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BBC Radio Wiltshire interview

The Transcribed Video When you see these TV antiques programmes, you know they get about a bit don't they. They could be in Derbyshire one day and they might be doing a road trip in Cornwall the next day. Well Wiltshire meets the next guest tonight is taking that to the next level frankly, it's Ken Bolan from Donhead St Mary in South West Wiltshire; deep Southwest Wiltshire. started his business in Switzerland with a focus on items from the UK before returning to the UK dealing objects from here and abroad then heading off to Sweden, taken to Miami and based himself in London before the next stage that happens now, a lot to pack in. Have I roughly got the timeline right? Good evening, I think you've got it pretty well spot on. Great, well we need to find out a lot more about all these different aspects of that then. Let's start with the business in Bern which; of course, contrary to everyone else's belief is the capital of Switzerland. I know it's extraordinary isn't it. Everyone goes “Well it’s got to be Geneva” …Or Zürich. Yeah exactly but no it’s not. But no, it was definitely Bern, I lived there for 10 years. I started there, I left London when I was 18. I had my then-girlfriend who insisted I came back to Switzerland with her. Right, there's worse places to be aren't there really. And Swiss girls are very attractive. So we spent a year there and I worked like crazy and saved 1300 pounds. Came back to the UK at the age of 20 and started dealing in vintage cars. 18 months later went back to Switzerland and unfortunately she had passed away. I was back in Switzerland and vintage cars were getting far too expensive for me to deal in and I just looked at what was happening in the High Street and they were selling English Antiques and the reason they were selling English antiques was it was James Bond time. Ah of course yes. England was fashioned throughout Europe Yeah, absolutely. I looked at the prices they were selling these things for and I thought I can beat these guys. Switzerland is not a cheap place to buy anything, is it?  Oh, it's extraordinary, you know working in the UK in the late 60s / 70s you couldn't actually keep any money from your salary whereas in Switzerland you could actually save money. Yes, so actually when you got to Switzerland you set up business but also you went into business with someone locally, is that right? I eventually took on a Swiss partner because it transpired that I didn't have permission to work in Switzerland and the immigration police came and told me off. The chap was actually a client at the time and he overheard the conversation and he said there's no problem, tomorrow we're going into business. I thought oh okay. But actually, that was a great move in the end wasn't it? We had 10 years and we ended up with four shops in Switzerland and an incredible business. That is great. Then I left in the early 80s to start a family and come back to the UK. When you came back you bought a brewery? I did yes I mean that sounds like a dream already but you weren't making beer were you? Definitely not. That sounds like you've ruined my dream, so tell me about what happened there. I found this was in Gillingham in Dorset, I was with my second wife, we hadn't got married at that point but the idea was to settle down and have a family and everything else and I wanted to bring the children up in the country and give them a country life because I thought if they've got that it could never be taken away from them. So I bought this old Brewery which was 10 000 square feet and I opened my first business there in the UK called Talisman and I dealt with the English antiques for about a year and then I got bored. I'd imagine a brewery there's loads of sort of height and places where you can put stuff. It was extraordinary and I was very lucky I bought a field behind it so eventually, I made formal Gardens and fountains and statuary, it was quite a place. Brilliant, so yeah you got bored with that and what happened, was that when you went to Sweden? I went to Sweden in 85’ with a Danish guy I'd met, he was acting as a courier and we just hit the road. We went to homes that hadn't been touched in 200 years and I discovered Swedish painted furniture which is so different from any other country they were painting in the abstract. I brought it back to Britain and it was an immediate hit. Of course, in those days we had people travelling from all over Europe and America and Australia, dealers just dealers and they were queuing up when I brought a truck in. But it was in 2006 that you actually moved to London. So I mean that's a big market to take on, I'd imagine there's endless scope but also lots of competition. Possibly, I didn't quite look at it like that. After 9/11 our business changed in the country and I said to my then wife we've got to move to London and she said I'm not moving to London, I've got a wonderful house, four dogs, three cats, lots of friends. I said well I need to go for business so with my partners we bought a 22 000 square foot, modernist garage built in 1939 in the new Kings Road. Wow, that's quite an investment in London I should think. So that was a cool investment. I actually just sold it last week…and can you imagine after Liz Truss. No one thought a deal was going to go through last week. So London was the place to be, that's why you decided. Well, I opened on three floors and that was 2006/07,  we did extremely well and then we just started to come into the banking crisis. Ah yes, tell you what just take a break we'll come back in a moment. It's BBC Radio Wiltshire, just gone half past six we're in the company this evening with Ken from Donhead St Mary in South West Wiltshire, who well we've taken a trip with your business starting in Switzerland, he had a little bit of trouble with the authorities for not working legally, we're going to brush it under the carpet, it's all fine it's all good and then you returned to the UK to a brewery which you turned into a big Antiques Center, got bored of that and travelled around Sweden for a while, then based yourself in London 2006, then you got to the financial crisis. When we got to about 2010 or say, so when this financial issue happened well how did that change things? Well, we'd just done a big charity event and very well received we actually raised over £300,000. When it came to the auction that evening people kept their hands in their pockets and I thought there's something wrong here, I really couldn't work it out and then we had the banking crisis. So they knew before what was going to happen and I said right I'm going to sell off two of the floors of the building because I don't want to speak to a bank again. I knew exactly how they, you know, umbrellas and rain. So I cleared out any debts and we went through that period and I stayed there until 2019 with the intention of moving back to the country. But actually, there was a point because it was in 2010 when your wife became poorly, in 2013… …Yes, she shortly died in 2013 sadly. But you were actually at that point in a bit of a tussle as to whether you wanted to live in London or the West Country and your plans kind of changed didn't it? Well, I was travelling, obviously, I worked in London during the week and come home at the weekends and we had a great relationship and a great friendship and then very sadly she became terminally ill, I nursed her for two years, she died. I at that point decided to leave the West Country completely. So I was selling the old brewery, I was selling my house, I was selling storage areas and I was going to walk away with a bag, keep my flat in London and I'd never been alone in my life. I've always had a relationship and I really enjoyed being alone, it was just a different way of living. Of course, but that didn't stay the same did it? …It didn't stay the same. Because a couple of meddling friends found a friend. Susie Lewis who lives in Donhead St Mary, she invited me for supper one evening, on a Saturday evening. Classic set-up coming up. Of course, I said, to be honest with you Susie I'm really just at home for the evening, they said well come tomorrow, I said yeah I'd love to see the family I'll come for lunch tomorrow. So I arrived at lunch-oh en-route Susie came on the car telephone to say she's very nice and she's had a few troubles to deal with, with men…I said Susie if you're setting me up I'm not coming and she said don't be ridiculous Yoli’s been dead 18 months get here. So I arrived at lunch, lo and behold I met this lovely lady, Karen Mandabach who is a television producer. She seemed far too worldly for me and I didn't pursue anything. 10 months later… Oh, it's all gone as time goes by now. 10 months later, I go for lunch there again and Karen is yet again, so I'm selling my house and I'm selling the old brewery. Susie said you must buy the brewery for your business, you know you can use it for whatever they do in producing, and her writer was looking for a home in the West Country. She's got a program called Peaky Blinders. Oh, a little thing… Steve Knight the writer was actually looking for a country house. So I said look I'll take you out for a day I'll show you the places and I'll show you the West Country because she hadn't been around. That evening, she stayed at our home for supper and she said you know I shouldn't be here I'm meant to be in L.A. but Susie insisted I came for lunch last week, and she said I'm going back to L.A. tomorrow what'd you think of it and I said absolutely nothing, I've never been and she said well you should come. Just like that! I said yeah I'll come next week. It's turned into The Holiday now. So I flew out a week later, I stayed at her Hollywood home and I didn't know Karen. I mean she's the queen of comedy in America, you know, she started her first program was- I can't remember it now, it’ll come back to me. Don't worry, I won’t tell her you forgot. She did 3rd Rock from the Sun, That ‘70s Show, Roseanne, all of those were hers, so you know she really was up there. So you find yourself in L.A all of a sudden. Suddenly, I was in the guest house in L.A. then we went off hiking. So four days later, we were hiking and I said would you like to get married to me and she said what do you mean, I said well if it doesn't work with you I’m not going to bother and she said yeah I'll marry you. That was seven years ago, we got married four years ago and we are super super happy. That's amazing. She's the best person ever to live with, she hasn't got a bad side to her, very generous person and emotionally fab. So you're now out of London, that’s all gone? Completely out of London. You're in the West Country but you're still working. Oh working like crazy, I've just spent the last two years building The Studio from our own forest because we've got 70 acres of ancient woodland of which there's about five acres of spruce that keeps falling down so I keep cutting it up to planks and keep building barns. I will pinch him later to find out if he's real. It sounds like I've been set up into an amazing film, Wow, Ken I don't know what to say but it's just been great meeting you. That’s very kind of you. Thank you for fighting the traffic to see us today. It’s been a pleasure. Take care All the best. BBC Radio Wiltshire, there we go.



Ken started his business in Switzerland in the early 70’s when he was visiting with friends in Berne, the capital city. It was on this visit when he noticed that English antiques seemed to be popular. He also noticed the prices were unusually high, many objects were not original, and some were straight forward fakes. Without much further thought, he rented a sales space/cellar from his friends, and returned to the UK to purchase his first load, and start his business.


He became an instant success in Berne, and within six months he agreed to take on a Swiss business partner. They very quickly left the cellar and opened a store in downtown Berne. Over the years the business, known as Ken’s English Antiques, grew to three stores and became a successful, European brand. 


For personal reasons Ken returned to the UK in the early 80’s, and bought an old Brewery in Dorset, which was the idiosyncratic site that put him on the map.  While successfully dealing in English antiques, he also discovered the joys of under-explored statuary, as well as original French and Italian furniture,  all of which was housed in the old 10,000 sq ft Brewery and it’s gardens. He named his new business — Talisman.


Always being ahead of his contemporaries, Ken once again found a new market, gaining a large following of international dealers and designers by travelling to Sweden in the 80’s, and discovered original Swedish painted furniture. Uniquely, in 18th century Europe Swedish painted furniture was abstract in design, rather than representational work, which was then the norm throughout Europe. Ken also was the first to buy the more sophisticated Gustavian furniture with its elegant lines, and plain light grey painted finish.


Having introduced this to an audience that had never seen this style, his judgement proved successful. The clean lines of the Swedish design worked extremely well throughout Europe and America. Sadly, today there is very little original painted furniture, as these are now outright fakes, or just overpainted pieces that started life in another manner..


In 2006 Ken moved Talisman to London. The company bought a 22,000 sq ft modernist garage which Ken restored and opened 10 months later, which is still referred to by all London taxi drivers as The Talisman Building.


With the intent to expand globally, Ken sent his beautiful statuary, European furniture, and Swedish wares to Miami. Sadly, the show wasn’t a success. However, he thought he would give it another go. He did the same the following year, and the same thing happened again! So, on a whim, Ken decided to see what people were buying locally. A trip downtown opened his eyes to the new young dealers starting their careers by selling vintage furniture, designed by American, as well as other post war, international designers.


Over the next week Ken filled a forty foot container with furniture, lamps, art, objects, and sculpture. On arrival in  London it was an instant success, and over the next decade he imported over 80 containers to sell at Talisman. This proved to be an extremely successful strategy.


Just after the banking crisis of 2010, Ken’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sadly, she passed away in 2013. This, of course, was life changing, and within 18 months Ken decided to leave the West Country and sell all he owned there. His plan was to continue with the London business, and go travelling.


This was not to pass as close friends, Sir John and Lady Lewis, decided to introduce him to one of their close friends, Caryn Mandabach, a renowned American producer of comedy television in the US. Caryn had moved to the UK around 2007, and had bought a farm house close to the Lewis’s as a country retreat. When Ken met her, she was at producing her hit show, Peaky Blinders. On their first meeting Ken thought Caryn too intellectual and couldn’t understand why she might have an interest in him, so they didn’t see each other for 10 months. On their the second meeting Caryn invited Ken to join her on a trip to LA. They went hiking in Yosemite National Park, and after four days, Ken asked Caryn if she would care to marry him! Caryn accepted, and this August they celebrate seven years of joy.


Ken sold his home to a famous actor (including all the contents ) and the newly married couple acquired around 140 acres of ancient woodland, bogs, and meadows, plus a wonderful barn complex. That inspired Ken to call it a day in London, and he has spent the past two years converting the barns in the West Country to his studio/showrooms. They also keep themselves busy by re-wildling their land.


He is available to special clients to furnish and design their homes. He also loves using his skills in landscaping, and is presently is designing a new sculpture park which will be run as a charity...

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