The Boy Who Made a Map in his Head

Davenports-ext (1).jpg
Davenport’s Magic Shop, back in the days when it was in Gt Russell Street.
When I was a kid attending a theatre school in London that didn’t board, I lived with my aunt and her husband in Dulwich Village. Amy and J.L. were busy people who travelled a lot. The upshot was that on many weekends I was left to my own devices, usually alone in the house. But with so much to explore on the doorstep, I never felt at a loss with what to do with my time. I’d catch a train to central London. Once there I walked everywhere, criss-crossing the city to visit my favourite museums and places of historic interest.
In the process I discovered shops that were survivors of another age. Benjamin Pollock’s in Scala Street, with its museum of toy theatres housed up a rickety stairs that for me was like climbing to heaven, and Cornellisen the ‘artists’ colourmen’ in Gt Russell Street, where the darkly varnished interior was lined in glass jars displaying powdered pigments as rainbow hued as a tropical sea. Davenport’s in Gt Russell Street was conveniently situated opposite the British Museum, and I would save my magic-trick purchasing for a post-museum treat. Hours spent blissfully drawing in the Egyptian galleries followed by an hour at Davenport’s, was for me, Saturday afternoon perfection.
The Theatre Zoo by John Griffiths for Motif magazine, September 1959
The Theatre Zoo was another of my haunts, where masks crowded the shelves and sticks of hard, waxy Leichner greasepaint, a stage make-up even then almost obsolete in the West End theatres all around, were displayed under the glass-topped counters. (I had a well-stocked Leichner make-up box and was much in demand for transforming friends for a lark, using mortician’s wax, crepe hair and Leichner sticks to create the monsters of old Universal Pictures horror films!) I collected a hit list of eccentric shops in the maze of narrow streets behind Covent Garden, the ones with interiors more like museums. I made a circuit, marked on the A to Z of ‘special places’ stored in my head, that on weekends I would delight in navigating, taking in my favourites. Long before I became a painter I was purchasing French varnishes, mahl-sticks and gilding-papers that I had no use for beyond the fact that I loved the shops I found them in. I relished the sense of ancient crafts, the language of forgotten skills, the scents of resins and rabbit-skin glue and scenic-fireproofing, the graphic loveliness of the packaging of vintage stock. I wandered, a boy in a trance in love with I knew not what.
I took a weekend job in Berman & Nathan’s theatrical outfitters. I’d sit cross-legged on a counter sewing buttons on Pearly King and Queen costumes, or re-stitching worn eyelets that held the laces of corsets worn by ‘doxies’ in musicals. (Ever noticed how many corseted loose women appear in operas, ballets and musicals? Those corsets take a lot of maintenance, and for about a year, I was the boy who spent his Saturdays repairing most of them!) With my pay I’d purchase cheap tickets in the ‘gods’ to see some of the productions I’d earlier delivered costumes to after repairs at the B & N workshops.
There was a shop that sold pens of all types, from mapping-pens to fat and satisfying-to-hold fountain pens. I wish I could remember its name. Concerned with the shop’s slowly diminishing stock of products, I took to saving my pocket money to make purchases. No weekend was complete without carrying off a paper bag of some treasure that had caught my eye because of the old-fashioned graphics on its battered packaging. I was addicted to the old stock of French perfumed inks lining one shelf, produced by the venerable Paris manufacturer, J Herbin. The labels on the the bottles were as tantalising as those on fireworks (I recall a stunner called ‘Lotus Bleu’), and I took to writing my letters home in inks that gave up the unmistakeable scent of flowers. One had the powdery scent of violet cachous, and I can’t imagine what my parents must have thought when envelopes started arriving addressed in the scratchy/spidery scented penmanship of mapping nibs dipped in perfume! My letters must have smelled like the insides of old ladies handbags!
This was the London of the ‘Swinging Sixties’. But I was a tad young for all that, and my heart lay not so much in the trendy emporiums of Carnaby Street, as in the wonderful survivals of a past fast vanishing, though I didn’t know that at the time.
A few weeks ago I had a meeting in London that required an overnight stay with my sister-in-law in Blackheath, and I reserved the following day for a visit to the Pollock’s Museum, still in a corner property on Scala Street. Alas, although I’d checked the business hours, when I arrived mid morning the door marked with an ‘open’ sign was locked, and remained so for the hour I hung around hoping that someone would turn up. After that disappointment I traced the old map, still in my head, of the shops I’d once loved. None of them save Cornellisen and Pollock’s have survived, or at least not in the places they had once been. (I know that Davenport’s Magic Shop is still in the hands of the family, though re-located somewhere close to Trafalgar Square.) The walk felt like I was straddling two realities, the bright and vibrant one in my head, and the lacklustre reality of what the West End and Bloomsbury have become. There’s no room left for the eccentricities and unlikely post-war survivals that I had witnessed the tail-end of. The economics have changed in ways that the old communities could never have envisaged. The dusty shops with ancient stock and courteous proprietors are now only in my memories. I guess that’s where everything ends, eventually, in the realm of ‘once upon a time’.

29 thoughts on “The Boy Who Made a Map in his Head

  1. Clive, I have been fascinated by your conversation with Gilbert and it made me dig back into my own dim, distant past!! I studied fashion and went on a trip to London in 1986 to have an interview at the college, which I later attended. One of the places I visited, whilst there, was L Cornelissen & Son. It wasn’t until Gilbert posted at your blog that I was prompted to recall that the shop was located on the edge of Covent Garden, at that point, on Great Queen Street. I do remember Cornellisen’s moving, whilst I was at college, so I am pleased to find that Gilbert’s recent research fits the timeframe of my own memories!!

    Here’s a picture of the old premises on Great Queen Street, which I found at a blog called A London Inheritance. The photo was taken in the 1980s. Apparently, both the interior and exterior were kept as close to the original, as possible, with the move:

    Derek Jarman wrote of his memories of the business from the 1960s: ‘A trip to Cornelissen in Great Queen Street, a shop that had been there for 200 years, with jars of pigment glinting like jewels in the semi-dark, where I bought the colours to make my own paint.’

    • I couldn’t resist adding a postscript to the above post, which I thought the Artlog readers might enjoy. The Monmouth Street shop, which was once occupied by Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop, is now home to Tatty Devine, which is among the brave band of independent retailers still operating in Covent Garden. Last autumn, Tatty Devine’s ‘Playing the Part’ jewellery collection paid homage to the previous occupant of their shop. Here is a link to a fascinating post on the collection at the Tatty Devine blog, which includes an interview with Louise Heard of Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop on the history of the shop in Covent Garden:

      I would highly recommend visiting the link at the end of the blog post, where a charming short film can be found of Tatty Devine’s ‘Marionette Doll’ necklace dancing in front of a Pollock’s Toy Theatre. 🙂

      • Sarah, it’s been a bit of a headlong hurdle down memory lane for me, as I’ve tried to recall names and places. Recollections from my childhood and then adolescence have become rather muddled together. Gilbert set me right with Cornelissen’s relocation, and your photographic evidence of how carefully the shop was reconstructed in Gt. Russell St accounts why anyone might get confused.

        There were so many wonderful little shops in Bloomsbury. I recall an antiquarian dealer where I purchased a tiny Egyptian statue and some loose beads that I turned into a gift of a necklace for my mum. Such recollections!

        • Clive, in the final bit of my detective work, I did find that Davenport’s Magic Shop was located on Great Russell Street in the 1960s, as you write in your blog post. The shop moved there from New Oxford Street in 1961. Davenport’s is still going strong and is run by the fourth generation of the family, who first opened the shop in London’s East End in 1898. The shop is now located in one of the underground arcades at Charing Cross Station and still sounds a fascinating place to visit, if you can find it!!

  2. Ah what a lovely post, I can just imagine what it was like 🙂 I adore Cornellisen, I’ve not visited for a few years now but I used to go and meet up with some friends in London and we’d almost always make a trip there.

  3. All of what you write rings true but I can’t help feeling that some of the details are confused. Depends on dates perhaps. Bloomsbury was also my stamping ground more than 50 years ago and yes, what a wonderful wealth of gifts we had, all unknowing they would disappear. But Pollocks was (c 1964) in Monmouth Street (off Seven Dials) and only moved to Scala Street (long after the destruction of the Scala Theatre) in, I think, the 70s; Davenports Magic Shop was in Southhampton Row (moving there from Great Russell Street); and Cornellison’s only moved to Great Russell Street about 20 years ago. And shame on you, you worked for Bermans (presumably AKA Nathan & Berman’s), not Burmans. Clearly you were too concentrated on the corsets and buttonholes to check the spelling.
    Interestingly Pollocks was — couple of years ago — under threat of closure, and when I went in to speak to the man who runs the place his somewhat erractic behaviour made me wonder if it didn’t want someone a bit more able to run the place. Pollocks got a bit of money from somewhere/someone which enabled it to keep going, but what you describe about the ‘open’ sign on a closed door, and no one turning up, doesn’t (sadly) surprise me. I wonder if that very unreliability is part of what made it charming when one looks at what it was 50 years ago — and now seems annoying and tedious. Or perhaps annoying and tedious just apply to grumpy old men?.

    • Gilbert, my dates and locations may well be off. Kindly be forgiving. I’m not an historian.

      I first visited the Pollock’s shop/museum when I was a young teenager in about 1964. I thought that must have been in Scala Street, but it may well have been in Seven Dials. I moved around a lot in my later teens when I was touring as a young actor, and the memories from then sometimes get conflated with my earlier ones when was at school (Italia Conti) in Clapham North.

      I recall Davenport’s only when it was opposite the British Museum, and as I was a regular visitor to the BM when I was at school, that would place my memories of the area in the mid sixties onward. Cornellisen’s flummoxes me. Where was it before it was set up in Gt Russell Street?

      You’re correct about Nathan & Berman’s. My error. (I’ve corrected it in the post. Monty Berman – who interviewed me for the post on the recommendation of the actor/novelist/playwright Bill Meilen, a friend of my parents – will be turning somersaults, somewhere.)

      I don’t want to put anyone off visiting the Pollock’s Museum. It’s far too significant an establishment to get grumpy about. But I just suggest phoning before hand, to be sure that it really is open for business. Clearly the opening times as stated can be erratic as I’ve heard I’m not the only one who has made a long trek only to be disappointed. My attachment to ‘penny plain, tuppence coloured’ goes back a long way, because when I was a kid Bill Meilen gave me a stack of Pollock’s scene and character sheets that I duly watercoloured, cut out and fitted to a stage of my own making. (I didn’t have a Pollock’s stage until I was an adult!) These days my connection is with Benjamin Pollock’s Toyshop in Covent Garden, and at the end of this month a new Hansel & Gretel toy theatre that I was commissioned to design is being launched there. At sixty-five I may be getting my dates wrong, but I’m still designing toy theatres with gusto.

      • Clive — I get flummoxed too, but being an old git (slightly older than you) I find the past becomes more accurate while it’s the present that is a bit vague; although I console myself with thinking it just isn’t as interesting — too much glass and steel, not as much individuality. I also have the advantage of living in Bloomsbury, which perhaps gives me an unfair advantage.

        • Gilbert, you definitely have the advantage there. How wonderful to live in Bloomsbury. As a very young actor I had a tiny though intense taste of the area when I lived at the Bonnington Hotel for a while, as it was convenient for rehearsals of a TV series I was appearing in. It was strange and slightly isolating experience for a teenager, though an adventure, too. I ate in Italian cafés and Jewish delis – I couldn’t afford the Bonnington restaurant – and my beloved British Museum was just about on the doorstep.

          But you have an advantage, too, insomuch that I don’t know who I’m talking to here. Please tell me what your background is. Do I get a whiff of theatre?

          • Dear Clive

            Firstly, I’ve just popped into Cornellisen’s because I began to doubt my own memories and, after asking to speak to the oldest person in the shop (didn’t make me popular) I spoke to a lovely chap, my age (-ish), who said that the shop had opened in Great Russell Street in 1987. Prior to that they had been in Great Queen Street. I sort-of remember the Gt Queen Street shop, but what is interesting (to me, anyway) is that when they moved thy managed to recreate, without doing something obviously ersatz, the effect and the feel of the old shop. It ain’t precious, it ain’t Disney. So your blog set me off on a little voyage of discovery and I had a good conversation with my neighbour.

            And I am not pedantic or obsessive at all. Not a jot of it.

            I do fear you’ve outed ‘old actor’ — that obvious, eh? I envy you the time in the Bonnington — rather a different operation these days. There was a tailor who had a window in one of the smaller shops at the Bonnington, name of Phil Shear, bald, rotund, fag in the corner of his mouth and fag ash everywhere; who made me my first proper suit in 1964 (navy pin stripe) and then in 1967 made a wonderful bottle green cord suit which was pretty splendid. And which I still own, although the trousers and my waist are not on intimate terms any longer.

            Good to know that you like the BM — I’m a sort-of employee — I volunteer there once a fortnight at one of their ‘Hand’s On’ desks so I have an entirely different relationship with the place than ever I did when I was just a visitor. Along with my neighbours I’ve had a long-running correspondence (sic) with the Director, or the Director-as-was, Neil McGregor, about the portacabins which clutter up the east side of the building. We don’t seem to be winning, but we enjoy winding up the people who run the place. (If you follow these things, the new chap is quite a nice fellow but probably not going to be much of a success as per McGregor…unless he’s got some surprises up his sleeve.)

            I much enjoy your blogs, and as a result of following them have recently been tempted to think about digging out the two remaining puppets my mother made for me c 1950 or 51. Very much products of domesticity (hers) and imagination (hers and mine). I might just post a photo one day.

            Best wishes

            • Gilbert, what a marvellously comprehensive reply. Thank you. It is good to have one’s curiosity satisfied.

              Interesting, that story of Cornellisen’s. I must originally have known it in Great Queen Street, and then later in Gt Russell Street. Perhaps at the time I had known of the re-location, though it’s more likely that when I stumbled on it in its new premises after an interval of some years, I just thought ‘Oh, that’s not where I thought it was. I must have misremembered.’ (Bolstered by the meticulous interior recreation.)

              I once telephone-ordered pigments at at Cornellisen’s and some time later merrily trotted off to collect at Green & Stone in the King’s Rd, only to be met with bewilderment at the counter. And that was when I was still young!

              Ahhh, I caught you, my friend. I had the feeling my ‘Burman’s’ error was something more likely to have been spotted by a thespian! But I’m very glad that I asked. Your recollections of the tailor in the Bonnington are lovely. I stayed there a couple of years ago, on a trip down memory Lane, and it is not the place I remember. The character has gone out of it. I suppose it’s inevitable. Whatever aesthetic had shaped the place we once knew, has long since given way to a corporate mindset.

              I’d love to see the puppets made by your mother. If you balk at posting on the Artlog (or have difficulty loading a photograph), do please contact me by e-mail. I can be reached by clicking HERE. I’ll reply from my private e-mail, which I don’t want to post online. I have a passion for puppets and a rather too big collection. Sigh! A hopeless case.

              Gilbert, I see that that you won’t be able to leave another comment in answer to this. (I’ve been able to reply only because I have access to the ‘admin’ page.) If you do want to make another comment on this post, you’ll have to do it as a new one.

  4. Such a lovely post, so vividly written, so reminiscent of the old London that I knew in the sixties. (Although I did buy Victorian clothes in those second hand clothes shops in Carnaby Street. I had to look cool for Art School after all!) Then a few years later when working in theatre, buying scenic paints from Brodie and Middleton’s in Long Acre. Ah, those really were the days. Do you think we might have passed one another in the street, or even met in Berman’s. (Most probably yes, without even knowing!) And I love to think of you as the brave little tailor sitting cross-legged on the counter, wearing a sash across which you’d embroidered with “seven at one blow!”. I’ve been thinking of you lots lately, really missing you xxxL

    • As I miss you, my sweet. I’m with you on betting that we met, or at the very least that our eyes alighted on each other at Brodie & Middleton’s, or Cornellisen’s or Borovick’s or Angel’s or one of those marvellous and eccentric Bloomsbury shops we clearly both loved. Perhaps even when I was sitting cross-legged on the counter at Berman’s, reinforcing corset eyelets or trying to beat my own record for the number of pearly buttons I could stitch into place in any hour!

      I love the story of The Brave Little Tailor and his ‘seven at one blow!’

      Sending love from here to there. xxx

  5. But…NO. In the realms of ‘Once Upon A Time’ they achieve immortality, for they will ALWAYS be there to visit and remember as you and I stroll down them and go to Oodles to eat (when we could afford it), laugh and perhaps shed a slightly nostalgic tear. I can recall my uncreaky knees, not tripping over my maxi, delighting in crazy badges. (My favourite will for ever be, ‘It’s hard work being spontaneous!’)

    Dear friend I’m there right now. Can’t you see me waving?
    Love for ever and always
    B xxx

  6. a lovely post Clive, it really feels like we are walking alongside you. That theatre zoo footage is great too! (the way he just pulls the neanderthal mask out of the plaster mould with suspicious ease and the smoking monkey made me laugh)

  7. Do you know a slew of planets are in retrograde right now? It means its influences are to review, remember, retrace, reconsider, reflect (- to go back in many many ways).

    Clive you’re in step with the cosmos, if that helps at all.

    Through your essay I can follow you along on your trip, and see it too. Your excursions made you who you are, implanting all those atmospheres in you to pop out in your creative pieces today.

    I’m in my own retrograde atmosphere these days and its no picnic.

    It could be you’ve just sourced your next story in your remembrance, and then it’ll become a Hollywood movie, win an academy award for best screen writing and you’ll be accepting the gold statue and bowing!

    I like happy endings!

    • I’m sorry that your retrograde atmosphere is causing you sadness. I have that too. But what I share here is mostly the recollection of things that have a bitter sweet quality. Too much sad reflection can be crippling. Striking a balance is crucial. It’s important to move forward, and I try to do that while honouring the past that made me.

      I’d happily watch the film you describe if ever it got made. (I think!) But I can’t see it happening. No-one is going to make a film about the life experiences of an obscure Welsh artist who writes about stuff on a blog. But I’m pleased it struck a chord for those of you who still come here. Not for the first time I’ve been wondering about how long I’m going to continue the Artlog. I worry about it all vanishing into the ether because I have no back-up. I’ve been writing the blog since late 2008 early 2009. That’s a lot of recollection to lose if anything went wrong.

  8. The writer G K Chesterton, a fellow toy theatre lover, provides the perfect response to this beautifully evocative piece of writing: ‘What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world.’

    Like Francis, I think it would be amazing to see your childhood adventures captured on film. The magic and wonder you describe in this post is buried deep in our collective memory, hence the excitement currently being exhibited by grown men and women about your forthcoming toy theatre!! 🙂

    I thought you might like to see this short film where Professor Ronald Hutton visits the Pollock’s Toy Museum on Scala Street, which is the place that was the repository of so many of your childhood dreams.

    • Ahhh, the adventures of a shy boy from Wales exploring Fitzrovia in the nineteen sixties. I don’t think it will be a film any time soon. Too tame by far. Whatever was happening of note, was happening where I wasn’t. I was just a quiet observer. Still am, really.

      The toy theatre schedule has been slightly shifted to ‘within the month’. Easter defeated the printing schedules. Apologies to all those anticipating it!

  9. Clive, my friend (though we’ve never met), once again you’ve delivered me from a dreary morning with your talent and generosity. Like so many of your readers, I’m sure, I share your love of discovery in cities just as you describe so beautifully. Yes–poetry, as Francis writes above. Thank you for sharing your Saturdays with me and for possessing a spirit that sustains people across time and space. You’re a special one. My day will be much better now I’ve read your post. I’ll teach much more effectively today, thanks to you, so you’ve also touched the lives of my students.

    • Jack, I’m so touched to read this. Thank you. Blogging is a curious activity, though these days I think that it’s largely given way to Instagram, where the images and not the words do the talking. But I enjoy exploring with words, and the occasional foray into the past is interesting to undertake. It’s good to know that I sometimes hit the mark, as this post clearly did for you. That really does make it feel worth while.

  10. Oh, such a rapture-inducing reminiscence!

    What an extraordinary childhood! What an extraordinary child! Clive, your words and the images they conjure are poetry to this rather nostalgic old boy.

    Your account in my mind is seen in the shadows and fustiness of black and white film footage, (notwithstanding the colours you evoke, and that it all occurred in the technicolor age) perhaps with a harmonica soundtrack, as you make your progress through your mental A-Z map.

    • Francis, I was a clearly an old-fashioned boy, at that young age already locked into strong feelings for the dusty, the crooked, the obscure and eccentric. Moreover, it’s remained. (Though my nostalgia is emphatically not of the Brexit variety. I am a European to my core, and call myself a European first and foremost, as I know you do.) If I have a nostalgia, it’s for all the trappings of craftsmanship and variety, longevity and painstaking manufacture. My tastes were formed early and I’m not exactly sure how. The artist’s eye, perhaps, alert from my earliest memories. I’m not one for sleek modernism. I prefer the old enamel colander to the stainless steel replacement. I air my rugs with a carpet-beater. I still use a fountain pen. I am, I suppose, a hopeless case!

      And once, long, long ago, when I was a puppeteer with the Caricature Theatre, touring and performing all over the UK, I appeared on a bill with the great Larry Adler. If you don’t know the name, you’ll enjoy looking him up. I sat in the dressing-room we all shared, a boy gazing at an old man with rouged cheeks and his hair in rollers, with something akin to worship! I stood in the wings during his performance with tears rolling down my cheeks and my scalp tingling.

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