The Strange World of Eric St John Foti

It’s often said that Britain’s high streets are afflicted by a process of creeping conformism. Flanked by the same chain-stores with the same window-displays, they’re becoming hard to distinguish. For all of the incessant political rhetoric about living in an era of unprecedented choice, this dreary homogenisation is of course apparent in numerous other aspects of life. Even our museums are becoming increasingly similar. The exhibits may differ but the presentational style remains consistent. Whether you walk into the British Museum in London or the Baltic Gallery in Newcastle, you’ll be confronted by a familiar array of expensive display-cases and slick signage. Yet there remain little-known islands of curatorial resistance and refreshing idiosyncrasy. The wonderful How We Lived Then Museum of Shops in Eastbourne is one such bastion of the anti-corporate style. Buckley’s Yesterday’s World near Hastings falls into that category as well. So too does the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum in Dulwich. Another memorable essay in curatorial individualism is provided by the Cotswolds Motor Museum, where life-size cut-outs of old film stars are suspended behind the steering-wheels of an array of classic cars, the young, caddish Leslie Phillips inevitably assigned a natty little sports car. You can almost hear him deliver his trademark, seductive ‘Well, hell-oh…’

None of these distinctive venues, however, rivals the rampant eccentricity of Collectors’ World, located close to Downham Market, a West Norfolk town that’s escaped the gentrification which has transformed so much of the county. I first visited Collectors’ World during the summer of 2005 when my girlfriend used it as the climax to one of our regular birthday mystery tours. Nothing had prepared us for our visit to this bizarre brainchild of Eric St John Foti, an Anglo-Italian businessman whose implausible-sounding name wouldn’t have appeared out of place in Vile Bodies or another of Evelyn Waugh’s comic novels.

When I recently heard that Foti had sold Collectors’ World to a Birmingham-based businessman, I assumed the place was destined to be torn apart. With some trepidation, I arranged to interview its new owner. One warm, sunny August morning, accompanied by photographer Andi Sapey, I arrived at the museum, where we were due to meet him. From the outside it looks ordinary enough — just a large farmhouse, a huddle of barns and other agricultural buildings, fringed by paddocks and fields. While Andi and I waited for the owner, we were serenaded by the ominous clatter of building work. About ten minutes later, an expensive car crunched down the rutted gravel drive. A middle-aged man wearing a smart suit stepped out of the car, one hand clasping a mobile phone. In a soft voice, coloured by his West Midlands accent, he introduced himself as Keith Partridge, owner of Collectors’ World. The three of us were soon ensconced in the farmhouse which had once been Eric St John Foti’s home. I lost no time in asking Partridge, whose manner was friendly if slightly distracted, about his plans for the museum.

‘Apart from upgrading the café and creating facilities suitable for hosting civil weddings and other events,’ he replied, ‘we don’t intend to alter the indoor aspect of Collectors’ World. The outdoor side of the venue will, however, be changed quite radically — we’re currently creating a wildlife park called Animal Encounters.’

At that point we were joined by David Ivatt, the gentle, grey moustached manager of the park. His obvious passion for the job immediately communicated itself when he took Andi and I on a tour of what turned out to be an impressive project. Leaving the house we headed across a paddock, patrolled by inquisitive peacocks. Our destination was a livestock barn about a hundred yards away. As we sauntered down the building’s central aisle, he dispensed an avuncular tickle to many of the well cared for residents of each of the clean and spacious pens. The animals included pygmy goats, lop-eared rabbits and even ferrets from the local Ferret Rescue Centre. He paused just long enough to reach into an enclosure and scoop up one of the ferrets. It was sleek, sinuous and unexpectedly compliant, its moist snout nuzzling his wrist. ‘A lot of people have this image of ferrets as vicious creatures, but they’re not,’ he explained. ‘If you treat them properly from an early age, they won’t bite.’

Ivatt then took us around two huge aviaries and back to the museum’s main entrance, through a ramshackle chapel and across the courtyard that led to ‘the Magical Dickens World’. On my previous visit I’d been escorted there by a teenage box office cashier who, adopting the hushed gravitas of a surgeon talking a patient through a lifesaving operation, spouted a well-rehearsed spiel about what we were poised to see.

Andi and I followed Ivatt into the shadowy anteroom. Inspired by a psychedelic-era vision of how a time-machine might look, the room was draped with strings of pulsing lights that cast multicoloured patterns across our faces. We moved from there into a corridor with pastiche nineteenth-century shop fronts on either side. Amid the displays of dusty Victoriana, punctuated by the occasional anachronism, we soon came across a barber’s shop with Sweeney Todd’s name emblazoned across the front. Through the casement window, you could see a papier mâché sculpture of the demon barber, dressed in real clothes. He’d just slit the throat of a customer, fake blood oozing from the wound.

But the barber’s shop offered only the prelude to what must surely be the strangest experience available to the British museum-goer. Beyond the shopfronts, we made our way through a labyrinth of cramped, twilit rooms where cluttered groups of everything from teddy-bears to dolls were bathed in a warm, Santa’s Grotto-like glow. Emerging from the semi-darkness, we went up a short flight of stairs. My face by now fixed into a bemused grin, we encountered the first in a sequence of captivatingly odd displays. It was devoted to the late Dame Barbara Cartland, romantic novelist and emissary from the Land of Kitsch. For a second I thought we’d strayed onto the set of The Avengers or some other deliciously camp old TV series. Mannequins in pink nylon dresses stood guard over hundreds of related items, mainly Mills & Boon paperbacks with saccharine covers. To the accompaniment of Dame Barbara’s tremulous rendition of ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ sputtering through nearby speakers, we wandered round the exhibition. Portraits of the elderly writer meanwhile peered at us from the walls, her features so encrusted in powder and mascara that Clive James once likened her eyes to two crows that had crashed into the white cliffs of Dover.

The sublime dottiness of the Cartland room was almost matched by subsequent shrines to faded celebrities from the ’60s and ’70s. The DJ Mike Reid, the actress Lisa Godard, and the lead singer from Freddie and the Dreamers provided the improbable focal points for these sinister and obsessive tableaux. Transplant them into an art gallery and they’d be hailed as incisive and oddly touching commentaries on the ephemeral nature of fame.

‘Is there a local connection to Freddy and the Dreamers?’ Andi enquired.

‘I don’t think so,’ Ivatt responded. ‘Then again, I’m not the person to ask about anything that doesn’t have four legs.’

Alongside the museum’s idiosyncratic celebrations of pop culture, there’s a sprawling, slightly more conventional collection far too large to assimilate in a single viewing. Antique typewriters are juxtaposed with cookers, cameras, vacuum-cleaners, prams, toys, agricultural equipment and elegant Armstrong Siddeley cars, not to mention Nelson memorabilia, a 1940s military ambulance, an engine from Concorde, a telephone exchange and a gyroscope used in a James Bond movie. Nowhere have I seen a more fascinating demonstration of both the mania suffered by collectors and the glorious futility of trying to preserve the texture of our vanishing past. At least a couple of hours after we’d entered the warren of buildings that house this mouldering cornucopia, we staggered back into the daylight, regaled by Andi’s grinning complaints of ‘visual overload’.

Revisiting cherished places can be disappointing, present-day reality often being doomed not to measure up to your burnished memories. With the passage of time, my original visit had assumed the quality of a florid dream. I was glad—not to say a little relieved—that Collectors’ World proved every bit as strange, beguiling and eccentric as I’d remembered, the captivating and the ludicrous constantly rubbing shoulders.  

Click here for a slideshow of photos taken at the Collectors's World of Eric St. John Foti, which has since closed down. 

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