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.
ee52a188cfe01274de38b2615ca37848
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.
b2ccabca51569451780652f50ba0b1ab.jpg
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’.
ep-pollock-interior2