Cult Shop: Bloomsbury’s connoisseurs of colour
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“I stumbled upon this shopfront on a summer’s morning in 1987,” recalls Nicholas Walt, owner of L Cornelissen & Son, a forest green-fronted art shop in London’s Bloomsbury. “It was around 5am. I found myself by the British Museum, I was feeling good about life, and I turned onto Great Russell Street. There was a tiny bit of gilding on [the shop’s] façade that was catching the sun. We’ve been together ever since.”
105 Great Russell Street, formerly the office of literary editor and author Diana Athill, is a suitably eccentric home for Cornelissen. The shop was founded in Covent Garden in 1855 by a Flemish family of lithographers. They ran the shop for more than a century, selling pigments, gums and resins to local printmakers and artists. Walt, a graduate of Harvard Business school, came on board as an investor in the late 1970s and eventually the shop fell to his sole ownership. He has kept the spirit of the founding family alive both through the staff – a revolving door of young artists – and his ethos: “Success is not about multimillions, it’s about surviving and doing interesting things for interesting people.”
Inside, colour charts abound and Victorian cabinets line the walls, housing a dazzling array of paints and pigments. To the right sit the earth colours, while to the left, punchier hues of lapis lazuli, cobalt violet and viridian green. Twenty-two drawers hold 550 shades of neatly arranged Sennelier soft pastels. “Our SKUs [stock-keeping units] rival a Tesco superstore,” smiles Walt.
Classic brands are all represented, but there is a constant quest to diversify the offering. The shop recently began working with a Japanese family specialising in shell gold (a finely powdered gold leaf), adding a new material for calligraphers and gilders. Paintbrushes accommodate every imagined technique, while among cult paint brands like Schminke, which artist Bridget Riley persuaded Walt to stock, Cornelissen also has its own line of oil colours: Roberson & Co.
Walt operates in the shop’s underbelly. The hallway to his office is lined with a plush red carpet, comically referred to by staff as the “executive corridor”. And while he devotes many of his evenings to the less colourful administrative duties required of an independent shopkeeper, when he appears on the shop floor, “I always have an interesting conversation,” he says. Highlights over the years include debates with Royal Academician painter Bernard Dunstan over a shade of Cerulean blue, and an encounter with a spike-haired young punk who worked at the hair and colouring department at a certain London waxwork tourist attraction. Her discovery of Cornelissen’s extensive oil range in the ’90s was a blockbuster boon for the business. She was “our biggest customer for over two decades”, says Walt. Others include production designers seeking out the shop’s line of historical inks, and The Times’s cartoonist Peter Brooks – a long-term client.
Asked to name his proudest achievements, Walt lists his staff, who possess enviable knowledge of each material and its application, and the fact that his in-store experience is still “beating the internet”. The wonder of his colour emporium is yet to fade.