Why the best French furniture is in Britain, not Brittany – and especially York

It is the dream of many a retiree to own an old cottage in France, and with prices a fraction of those back home, vacant properties are often snapped up as soon as they go on the market.

Stephen Hazell, owner of The French House, surrounded by French Antiques in his York warehouse.
Stephen Hazell, owner of The French House, surrounded by French Antiques in his York warehouse.

But filling them with authentic furniture is a different story – because the good stuff is now more likely to be in Britain than Brittany.

The French may be passionate about croissants and camembert, but when it comes to a chest of drawers they would rather have Ikea than Louis IX, according to one Yorkshire expert.
Stephen Hazell has spent the last 25 years clearing antique pieces by the houseful and shipping it back to York for restoration and onward sale.

“It’s like Britain in the 1960s when everyone suddenly wanted to furnish their homes with G-Plan from MFI,” he said. “The French don’t value or appreciate their antiques as much as we do in England. We discovered that when we started to furnish our own house there.”

The French House run by Stephen Hazell and Kath Wakefield in York, has been given the title of one of the world's best antique and vintage furniture stores

Mr Hazell and his partner, Kathryn Wakefield, began combining trips to their second home in the Pyrenees with buying excursions to country houses, village fairs and “brocante” flea markets. Traversing the country in an old post office van, they also started picking up elaborate old iron baths that had been abandoned as water troughs for cattle, and setting off home when there was no more room.

Eventually, they opened a showroom for it all on Micklegate in York, then another in London, both of which they called The French House.
Now relocated to Huntington, on the outskirts of York, the business sells upwards of £1.5m worth of stock each year to pubs, hotels and private houses across Yorkshire and beyond. Some of it is shipped back to France like coals to Newcastle, by ex-patriot Brits who have bought a place to “do up” and found that they have had to look to Yorkshire for authentic French furniture.

“Antique furniture that has been in the same family for generations, even centuries, is being cleared wholesale and there’s a fairly plentiful supply, if you know where to look,” said Mr Hazell, whose abundant supply of such pieces has won his business a place on a list of the world’s best antique stores, compiled by the Financial Times.

“If you go to a house clearance in England, you’ll find it full of 1950s and 1960s furniture. In France it’s more likely to be 18th and 19th century,” he said.

“It’s because people there tend to stay in a house for life and then pass it down to their children. They don’t move half a dozen times, as we do in Britain.”

The likelihood of furniture having stayed in the same house for a century or more also meant its provenance was there for all to see, Mr Hazell added.

Such sought-after items as French farmhouse tables, Louis XV mirrors and upholstered Marie Antoinette-style beds are no less appropriate in a Yorkshire farmhouse than a Parisian maison de maître, Mr Hazell said, though pieces sometimes need to be cut down to fit – a service carried out in a workshop attached to the York showroom.
Paris and the French Riviera are hotspots for the availability of period furniture, but as with houses, prices are higher in those areas, said Mr Hazell.

He attributes the popularity of such pieces among English buyers to fashion and comfort.

“There’s nothing wrong with an English table, but French tables are more fashionable,” he said.

Choosing a French armchair was a little like buying shoes, he added. “They were built purely for comfort, and comfort also happens to be fashionable in the UK. You wouldn’t buy a pair of shoes without trying them on, and it’s very much the same with an armchair.”

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