From sister act to hammer house

Sisters Jane Tennant(left) and Ali Cornwall-Legh, the next generation taking on the Tennants business at Leyburn
Sisters Jane Tennant(left) and Ali Cornwall-Legh, the next generation taking on the Tennants business at Leyburn
  • Ali and Jane Tennant are the fourth generation of the family to run the successful auction house. But there is much more to Tennants in 2015 then gavels and lots, as Catherine Scott discovered.
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Paying a visit to Tennants auction centre in Leyburn is more like hanging out at a modern art gallery and high-end restaurant.

The sweeping staircase leads up to a bright and airy gallery replete with displays of modern art and intriguing collections – all of which will eventually move into one of the three purpose- built sale rooms to be sold. Turn left and you find yourself in a modern cafe with on-trend industrial furniture; turn right and you are in the Garden Room, by day a top-notch restaurant, at night transformed into an event space hosting everything from the Halle Orchestra to Swaledale Festival, with a capacity to seat 400 people and free parking for 600.

It is a year since the £8m project was completed and the auction centre has since developed into a destination in its own right, with people spending the day perusing everything that Tennants has to offer.

It is all a far cry from the original auction house set up more than 100 years ago in Middleham. But it is not only Tennants’ infrastructure that is looking to the future, so is its management with a changing of the guard.

Sisters Jane Tennant and Ali Cornwall-Legh, with their elder sister Caroline behind the scenes, are now driving this successful Yorkshire family business forward into the 21st century.

But their father Rodney is chairman and still very much part of the furniture. In fact, when I visited it was Rodney who greeted me at the door as if I was an old friend and it is Rodney who gives the behind-the-scenes tour of the acclaimed auction house.

“Dad is still very much involved,” says Ali. “He knows the business inside out. He was very forward thinking and he realises that to survive we have to keep moving forward. The internet and online auctions have become a big part of the business and he is the first one to acknowledge he isn’t that comfortable with all that side of things.”

Jane adds: “We want to attract a wider range of people to the world of antiques and auctioneering. It isn’t just for the elite as many people think. We have all sorts of sales where people can pick up some amazing things.”

Tennants started out as a small family-run business, set up by Edmund Slinger Tennant more than 100 years ago. Edmund prided himself on providing a personal service, always putting his clients’ interests first – and that tradition is still being upheld today by his grandson, Rodney and great-granddaughters Ali, Jane and Caroline. “The ethos behind Tennants is as important to us today as it was when the business started,” says Jane who was one of the country’s youngest female auctioneers when she joined the family business.

“But we are also an international business with clients in 79 countries. It is getting the balance between having the personal service and yet operating as one of the busiest auction houses in the country.”

The original auction house in Middleham was a 2,000 sq ft building with adjoining field for farm equipment and larger household items.

By the 1970s and early 1980s Tennants was consolidating its position in the North with a series of important country house and fine art sales held in its Richmond saleroom.

On September 1, 1993, Tennants’ impressive auction centre in Leyburn was officially opened by the late Sir John Harvey Jones. The 40,000 sq ft building went on to receive the accolade for “Best Regional Auction House” in the BACA (British Antiques and Collectables Awards) in 2002. This prestigious award was complemented by Rodney’s achievement in 2001 of being crowned “Auctioneer of the Year”.

The new centre helped to establish the company as one of the leading auction houses both in this country and overseas.

With 24 specialist departments, more 
than 50 highly knowledgeable full-time staff, a network of renowned consultants and a multi-million-pound turnover, Ali and Jane say their success remains firmly rooted in the traditional values of personal service and guaranteed confidentiality, combined with a vast range and depth of expertise.

The sisters grew up surrounded by antiques and auctions. “There is a picture somewhere of me aged four in one of the salerooms. I just loved it,” says Jane.

Although the auction business is clearly in their blood, Ali and Jane both say the reason they have returned to work in the family business is that they were never pushed into it.

“We grew up in that world of course, but we were all encouraged to do our own thing,” says Ali. “It was never expected that we would return and become the fourth generation to run the business. There was never any pressure. Although that is what has happened.”

After leaving school Ali, 32, studied event management and tourism which has stood her in good stead as she has led the new development of the garden rooms and auction centre.

“Although we are sisters and best friends, people always ask how do we manage to work together,” says Jane.

“But actually we have completely different interests and focus on different parts of the business. Ali is very much on the events side and I am in the sales rooms. We can go an entire day and not see each other.”

Jane, 28, actually studied interior design in London and went to work for luxury homes brand Oka. But when she decided the time was right to return to Yorkshire four years ago it was almost by accident that she ended up on the rostrum with a gavel in her hand.

“Female auctioneers are few and far between. I started at 25 which made me one of the youngest. I was trained by my uncle John who’s still an auctioneer and our MD Jeremy Pattison. I did feel immense pressure when I started. People kept saying ‘It’s in the blood’ and ‘You’ve got some big shoes to fill’.”

But she needn’t have worried. According to her sister she’s a natural. “Jane now goes out and does charity auctions like Dad did his whole life and she has proved really successful. She can hardly keep up with demand,” says Ali.

The bond between these two sisters is tangible. Yet don’t be fooled into thinking this is some quaint family business. Both women, as well as Caroline, are directors of a forward-thinking, successful international company and they can both be steely businesswomen when they need to be.

“Customer care is all important to us, but we are also competing with auction houses in London and beyond,” says Jane.

Although they have one eye on the international scene, they are also keen to promote the local economy. They employ local people where they can – many employees are members of the same families – and they recommend local hotels and guest houses when people come to events or to the increasing number of weddings being held in the Garden Rooms.

Ali is now expecting the fifth generation of the Tenant family as she is having her first baby in March. “Who knows if they will end up in the family business,” she laughs. “But I hope that I will be like my parents and just let them be themselves and make their own decisions, whatever they may be.”