Embracing the antiques road show in France

A love of vintage has turned into a career for Kildare woman Dee Brophy – and her dog

Driving around the French countryside, accompanied by your faithful dog, travelling to geranium-covered villages in search of quirky country furniture, ceramics and objects d’art: now doesn’t that sound idyllic? Well, it can be, says Dee Brophy, who spends a good deal of her life doing exactly that. “But I could also tell you stories about the time I bought a bench at a fair and it was too big to fit in the van,” she says. “Or the time I left my handbag in a cafe and had no money.”

Brophy began her working life as an information officer for the EU’s Food and Veterinary Inspection Office, which had opened as a result of the BSE crisis. Then she did an interior design course, which led her to study traditional upholstery. “Having lived in Belgium for a while and spent time scouring the markets there, and also lived in Bordeaux in France, I decided my passion was for sourcing forlorn objects,” she says. “So with that in mind I decided to throw caution to the wind, abandon my ‘safe’ job and open a little antiques shop in Killashee House Hotel in Kildare.”

The recession forced Brophy to downsize her business. Rather than keeping up a premises, she moved into a space at the The Store Yard in Portlaoise – an Aladdin's cave of antiques, vintage pieces and bric-a-brac that was a winner in The Irish Times Best Shops competition in 2015.

The moment you see something you have to make a very quick decision because you probably won't see that thing again

Brophy has now returned to her home county of Kildare and set up a showroom in Tougher Business Park, outside Naas. What does she mean by the phrase “forlorn objects”? “I suppose they’re lost, in a way,” she says. “When you go to a market and see something that in your eyes is beautiful but has just been abandoned it’s quite sad, really.”


Shabby chic

Brophy brings these objects back to life, placing them in a new – and, hopefully, loved – context. Her eye for interior design leads her to pick up all sorts of “shabby chic” pieces which can be used in the most up-to-the-minute decorative schemes. “I love really distressed country furniture; I suppose it’s an appreciation for the quality of craftsmanship, really. I grew up on a farm where re-use and recycle was a part of life.”

Thus bits of old French balconies become wall features, both indoors and outdoors. Farmhouse windows can be turned into mirrors. A keen gardener, Brophy has made gardenalia one of her specialties; every year she visits all the big garden shows and has an eye for zinc planters, bird cages, stoneware, hand-thrown terracotta and garden seating.

“You don’t know what you’re going to find, so you have an open mind. I pick up a lot of lovely linen textiles; and champagne saucers from the 1920s – I rarely have them in stock, because I always have a list of people looking for them. Another lucky find was a pair of Francois Carré 1930s sunburst chairs with a metal spring seat and a spring back.”

She also, currently, has an elegant Victorian wirework bench: “I found that in the UK and I hopped on it, because if I go out looking for one of those I won’t find it. That’s the whole thing about my job. The moment you see something you have to make a very quick decision because you probably won’t see that thing again.”

Does she sometimes make the wrong decision? “Absolutely,” she says, laughing. “I knew of a house that was being sold, so I suppose there was an emotional attachment on my part, anyway, at that [contents] auction I paid way too much for something and I had to let it go at a loss.”

What’s her favourite find? “A French painting, oil on velvet, of two greyhounds. Because of the texture it’s just stunning. I’m so glad I found that one.”

Brophy, it must be said, is a bit biased in the greyhound department; she and her friend Worzel, a lurcher dog, are inseparable.

“When I met him he gave me a lot of confidence because I wasn’t worried about driving on my own in a van at all hours of the day and night.”

Worzel now plays a central role in her French adventures. On one occasion they were on their way to a fair in a field outside Lyon when their van broke down in the middle of nowhere. “Luckily I was able to call a dealer I knew, who was also going to the fair,” she says. “Myself and Worzel checked into a little Logis de France and the dealer picked us up at 3am. So there we were, squeezing into a van that was packed with the stuff he was planning to sell.

“So we went to the fair, and you know in Lyon it’s really hot and sunny – and my phone fell into a fountain when I was getting Worzel a drink.” At a nearby cafe she confided her woes to a total stranger – who promptly offered her a lift to her van. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “This man offered me a lift in his little orange Renault Twingo. It, too, was jammed with stuff – and there were no windows – but it felt as if the little car was smiling at me. I’ll always remember flying down this iconic little French tree-lined road. I just thought: ‘Oh my god. This is life’.”

Dee Brophy Decorative is at Tougher Business Park, Naas, Co Kildare, Wednesday -Saturday, 9.30am- 5 pm. See deebrophy.com

Where Dee shops in France

The Foire de Chatou otherwise known as the Ham and Antiques Fair which takes place twice a year in Paris, foiredechatou.com, open to all. Next event: September 22nd-October 1st.

Avignon Antiques fair, open to professionals only. Next fair: May 15th, avignon-antiquities.com

Brocante des Quinconces, Bordeaux, held twice a year. It’s happening now until May 8th. Next fair: 24th November 24th-December 10th.

Brocante de Mézilles in Burgundy area. Next event: August 12th-13th