Monday, August 06, 2007

Waxing Nostalgic

To celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding in October 1707, the English institution Fortnum & Mason is undergoing an extensive remodel. Described as "a sensitive open-heart surgery," the shop will be open for business throughout the process, which will include the building of a new central lightwell, restaurants and departments, as well as with the fixing-up of some of the old favorites. The infamous Food Hall, for example, will now cover a full two floors and feature a wine bar.

In order to defray some of the costs of this undoubtedly expensive undertaking, Fortnum & Mason is selling off part of its collection of paintings, prints, chandeliers, furnishings and fittings, and wine at Bonhams's New Bond Street saleroom on September 27th. Some of the paintings may fetch well upwards of £50,000 each, and clearly indicate the seriousness with which Garfield Weston, chairman of the company from 1951-78, curated the collection. It was never intended to be a formal collection that would be lent out or travelled, but rather a means of surrounding the company's employees with wonderful - and very British - works. They were mainly hung in the corporation's boardroom and offices. Other artists included in the sale are Frederick William Watts, Edmund Blair Leighton and Henry Edmond Detmold.

A painting of The Gallant Speedy, one of several works by Montague Dawson in the collection and under the hammer.

Rather a surprise in the collection of primarily English painters, a work by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Another aspect of the sale includes memorabilia from Fortnum & Mason. With its long history of employing British artists, many of its seemingly minor pieces (menus, for example) were actually created by designers and illustrators Oliver Messel, Hugh Casson, Berkeley Sutcliffe and Michael Dillon.

A modern dolls-house, modelled on an earlier Fortnum & Mason building. The front of the house opens to reveal a staircase, interior archways, shelves and shop fittings and six departments including a Food Hall, China & Glass, Clocks, Perfumerie and Wine.

October 2007 will see the grand reopening of the shop, which, in its own (and true) words, "one simply must visit once a season." And if you can't visit in person, visit online. After a bumpy few years of total inundation with Christmas orders, the shop is finally overhauling its website and shipping systems. All the marmalade, biscuits and turkish delight you could ever wish for are but a few clicks away.

A bit of history about the firm, courtesy of Bonhams' press release for the sale:

Fortnum & Mason (1707 – 2007)

In the first decade of the 18th century, Hugh Mason ran a stabling and ostling business - Mason’s Yard off Duke Street still bears his name. William Fortnum rented Mason’s spare room before aristocratic connections led him into the service of Queen Anne, where the nightly footman’s perk of emptying the royal candlesticks of beeswax initiated an increasingly profitable recycling business for the entrepreneurial Fortnum. The stubs were melted down into new candles to sell on to the ladies of the court, and so successful was the enterprise that landlord and tenant set up shop in Duke Street for the discerning general public.

Fortnum & Mason first made its name under the Hanoverian Kings, as Piccadilly and its environs developed into the most fashionable part of the most exciting city in the world. Grand houses built for dukes, earls and rich hopefuls imposed their presence on the area. Fortnum and Mason were quick to seize the opportunity and daily sent liveried page boys to the aristocratic residences, such as Buckingham House, Clarence House, Spencer House and the Great Burlington House.

The facade of the venerable old building, and a detail of its famous clock:

The shop was decorated from the 1920s to the 1950s by the rising stars of theatrical art including Allan Walton’s whose decorations were other-worldly, featuring murals and panels with mythical creatures and fantastic landscapes to enhance the sense of stepping into fairyland on arrival at Fortnums.

Today, Fortnum & Mason is just as much an experience of style, beauty and presentation, which is reinforced in the paintings, and works of art in this sale.

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