Brenda Gerwat-Clark, Bear-carer

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“I think my current favourites are big monkeys”

 

In some parts of London, escapism is compulsory. Camden Passage is such a place; spend too long contemplating the once-wonderful Tramshed, a home for some of London’s best stalls until they were thrown out for a branch of Jack Wills, or other sites now devoted to chain stores, and you’ll start feeling blue. In which case, there’s a surefire cure  at the other end of Camden Passage by Islington Green. Brenda’s stall, with a shop behind, is crammed with cute, cuddlesome items, vintage teddy bears and other stuffed toys, with rather more refined, lavishly-attired French dolls at the back. Some of Brenda’s customers are cash-rich collectors, for whom these objects are investments, like gold or stocks. But spend five minutes chatting to her, and you realise this business is about love, not money.

How did you start dealing in teddy bears?
It started with the dolls, actually. How I got into it, I suppose, was when my mother gave me my old dolls when she was clearing out the attic. I had another career at the time, my husband was an antique dealer and I started looking at things in a new light, looking at the dolls, fixing them up and creating them, then they’d sell the moment I brought them into the shop. Then I started doing them up, because I did a doll and bear hospital, I was getting bears and dolls into repair, and it all grew from there.

How has the market for dolls changed since you started?
Of course, they are fairly expensive now and it really fluctuates according to which country is buying them at the time – at the moment the Japanese are buying them, for both China and Japan. It constantly evolves.

Dolls are both toys, and a kind of social record, as well as depicting the history of fabrics, aren’t they?
They do tie in to absolutely everything. And then with bears… for a lot of people, the bear is someone’s first toy that they can remember. Then they look at it later, as an adult and wish they hadn’t wrecked it, so they bring it  in to be restored and cleaned.

What are some of your favourite dolls at the moment
Well, I suppose the French Jumeau – they’re lovely, these ones date from about 1900 to 1910. Depending on the quality the prices range from £800 to £2,000. And I also love dolls’ houses, although I don’t have enough space to keep them on display here, they’re in my studio.

Tell me about the teddies – do you get too attached to them?
If I’m getting too attached to anything I take it home for  my collection. I’ve got a big room full of dolls and bears and miniatures. At the moment I think my current favourites are big animals, big monkeys, I’ve got several giant monkeys in my collection, I’ve rented them out to Vogue magazine sometimes, for fashion photoshoots, they date from the 1920s or 1930s.

What about the whole notion of Victorian dolls being a bit spooky?
Why would they be spooky? They’re among the first things that you cherish when you’re a little girl, or with a little boy it’s a bear – so why would it be spooky?

We’re seeing prices of items like Steiff bears increase steadily, will that continue?
Steiff actually started the teddy bear, in 1902. Teddy Roosevelt was taken on a shooting expedition and wouldn’t shoot the bear cubs, the story went all over the world, Steiff was a toy company and loved the story so it produced bear cubs and they took off – like mad! And their collectibility has continued to increase, the most expensive one I saw at Christie’s went for £125,000, I believe. Because they’ve become like a currency, it’s more secure than putting it in a bank, it’s  secure, it’s not like buying shares and seeing the company disappear. You’ve got this rare, wonderful object!

What’s the priciest bear here?
I’ve got  one over there for two  and a half thousand, he’s from 1915. And it’s condition as well, they’ve got to be in good condition.

My son has a Steiff  which he’s cuddled since he was a kid. The mohair has worn off his nose. Is that bad – do you disapprove?
Well, you can’t grow more mohair. But I don’t disapprove. This is a love object… they cry in their sleep and they’ve got this object they can hug.

You have a rather large bear outside – what’s her story?
She is famous in Islington, she was the Mothercare Representative about 40 years ago so she’s quite old. She’s made by Merrythought, our good company in England, they’re like the Steiff of England, and she’s much loved by local children, and has raised a lot of money for charity.

And the bear you’re holding – I believe he’s met Madonna?
Indeed. I rent teddies and dolls out for films and shoots. And for Edward And Mrs Simpson, the film Madonna directed, he’s in the film. They wanted a bear, I don’t know if it was a starring role, I haven’t seen it yet, and they had him for quite a while. He’s a 1920s bear.

Do you have a teddy you can cuddle, when times are hard?
My valuable bears are sort of locked away, in a secure room, which is alarmed. But I do have some big monkeys that protect me sometimes.

Brenda Gerwat-Clark is at  Unit 3, The Annexe, Camden Passage, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Email klaregerwat-clark@tinyworld.co.uk