were empty. My eldest grandson, I take him to Goodwood every year, to the Festival of Speed – you go and spend the whole day in there and when it’s over you just want to get away, don’t you?

You always have interesting captions on your prints, there’s often a story attached to them.
Yes, they have, and it’s interesting to do the research on them… specially the maps and the earlier prints. I’ve just sold a nice fishing print, I think it was 1686, very early fishing print, and I’ve sold one from the same period, on horology. They’re interesting, things you don’t see every day.

You’ve been researching prints for a long time, how would you do it before Google?
I would go into the library and dig all the books out, specially for prints and drawings, you’d have to go through all the Royal Academy books, and see who exhibited where. It’s made it a lot easier since you got the Web – but it’s not always true, is it? Google isn’t really proper research if we’re being honest. But I like to research, it’s part of the enjoyment.

What’s one of the most intriguing items you’ve found and researched?
It was in a box of memorabilia with other bits of pieces. It was a package with a homemade cover, made of plain paper with type on it, and documents inside, little pamphlets really.  And they were signed Harry Houdini. One was the inaugural service in a Hebrew temple. The other was the inaugural wedding at the same Temple. And they were officiated by his father, Samuel Meyer Weisz in 1880 or so. He would have only been four at the time. They had to be family documents, because his father wasn’t well known… and he’d signed both of them Harry Houdini.  And I ended up selling them to the Houdini Historical Society in Appleton Wisconsin.

It’s part of the business, but the research is part of the fun, too, isn’t it?
Yes, it is part of the fun. I like old documents. I bought one a little while ago, it was by a guy called James Ellis. He was the official hang man. This was 1920. And he was writing to another hangman, and he wrote, “I hope trade’s brisk with you!”  Hahaha. And it said where he was going, that he’d be in Strangeways on Tuesday, and because the letter was dated I checked it up and it turned out he was on his way to hang a guy who’d murdered his sister-in-law on Christmas day. He threw himself in the river, the guy, they dragged him out… and then in the end, my man hanged him!

You mentioned how Harry Houdini kept archives, did research on escapologists, and would buy these items, because he wanted to put them back in the right place?
Yes, Houdini used to find memorabilia from the old magicians, put it back together in libraries or archives. Put it in its home. And that’s what I’m doing.

Ray Beckett is at Greenwich Covered Market, Thursdays. His prints may also be viewed at www.themaritimegallery.co.uk