Temples of serendipity: A tour of art equipment shops around Central London

I frequently need to visit suppliers of art materials for printing and drawing stuff, but often it’s a case of “any excuse really”, since these places are like magic toyshops for me. My striking area is anywhere within half an hour’s walk of the Bloomsbury area.
Like many other retail sectors, art shops on the high street have been affected by the internet, and many interesting places have sadly disappeared. Obviously, I too have shopped online for things that are hard to come by, even in London. But visiting these shops is great fun. You can’t beat seeing the goods for yourself.. Seeing the colours.. Trying the pens.. Feeling the paper.. Finding something wonderful that you never even knew you needed! So, here are my completely subjective reviews, and I would love to know of any other Aladdin’s caves of art in London or actually any European city .

1. Russell and Chapple. Starting with the newest – sort of; they’ve been trading since the 1700s in the Covent Garden area, but recently moved to Store Street, a little back road that links Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road. Their specialism is fine canvas for painting supports and materials for stage dressing in the theatre. The shop is double fronted and there seems to be too much empty space at the moment; still, early days.

2. Cornelissens. Slightly further south in Great Russell Street, this small shop is my personal favourite for atmosphere. Another old establishment, it still has its nineteenth century fittings and many wares are stored in drawers and cupboards, to be brought out on request by a staff member. Alongside high quality brands for painting, drawing and calligraphy are sold pigments for you to make your own paints, and other substances that are reminiscent of an ancient apothecary shop. I could wish for more printmaking gear, but this shop has been invaluable in finding items suitable for a historical presentation.

3. Paperchase, Tottenham Court Road. Many people will be familiar with the chain store that retails quirky stationery and kitsch seasonal decorations, but their flagship branch is a 3-floor emporium that also sells posh accessories and, on the top floor, a range of art and craft supplies. At the time of writing, their range seems to have diminished and increasingly is leaning toward the crafting side. Perhaps it’s a better fit with their main ranges, but to my mind there are only so many flock rabbits and toy owls that a crafter can make, or a shopper can stand. On the bright side, the wide range of large size coloured and patterned paper and card is still much in evidence, and the Tinderbox coffee shop on the first floor (off topic) is superb. Spicy mocha. Yumm.
4. London Graphic Centre. Two branches, one a small shop just off Tottenham Court Road opposite Heals, and a much larger two-floor affair between Seven Dials and Long Acre. The larger shop has far and away the best range of goods of all the shops in this review. Although the brands are mainstream, it’s hard to come away empty handed!
5. Cass Arts. I’ve only been in this place two or three times. A good situation near the National Portrait Gallery, but otherwise a bit chainstore-y and unremarkable. I believe prices are fairly keen though.
6. Shepherds Bookbinders in Gillingham Street, Victoria. Yes, way out of normal radius, but as Falkiner’s Fine Papers their shop used to be in Southampton Row. I haven’t quite forgiven them yet for moving to such a dreary area, but I know they needed space and can now offer classes in addition to their range of goods. The choice of papers are all of the first quality and there are many fascinating accessories for use in the craft of bookbinding. They are very specialised and ordinary art materials are not on offer here.
7. To finish with, another cheat as Intaglio Printmakers are on the south side of the river, near the Globe. I have visited them once but now buy online, mainly for the green-blue Japanese vinyl they sell, which I love using and find completely superior to lino. Since the departure of TN Lawrence from London, they are the pre-eminent printmaking supplies shop in the capital.
With property prices being what they are in London, there is little hope that a new independent shop could open in the future. However, I hope that all the shops listed above will continue to flourish because, wonderful as is the www, the pleasure of shopping in them is one of life’s treasures.

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