I was bitterly disappointed to see one of my favourite shops in Soho, the Vintage Magazine Company, close its doors due to greedy landlords pricing them out of the area. There is not one of my Thames & Hudson books that did not benefit vastly from the selling collection at the Vintage Magazine Company. I now have a superb collection of old editions of Picture Post, Vogue, Harpers & Queen, The Face and Vanity Fair courtesy of one of Soho’s finest and quirkiest shops.
Why isn’t there a listing of important, unique and historic shops in London that make the city what it is? London’s shops should be protected like buildings of architectural merit as living history. Unless they have the freehold on the properties, I fear for many of my favourites in Mayfair, Piccadilly and St James’s. Soho might already be lost.
I remember when Centre Stage in Covent Garden went. Centre Stage was the best shop in the world for show music and the boys who ran it were encyclopaedic in their knowledge of West End and Broadway shows. They were the first to know when Liza or Bernadette arrived in town and all of the divas, belters and crooners would make personal appearances to sign their CDs.
If many more of the unique, independent shops in London are forced out of town I will seriously consider what precisely I am doing paying to live here. One of the main reasons I love London is the rich seam of museums and galleries that are quite simply an education and an inspiration. This morning I went to the private view for Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery at the Victoria & Albert museum.
Here’s the thing with the V&A. The subject might not be one’s special interest but the curation is of such high quality that one inevitably learns an awful lot and comes to appreciate the artistry on show. I did happen to be interested in medieval embroidery if only because so little of it survived outside the Catholic church. I was not disappointed by Opus Anglicanum and monopolised the Medieval curator Dr Glyn Davies for a good half an hour.
What I love about the V&A is the depth of its own permanent collection and the goodwill towards the museum from international museums who know a loan to a V&A exhibition will display their prize possessions to perfection. About 50% of the masterpieces on show were from the V&A collection and another 50% from museums such as the Vatican.
I know the V&A’s Senior Curator of Textiles Clare Browne because we both judge the Sophie Hallette lace competition every summer. She was ‘doing telly’ so we only had time for brief congratulations. Dr Davies was really rather brilliant. The stars of the exhibition are copes made for ecclesiastical grandees that were displayed moulded to perspex mounts to show-off all of the embroidery.
I asked Dr Davies how much these big beasts weighed: apparently a tonne but they do drape naturally hence the embroideries on the centre back and front panels being more carefully described. I was told that an artist would draw the template directly on to linen (velvet is more problematic) and the embroiderer would literally do a colour by numbers.
Dr Davies showed me a cope that had lost swathes of its embroidery where you could see the artists’ sketches revealed beneath. I asked if, like illuminated manuscripts, the artists and/or the embroiderer ever made mischief in the themes depicted. He showed me a panel in which all three Wise Kings were snuggled up in a single bed together and another of the Three Kings on horseback with an angel above making clip-clop noises with two clackers like Monty Python.
One can become a little snow blind by endless copes, chasubles and dalmatics so bravo curators for including supporting material such as illuminated manuscripts, stained glass panels, rubbings, ivories, shields and two remarkable painted wood panels salvaged from King Henry III’s bed chamber in the Palace of Whitehall. I noticed that there were several loans from the British Museum suggesting a strong relationship between the two institutions.
The lion’s share of the exhibits were from the 14th century and a fellow embroiderer I chatted to said, this being the age before magnifying glasses and electric light, the craftsmanship was miraculous. One would surmise that many of the embroiders lost their eyesight stitching these masterpieces.
The final exhibit was the Fishmongers’ Pall (1512-1538) that proved English embroidery was still highly prized in the Tudor period. The fact that this pall survived and is still in the collection of the Fishmongers’ Guild says an awful lot about our appreciation for history as well as the wealth of the City guilds.
As long as there is a Victoria & Albert Museum in London I believe it is worthwhile paying mad money to live in the capital. What else is new on the Rialto? I am becoming resigned to living a Beau Brummell financial life. I do well enough but have never landed the big project that made finances comfortable. The trick, I find, is not to sweat about money. As La Farmer says, it IS only money. I hate it. I need it.