We live in a material world but my idea of materials may not be the same as yours.
As long as I can remember I have loved the smell of graphite and paper, the texture of fabric: silk, cotton and wool.One of my memories from childhood is of the walk home after a visit to the dentist in the Town Hall with my mum, where I’d been through a bit of an ordeal, We passed by a small shop that sold all kinds of pads and pencils and cut out books. Usually after a trip to the dentist if we had been good, as a treat my Mum would buy us something from the shop, on this occasion, as a special treat she bought me this cut out book of a farmyard. I spent the rest of the afternoon happily cutting out and assembling this one dimensional farm, I can even remember the particular green and brown of the hurdle fencing. Next to the complex of buildings that housed the Walthamstow Town Hall, Assembly rooms and the Polytechnic there was an art shop called Vandy’s. it had been there as long as I can remember and is still there 40 years later, whenever I walked in the door that familiar smell of graphite and paper wafted up to greet me. For a time I used to go to life drawing evening classes at the college and the go -to place for all the art materials was Vandy’s. The pleasure of choosing the right pencils and cartridge paper, in those days bought in elephants and double elephant sizes which is what they will forever remain in my mind, was a real pleasure that has stayed with me throughout the years. When I worked in the Painted Furniture studio in Chelsea, I was occasionally entrusted to buy the required art materials from Green and Stone in the KIng’s Road as I passed the door on my way to work. Clutching the list I would enter this Aladdin’s cave of treasure, at least twice the size of Vandy’s it would be stacked from floor to ceiling with, brushes of all shapes and sizes, paints: water,oils, gouache, pencils,crayons, pastels papers of varying colours and textures. I was allowed to handle these precious materials in order to pick my preferred items. I felt so privileged to be allowed to wander amongst the enormous range of artist’s materials and wonder at the variety of ways there existed for making marks on paper and canvas. In amongst the materials would be a whole host of other accoutrements pertaining to art, I could have spent hours just wandering , looking and handling had I been allowed.
This wonder and sheer pleasure has remained with me throughout my life and whenever I discover a new Aladdin’s cave to explore and gawp at I will be filled with happiness – little things. A wonderful shop that is the positive crême de la crême of all art shops is Cornelissen in London. A cornucopia of delight not only does it sell art materials but everything that the artist or craftsperson could want, from leather working to water gilding. So on top of the wonderful graphite and paper aromas, there is leather and glue mingled in mmm.. heaven. This shop is wreathed in history as it was established in 1855 and can be found near the British Museum. It has a vast array of artist’s pigments lining the shelves which dazzle the eye with their glorious vibrancy that make you want to take them all home and just gaze at before diving in and using them.It’s the sort of shop you could imagine Turner visiting to choose his canvases and colours, indeed he might well have done so. For me the fine art emporium is full of romance and possibility. Once I had a commission to decorate a piece of furniture in Chinese red laquer, this used to be achieved by using a pigment called Dragon’s Blood, now doesn’t that conjure up images of romance and adventure from the imagination? I managed to find a place that still supplied this exotic substance and the colour is wonderfully rich when layered up. It isn’t made from actual dragon’s blood (sigh) but is from a tree called the dragon tree found in Africa and Asia.
There is a cupboard in my kitchen where I store all my art materials and I still get a thrill when I take out the bottles and papers to start a project however small. It will never leave me and I hope it will remain a comfort and pleasure as long as I live.