SHIP MATES My father had a mathematical mind, my mother was more literary, so I guess I’ve inherited a bit of both. When we started coming along – I’m the third of four children – my mother became a housewife. But before that she was a nurse. At 18, she went to London and was a nurse during the blitz. Then, after the war, she was on hospital ships out this way, picking up prisoners of war in 1945 and 1946. My father was a ship’s bursar in the army, on a hospital ship, when he met my mother. She came out (to Hong Kong) twice and worked at the British Military Hospital, in Bowen Road, in 1946. So I grew up with photograph albums of Hong Kong.
LETTERS FROM THE TRENCHES A geographical interest and an interest in pictures came back to me later on in life, when I discovered that my grandfather, my mother’s father, was a surveyor and auctioneer. I found these letters he had written from the trenches in France and Belgium in the first world war. I never knew him, he died around the time I was born. And I was horrified to discover that he had been shot and, as a result, he was deployed behind lines, doing topographical drawings. If he hadn’t been shot early on, he probably wouldn’t have survived. It gives me a sense of mortality, of how fragile life is.
JOBBING AROUND My first job, at the age of 18, was at National Westminster Bank in Somerset (southwest England). I was the most junior clerk you could be. I did a year at what was then South Bank Polytechnic, studying chartered accountancy, then various jobs, working in a record shop, and then at Harrod’s, packing Christmas hampers. In 1976, I was offered a job in a new company called Our Price Records. I think it was their second shop. In those days you could get bootlegs and, at that time, I had longer hair. The job at Harrod’s … there’s a network of tunnels underneath Brompton Road, in Knightsbridge, that go to a warehouse on the other side and we had little trains that pulled trucks full of this food. It was incredible because it was left over from Victorian times.
SHRUNKEN HEADS It was my 21st birthday and I decided that I wanted to work in an auction house and go into theatre. So I got two jobs. During the day I worked at Christie’s, in London’s South Kensington, as floor sweeper and porter. I also got a job at night working in the Palace Theatre – which was showing Jesus Christ Superstar – where I was a stagehand.
Later I realised I was putting in too many hours and went with the auction house. We were in the basement of an old warehouse. There were treasures from all over the world on tables waiting to be catalogued and we had to distinguish what was good. The advantage of being there was that you met all these specialists.
The most extraordinary things I saw were possibly shrunken heads or a very fine Meissen porcelain figure. You had Tibetan thangkas … you were exposed to worldwide culture. I was constantly amazed at what I saw. When I joined Christie’s, furniture was the big thing. When you now look at the auction catalogue, furniture is way down the list. Certain collection areas have disappeared.
GETTING A GALLERY I left Christie’s in 1983 and travelled through Asia. I spent six months in India. I began my business here, from a flat in Causeway Bay, in 1986. I cover paintings, prints, photographs, maps and books. I also started with limited-edition prints and was an agent for Christie’s Contemporary Art and London Contemporary Art.
At the beginning of 1988, we had a very small gallery in On Hing Terrace and we would have an exhibition virtually every week. It was lots of fun. Then one day I met a Japanese lady and she had a gallery at 20 Hollywood Road, and I asked if she had any space in the building. In those days we were one of only 10 galleries; now there are more than 100, with many more coming on stream. We began to specialise more in the historic items by the early 2000s.
VILLAGE PEOPLE When I moved [to Hollywood Road], the area was like a village – different people who all knew each other. In my building there was a family living on the mezzanine floor. In the stairwell was a shrine. From the early days, in the late '80s early '90s, are memories of burning joss sticks, the family coming and going, the clattering of mahjong tiles and an atmosphere of great revelry downstairs. Hollywood Road was full of antique and art shops. I liked the old character of the area because it was a bit more like a Chinese village, but then you also had a very active police station next door and a very active prison, in the early days.
LOST AND FOUND One of my best discoveries stemmed from a private collector I know in Paris who would come and visit us regularly. She was a specialist on early Macau. This was 1999 and towards the end of [an exhibition Wattis staged in Macau], she pulled out two watercolours of Hong Kong. They were two outer parts of a panorama. It dated back to 1842. Lei Yue Mun was on one side and on the other you could see the harbour looking out towards Lantau. They were incredibly rare. I bought them and kept them in a drawer.
Eight years later, in 2007, there was a provincial auction in Kent, England. Don’t ask me how I found out about it. Blow me down, in these garish frames and gold mounts – which is early-20th-century style – were two watercolours that were the missing parts. The set is hanging at home and it is one of my most cherished possessions. The artist was John Collins, who was a surgeon on board a troop ship.
WORKING AS A TEAM One of the most important assets of our gallery is Vicky, my wife. I say that she does all the work and I just sit here and talk. We are a husband and wife team. We’ve been together since the late '80s and married since 1994. We could not have got to where we are as a gallery without her.
Wattis Fine Art is at 2/F, 20 Hollywood Road, Central.