Retail Love

Written by Cindy Lawford on . Posted in Blog, The Jermyn Street Experience

Last Friday I was in Jermyn Street earlier than usual because, rather than arriving in time   for the late afternoon tours of the street I have recently started giving, I had an appointment to take a tour with the archivist of Fortnum and Mason, Dr. Andrea Tanner.  I wound up learning more than I expected from this tour, not just about Fortnum and Mason, but about a commitment to retail that verges on an inspiring love.  

After covering the store’s three hundred years of history, Dr. Tanner proceeded to show me around every floor and demonstrate an astonishing knowledge of the latest products on offer along with histories of most departments.  Her passion for retail was inspiring largely because it was very much based in human stories, in individual designers who were creating Fortnum and Mason’s hats or particular groups of mothers who loved Fortnum and Mason’s tea-tasting parties.  When I awkwardly asked what she thought about the fact that some of the enticing foods were rather expensive, she did not disagree but pointed out that the jam near us was selling for under £4.  

In turn, I couldn’t disagree that there was something for everyone on most of those floors, even if that something might be simply soaking up the atmosphere.  That afternoon, I was left with a lot of longing, and not just for some rare China tea and vodka-flavoured marmalade to be tasted while wearing a black and white feathered hat tilted winningly.  I longed more than ever to know more about the exquisite products on sale in so many of Jermyn Street’s shops.  Indeed, I now think I feel the need to acquire this better appreciation almost as a duty to the street that gives our theatre a home. 


As Jermyn Street Theatre’s representative, I have been hoping for over a year to find many means to unite the history of the street’s inhabitants with the individual histories that surround its shops, restaurants, art galleries and beautiful church.  My tour is a start, and it, of course, has required that something or other be said about what type of goat cheese is on sale at Paxton and Whitfield or what fedoras at Bates.  Yet last Friday, as I found myself lingering in Floris in the midst of giving the tour, I felt a certain weight of responsibility added to the urge to pick up one of the beautifully wrapped perfumes and explain its ingredients, trace its origins to the European monarch who paid for its creation and name the bygone celebrities who loved it.  The spray of one scent calls forth all of these very human stories just as it elicits desire itself.   For the deep past tangibly lives in so many of the products we can smell, taste or hold in our hands on Jermyn Street. 

There are people, as we know, who never think of walking down the street because they imagine its products on sale to be all too pricey or, perhaps, just too male.  Yet those same people might happily admire the objets d’art in the British Museum or V&A.  Would that they understood the wealth on offer to hungering eyes and ears in a retail atmosphere that is welcoming, personal and, above all, kind.  These are stories of craftsmanship and its highest ideals, as one visit to the shoe workshop above Foster and Son makes plain.  The street’s salesmen and women are doing much more than selling, and their presence demonstrates a concern for values that can never be easily measured on a spreadsheet.  In some sense, they are all the best archivists, selling a living past in the form of products whose high currency needs no apologies for its price tag.  

St. James’s Hotel

Written by Cindy Lawford on . Posted in The Jermyn Street Experience

One of my ridiculously fond hopes is that, some day in the distant future, I will be able to walk down Jermyn Street and know the history of every address, going back to the seventeenth century.  Just to stand before a space, regardless of whether a particular old building is still there, and know that in that space so-and-so sang and danced and be able to tell others about the singer and dancer is perhaps to feel the inevitable poignancy of our connection to what may appear not to have left even a trace.

At the moment I think a couple of interesting facts about number 76, now a building of highly desirable flats, worth imparting.  Two hundred years ago it was the site of the St. James’s Hotel, one of the many hotels that used to line Jermyn Street and keep The Cavendish company.  In the early eighteenth century, the hotel’s barber was the young Juan Famenias Floris, who had just immigrated to England from Minorca.  Floris clearly loved Jermyn Street but seems to have felt that he did not want to spend the rest of his years cutting hair.   As a barber, he would have scented many of his customers’ hair and wigs, so the idea to make and sell his own perfumes probably occurred to him while he was working at the hotel.  Marriage brought him the dowry necessary to set up his own shop on Jermyn Street in 1730, from which he and his descendants sold brushes and combs as well as perfumes for many decades.  The oldest perfumer in the U.K and second oldest in the world, Floris remains in family hands to this day. 

One hundred years later, St. James’s Hotel was the scene of the poet Walter Scott’s last days in London, when his poor physical state drew the attention of innumerable poetry lovers to Jermyn Street.  “The mighty master of romance and song” lay semi-conscious for three weeks in a second-floor hotel bed, having been rushed back from the Mediterranean and wanting only to return to his beloved home Abbotsford in Scotland in order to die.  His children stayed by his side at the hotel as well as his some of his closest friends, but he was unable to speak to anyone.  Apparently the sound of the carriages on busy Jermyn Street disturbed him often.

To appreciate the significance of Scott’s demise, we should recall that when his early long poems, Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808) and Lady of the Lake (1810) were first published, they sold as no poetry ever before had sold anywhere.  For the first half of the nineteenth century, only Byron was his equal in poetic fame, and then Scott’s novels like Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819) doubled that publishing success.   So when, on 7 July 1832, Scott was finally able to leave St. James’s Hotel, a large crowd was waiting on Jermyn Street to catch a final glimpse, with many on the crowd’s edges on horseback.  One Victorian history reports that, as Scott’s body was lifted into his carriage, “There was said not to be a covered head nor a dry eye.”  Scott died at Abbotsford on 21 September 1832.

Perhaps blessed by Scott’s brief appearance, No. 76 went on to lead yet another fascinating and somewhat romantic existence as a Turkish bath.  But that story must wait for another day.


This Tour Guide Can’t Stop Researching

Written by Cindy Lawford on . Posted in Blog, The Jermyn Street Experience

I am really delighted and excited at present, and a little overwhelmed, because this odd street tour of mine is becoming ever so surely a grand passion.  I just feel it.  I’ve given three tours now of Jermyn Street, each one so different, and none of them allowing time to say all that I’ve learned, each one throwing up new questions that demand answering — if not this week then next, or next month, or when I can find time to get into an archive and surround myself with wrinkly paper.  That monk-like existence is the one I’ve known for so much of my life, and for many years that merely meant being home surrounded by books, aware that the kids would need to be collected from school soon.  Of late I have been so busy promoting the tour that I’ve missed my books and burying myself in some archive or other.  I missed people a lot in that old life, but the surprise to me now is that I actually miss doing the research and I must get back to it or go a little mad.

Fortunately, The Jermyn Street Experience has got me wondering about so many things that I need no further excuse to retreat to my study.  Top on the list is to learn more about Beau Brummell.  I stand by that gorgeous statue at the front of the Piccadilly Arcade and I start to rattle off the familiar and not so familiar facts, yet feel forever as if the Beau is escaping me, much as he escaped England in 1816 under a cloud of debt.  He died decades later of tertiary syphilis, leaving a nation to shake its head over his mistakes and miscalculations, but really everyone just missed him, much as they missed Byron, similar stars who appeared at times too bright for their native spheres.  To conjure up the magic of a man like Brummell in a few sentences can seem at times, well, an act of magic, and I long to be more familiar with the details of tying a Regency tie as much as as I want to know about his lovers and pursuit of love.

Then there is the interesting riddle of Aleister Crowley:  magician, mountaineer, philosopher, occultist.  Aleister CrowleyI only learned this week that the man lived on Jermyn Street above Paxton and Whitfield’s cheese shop, which during the war had become a grocer.  Here was one of the most controversial Brits of the twentieth century, called a wicket “Satanist” in the press, hearing the bells of St. James’s and enjoying the battling aromas of the various fruits and vegetables as he entered his lodgings daily.  Here he was, continuing to write and publish on magic while a stone’s throw from the shops and clubs frequented by some of the most powerful men in the land.  Perhaps he was still involved in some kind of espionage, as some of his biographers have speculated.

There’s also more to learn about the Duke of Marlborough and his Battle of Blenheim; about Thomas Gray and his poetry; about Walter Scott and his last years.  The story of Rosa Lewis is likewise not easy to sum up in a paragraph, yet somehow I find I leave people smiling when I say what I do know.  The mixture of wealth and poverty on the street is becoming a recurrent theme, and yet, to many upon entering and looking through the shop windows, Jermyn Street can seem solely the preserve of the better off.  

The individual shops tell a much different tale:  one of skilled and dedicated craftsmanship developed over more than a century, especially in the case of shops like Turnbull and Asser or Floris or Foster and Son.  These privately-owned businesses where long-term employees take pride in knowing their talents are appreciated has produced a quality in dress and adornment that the world has long respected.  Taking notes while I listen to their tales, I am only beginning to grasp the fine detail.  Yes, I am very happy to be here on Jermyn Street, eager to learn more from everyone and celebrate the stories of the shops and their workers as much as the great personalities who, in many cases, boarded above those shops.  

Sometimes I feel as if I could tell so much of the history of England’s last 350 years simply by telling the history of this one street — but that’s a crazy idea.  It can only be a slice of English life, yet it is a rich, colourful and sumptuous slice of that life, and it’s still going on, still beautiful and challenging and fluctuating.  Keeping the past present is what Jermyn Street is all about, and, I guess, it’s what The Jermyn Street Experience is about.  If you are free some Friday afternoon before 4 pm and find yourself near Piccadilly Circus, turn that corner into Jermyn Street and wait for me outside the theatre.  Or if that day and time won’t do, ask me for a private tour and I’ll see if I can arrange it.  I want to share this very special experience of a street with as many people as possible.


Jermyn Street History

Written by Cindy Lawford on . Posted in Blog, The Jermyn Street Experience

I have this idea — not original, not new, but still, an idea that feels so deeply my own that I can’t shake it and have to act on it.  Yet I’ve had the idea for over eight months and am only now getting around to clearing the decks and saying to myself, “It matters enough to you to do this and do little but this until it’s done.”  So, yeah, I guess there’s a been a real ambivalence, a sort of sheepishness about putting it and myself forward.  But here it goes. 

I have to tell the story of one street in London, Jermyn Street.  It’s not a long street and it’s not by London standards a very old street.  We’re talking late seventeenth century, 1680s roughly.  But when it came to life, it did so fairly quickly, again, by London standards.  I suddenly had a vision of Main Street in a Wilde West town, built over night with shoot-outs at noon the next day.  No, nothing like that for Jermyn Street.  The street let itself be filled by those seeking to serve the slightest needs, desires and whims of the wealthy, be they members of Court or the aristocracy who began to populate the grand houses of St James’s Square.  The finest wines, the best cigars, the sweetest perfumes could be found on Jermyn Street, and hotels sprung up for those who couldn’t get enough of the ambience of the place.  Sir Christopher Wren designed its beautiful church and, uniquely for Wren in London, had the land space to design it exactly as he wished without being cramped by neighbouring properties.  There were prostitutes round the corner on Bury Street, and the enviable doings of the Court and the gentlemen’s clubs nearby, and, as the centuries passed, all this activity resulted in Jermyn Street acquiring an interesting cachet.

Along with all the shirt shops and shoe shops and hatters, the street drew to it Turkish baths and entertainers, hotels, cigar shops, perfumeries, art dealers, restaurants, and, most important of all for me but so often forgotten by Jermyn Street’s frequenters — a theatre.  As part of my work for Jermyn Street Theatre, I am digging up and integrating all this history into a series of talks on the street that I am hoping to give to anyone willing to listen in the near future.  A lot of famous people have had sex on this street (including many of the bibulous guests of Rosa Lewis’s Cavendish Hotel)– or tried to (like Rock Hudson, before he was thrown own of the Savoy Baths in 1952); slept on this street (like Isaac Newton and Walter Scott); and many have died on the street (including the 1930s crooner Al Bowlly from a 1941 German bomb).  And somehow, when the street becomes the focus of the tale, their lives serve as a kind of tribute to the evolving, open personality of the place.

Its great church, St. James’s, allows homeless people to sleep in its pews.  It is filled with fashionable mensware shops spouting the finest quality of clothing and accoutrements imaginable.  It can all feel very expensive and distant for those of us walking down the street with little or no money to spend.  Basically, you walk to admire but don’t feel you can walk in, really, or are a little reluctant to.  Working on this history, “working the street”, as it were, is helping me overcome that reluctance.  I walk into shops, have these odd little chats promoting our odd little theatre, and walk out, having enjoyed being for a few moments surrounded by shirts and ties of every design and colour arranged in the most satisfying manner possible.  Everyone is very kind.  And somehow the humanity and wide tolerance of the place that comes from its history comes through in these not-too-awkward moments.

To hear the whole story of the street, you’ll have to find a way to come to one of my talks, scheduled to begin in April 2014 on Friday afternoons (watch this space).  But suffice it to say for now that it all began with one Henry Jermyn, who may well have been the father of Charles II, and who was without doubt much beloved by Henrietta Maria.  Jermyn was the Queen’s closest companion, her stalwart during the Civil War and the Commonwealth, and he was rewarded well, with a huge grant of land from which he had carved out St. James’s Square and its surrounding streets.  Scandal had surrounded his name for years, but in the end he was fabulously wealthy and able to get Christopher Wren to build his grand church while he lived close by in suitably grand style.  Needless to say, the church became the most fashionable one in London with a congregation so well dressed that, in the eighteenth century, many attended services solely to see and be seen.  There’s nothing puritanical about this street, nothing dry or condemning, and, in knowing that, the fact that there’s a lot of beautiful stuff on sale that most of us cannot afford doesn’t seem to matter quite so much.  At least we can go in the shops, look at those costly goods, touch, taste, smell and admire many of them, delight in the atmosphere much as we might in a public art gallery — except that on Jermyn Street, there is this zing of exclusivity.  And we can feel, I guess, a little privileged, even a little blessed, for having simply walked in, out and around.



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