Real Estate / Houses

Houston Art Couple Turns Their Matching Montrose Townhouses into Treasure Troves

BY Rebecca Sherman // 07.22.15
photography Casey Dunn & Jenny Antill Clifton

“I think nothing of letting objects flow past me, but David wants to reach out and keep,” says Russell Prince of his partner in business and life, David Lackey. Both are artists and antiquarians, but the two couldn’t be more divergent in how they relate to the stuff of their lives — collections, furniture, art, even trash.

Prince is a self-avowed minimalist who arrived at Lackey’s Montrose-area townhouse in 2000 “with practically nothing, just my clothes and my art,” he says. “All through my adult life, I’ve not liked having a lot of possessions. I moved around every year or two, and I’d only move with what I could fit into my car.” Lackey, proprietor of the highly regarded David Lackey Antiques & Art at Antiques of River Oaks (where Prince has worked since 1998), is a longtime appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He likes a lot of things around.

At home, it’s all about his many diverse collections — and there are hundreds. “Right now, I’m more interested in aesthetic collections, such as objects that depict hands or feet,” he says. In fact, you can see something with a hands or feet motif in almost every room in the house. “I’m also very attracted to round objects, spheres, globes, and I spread them out all over. I started collecting years ago certain shapes of vases that are globular at the bottom, with skinny necks. It’s not about how old it is; it’s about the glaze, the color, the shape. That’s more interesting to me at this point.”

So, how does a man who “needs a sense of space,” as Prince describes himself, coexist with a confirmed collector such as Lackey? He bides his time. “You don’t just move into someone’s house and start making big changes,” Prince says. “Within the first couple of years, David let me do the loft, which is now my bedroom. Then, I changed the wall colors in the house. Five years in, I started editing quite a bit. David likes really fine English furniture, but that’s never been my cup of tea.”

The two have a joke between them to signal when something’s too important to give up. “David will say, ‘That’s going to the rest home with me,’” says Prince, who cops to only one item that he would take with him: a Nakashima coffee table purchased at a Sotheby’s auction of Andy Warhol’s estate. “David got it before anybody appreciated Nakashima,” he says. “We put our feet up on it. It’s worn and scratched, probably put there by Warhol and his entourage. It might even still have blow on it, and who knows what else …”

The townhouse next door, which Lackey purchased in 1999 and used as offices for his antiques business, now serves as overflow for his obsessions. Each man also has a separate studio space for making art. Among the hundreds of oddities in a room they call the cabinet of curiosities (which Lackey sometimes refers to as “the chamber of horrors”) are a stuffed ferret, fossils, an ostrich egg, horns, a study drawing of skulls, artifacts from primitive African cultures, old porcelains and paintings.

“Cabinets of curiosities,” Lackey notes, “were the precursors to museums, with origins going back to the Renaissance,” when wealthy travelers would fill cabinets or entire rooms with interesting objects brought back from romps around the world. The idea wasn’t to create a true collection, per se, but to cultivate a unique and divergent assortment of things. “Every surface in this room is covered with objects that are carefully displayed and grouped relating to texture, mood or feel,” he says. “I have things that are 2,000 years old and things that are only a year or two old. They can be man-made, from nature or whatever.”

In the living room, a painting by Houston artist Tod Bailey hangs above one of Lackey’s collages. Above the mantel, a painting by Houston artist Otis Huband. A 19th-century American tavern table rests between two antique channel-back chairs. At upper right is a 1950s painting by Texas artist Herbert Mears.
In the living room, a painting by Houston artist Tod Bailey hangs above one of Lackey’s collages. Above the mantel, a painting by Houston artist Otis Huband. A 19th-century American tavern table rests between two antique channel-back chairs. At upper right is a 1950s painting by Texas artist Herbert Mears.

Prince and Lackey may have their decorating differences, but they agree on this: Old things tell great stories.

“On the Roadshow , what viewers are most interested in is not the price; it’s the stories behind the object,” Lackey says. “When I decide to bring things home for my own collection, the value is not a high priority at all. I ask, ‘Is the story interesting? Does it fit into our lives and interiors?’”

For Prince, an attraction for old and faded objects started with visits to his great-grandmother’s dilapidated Victorian house in Italy, Texas. “I was fascinated by the stained wallpaper, gray floorboards, the old trinkets she had,” he remembers. “She was quite old at the time, and I remember her siting in a room rocking in a chair. It was eerie and wonderful at the same time; there were no carpets on the floors, so everything echoed. There was this clock on the wall, and all you’d hear is tick tock, tick tock.”

When Prince was old enough to drive, he’d head to junk shops and antiques stores in Fort Worth, where his family lived. “I’d come across sheet music, old letters, books with old cloth covers worn by hand and use. I was fascinated by what people leave behind.” For the past 20 years, Prince has incorporated paper ephemera — handwritten letters, typewritten invoices — along with old photographs into his collages. “In all my work, time is a very important element. The cycle of life, the way material possessions wither like we do.” It’s the graphic aspect of these things that intrigues him. “When I look at these materials,” he says, “they become color texture and pattern and line” rather than words or numbers on a page. “It becomes a basic art-making experience. A lot of people ask, ‘What does this word mean?’ To me, it’s just pattern; it’s not a word. It’s the energy the composition needed.”

In November 2014, his works were shown at The Jung Center in Houston and included collages and graphic displays of old books. Lackey, who grew up in small towns throughout West Texas and New Mexico, became interested in antiques and art through the stories behind them. “I loved history and was a big reader. It was that connection I had with antiques,” he says. At age 12, he started buying old toys and models at garage and estate sales, then sold them for a 5- or 10-cent profit later at his own garage sales. By the time he was a senior at Baylor University, he was an expert dealer. “I’d run around and buy things, then drive across town and sell them to another dealer. My senior year, my father gave me two semesters of money to manage. By mid-year, I was totally out. I made a quick $500, hustling antiques.”

In 1985, he liquidated a collection of antiques he’d been selling at a booth in an antiques mall in Houston to pay for two years’ study with Christie’s in London, where he specialized in pottery and porcelains. “It changed my whole life,” he says. Back home in the States, PBS came calling. “They were rustling up appraisers for the U.S. show. I was already familiar with it, because it had been airing in England for 10 years,” he says. Nineteen years and dozens of cities later, he continues to travel and appraise with the Emmy Award-winning show.

Lackey’s room of curiosities: The desk and room are encrusted with an assortment of old objects.
Lackey’s room of curiosities: The desk and room are alive with an assortment of old objects.

In 2007, inspired by Prince’s artwork, Lackey tried his own hand at it and was quickly picked up by Devin Borden Gallery. He started with the things that interested him most — eyes, hands and feet — cutting them from antique photographs and book illustrations and framing them. Inspired in part by the tiny hand-painted eyes from Georgian-era “lovers’ eyes” lockets, Lackey’s framed eyes are mesmerizing. “When you put half or a quarter of a face in a frame, it looks completely different. You can read emotions that way, from anger to despair to joy.” Of late, he’s been incorporating other elements, such as butterflies and birds, “to create a more mysterious story,” he says. In one piece, a man’s face has ears made from butterfly wings from an antique book illustration.

The couple often critique the other’s work and are brutal but civil about it, says Lackey. Living together for so many years, differences aside, they’ve rubbed off on each other. “I never thought about doing art until I met Russell,” says Lackey, who borrowed the idea of incorporating frames into his artwork from Prince. “Sometimes David gives me scraps and bits from something he’s working on, and I’ll work them into mine,” adds Prince. As for all the furniture and collections, Lackey’s mellowing. “I’m much better than I used to be,” he says. “I’ll enjoy something I’ve brought home for a while, then I’ll get rid of it. I learned that from Russell. If the day ever comes, I’m much better prepared to move to the rest home.”

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