Tobias and the Angel. A shop that feels like home. Part One

Tobias and the Angel, 68 White Hart Lane, Barnes, London SW13 0PZ

When I interviewed Angel Hughes, owner of the eponymous shop, I forgot to ask her a question.  Going her shop of 23 years in Chiswick feels like visiting her home.  So much so, that I wonder — remembering Angel sitting comfortably on her favourite chair, drinking strong coffee made by her niece, Rose– if she actually lives there…?  Or above the shop?  Next door?  I’m not sure I want to spoil the illusion by learning the answer.

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For a start, Angel’s shop sells homewares.  Everything from beds, artwork, lamps, mirrors, tables, candles, linens, armchairs to armoires is beautifully, artfully displayed.  The combination of these objects seems haphazard but somehow everything seems to belong. Vast piles of quilts in different colours and patterns lie on a bed, rather than one prized piece.  Printed cushions made of vintage and handmade cloth (some block-printed by T&A) dot the chairs like they just ended up there. A dining table is set in just the way you would set it.  Wooden spoons are displayed in bunches of odd sizes. Tablecloths and napkins are bundled together the way you’d find them in a kitchen drawer.  Price-tags are hand-written and descriptive, on proper bits of card.    Everything is beautiful, of undoubted quality, but everything also has warmth and a sense of life.

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Angel’s employees are either part of her family or have become members by proxy.  When I visit, two young women sit quietly chatting and sewing together some large cat doorstops, in a sunny corner of the shop.  A striking woman makes a grand entrance and is greeted warmly as a long time friend – ‘…and how is she coping with the new baby…?’ I hear Angel ask.  Real cats wander about the place — Angel interrupts our interview at one point to say, “Excuse me, I’ve got to let the cat out of the cupboard. He takes his morning snooze in there…”  There’s an Aga stove and a fully functioning kitchen just behind the cash register, where Angel cooks lunch for herself and her staff (I was kindly given scrambled eggs on toast).

Angel, in her 60th year, is a (“happily”) childless matriarch.  She’s among the middle of 6 children, but her large family extends beyond blood ties. Like her mother before her, Angel has a tendency to take in strays.  She spent her childhood in postwar Germany – Angel’s father was part of the effort to rebuild the nation and build bridges between the British government and Germany’s new coalition.  She and her two older brothers, sister and younger twin babies moved from one “rather good” house to another in rural Germany. A curious predicament for her mother — who lost her only brother during the war, and her father, who lost his youngest brother — to find themselves in the land of their enemies, with no knowledge of the language and several young children in tow.

The powerful influence of Angel’s mother is plain to see.  Angel describes her, I would say admiringly, as: “naughty, but her own person.”  She apparently took the whole of German culture on board, refusing to wrap herself in an English expat cocoon. Angel remembers having a great sense of security and a happy childhood.  The family was close, but not exactly nuclear; a variety of different people lived with them in Germany and in Newcastle: home after leaving Germany. Angel recalls the door was often opened to students or some troubled German child, man or woman:  “My mother was very open-handed like that, people readily trusted children into her care.”

The death of Angel’s eldest brother when she was 13 was incredibly fracturing to the family.  Angel says, “Grief is so interesting because it doesn’t do what people think it will, necessarily. My parents couldn’t share grief with each other, or any of us. The person my mother could share it with was my brother’s girlfriend. She moved in with us, and is still a friend of ours.”  Fractured but intact, Angel’s family collected new members along the way.

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Foremost among Angel’s childhood memories are visits to ‘junk’ shops in the English northeast (“I don’t like calling them antique shops, that takes a bit of the discovery out of it,” she says). Her mother’s way of coping with all these children was to go to junk shops on a Saturday afternoon “and she’d drag one or another of us with her, especially my brother and I, and we got to love it.” Angel has an abiding vision of herself on the floor, being given a box of broken jewellery, and handling all these objects:

“The quality of what we were playing with was fantastic…and you get it, it comes to you — a feel for these things.  You have to come to these things through feeling. That’s why I find it very hard to contemplate buying things on the internet, because if I’m faced with a table full of junk and you see a glass on there that you like and you pick it up and its weight surprises you…and the shape of a bowl is somehow extremely satisfying.  Why did you look at it?…Somehow its shape called you out of a whole table full of glass – nothing to do with price at this point – and your brain starts to evaluate why you had that feeling.  Because you’re interested, you start to work out why it’s nice. Why is that glass nice? Because it is heavy and got that weight.  Why is the underneath of the glass satisfying?… Always processing information…You want to turn it over, lift it up, try it out….I might do it with a really boring tumbler.  You can’t be definitive, because what works with one doesn’t work with another, it’s an endless form of guessing.”

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This endless form of guessing eventually materialized as Angel’s first shop, in Manningtree, Essex. It was not a success, which Angel puts down to location. She first sold clothes made from vintage cloth: a passion ever since childhood. Angel’s mother gave her two fragments of cloth –which she’s still got—one a piece of 17th century silk gilt brocade and the other a piece of brocade with some colour in it: “very, very old.” Her interest intensified as Angel travelled around, snapping up her first vintage linen sheet for £3 in a village called Eye in Suffolk:

“The idea of lying on linen was heaven to me. Linen had a kind of resonance partly because of books: you read about them slipping between linen sheets or the lovely cool feel of linen… or you’d go to a museum and see stuff on the bed, or see a wonderful painting…with a waterfall of lace off the pillows…”

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Although Manningtree failed, Angel took on a stall in Campden Market that proved very successful. She sold two things, chosen largely because she could carry them around: “Whites”– Victorian camisoles, petticoats and nighties, and semi-precious jewels—coral, agates, marcasite, jet. She began to establish her market, which she still finds it difficult to describe.

“It’s a sort of niche market.  Never was I ever anything other than would appeal to a certain sort of person – never ‘popular’ taste in that sense of the word.  It would be just somebody who would look at this sort of rather rum collection of stuff but would recognize that it all had a particular sort of quality about it…would see the point of it, somehow. I’ve never really understood that, actually, if I was truthful.  I’ve never had a customer who I’ve carried through all areas of my taste.”

After 16 years and a second shop selling furniture, Angel met a man called Tobias and fell in love. Tobias and the Angel was created out of “blind faith” and with help from Toby’s mother, who took a mortgage on her own house. They started out with no money at all – in debt by 5000 pounds. Angel remembers Toby asking what made her think she could manage: “My answer was, ‘Well, other people do it.’ Although Toby was involved with the shop for about 4 years, it was always, Angel says, “her pigeon.” It is the independence owning a shop allows, Angel says, that she loves. “You’re creating, aren’t you, your own environment. You’re inviting people in, you can tell them to go away. It’s like inviting people to tea – you set the tone, which is a fantastic thing to do.”

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Next week:  Part Two of Tobias and the Angel’s post…

 

Fortnum & Mason. “So nice to be treated like a duchess when one is buying a pound of coffee…”

Fortnum & Mason, 181 Piccadilly, London W1A 1ER

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If a single shop can embody a country, its history and in some ways its very spirit, Fortnum & Mason is it.  A very English company with a very English way of doing things, F&M is famous for its tea, wicker hampers filled with luxurious foodstuffs and for its iconic Piccadilly windows, but is perhaps most famous for serving the British upper classes — for over 300 years.

A lasting formula for success was laid out by F&M’s founders, ensuring its survival.  It was this: know your customer and what he or she wants, better than anyone else. The cream of British society expect faultless service and high quality products; chosen meticulously, beautifully presented; traditional favourites and something new.  Even as its actual client base has evolved to include the vast middle-classes and tourists aplenty, F&M has never wavered in this strategy of producing top product for top strata customers. As one F&M customer remarked in 1925, “It is so nice to be treated like a duchess while one is buying a pound of coffee.”

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In 1707, an enterprising young footman in the Queen’s household – given permission to collect the leftover candle wax each night after the royals had left the dinner table – transformed his sideline of trading royal wax into a growing business by joining forces with his landlord, Hugh Mason. Part of a respectable middle-class family of tradesmen and servants, William Fortnum knew what was considered ‘best’ and how to get it:  his network of family experts in the domestic sphere spread from wealthy Oxfordshire to Asia. While Mason’s stable yard provided a means of getting goods in and out again, Fortnum’s relations provided the two entrepreneurs with the finest teas, coffees, wines, oils, paper, inks and silk handkerchiefs available at the time. The store remained in Fortnum family control for 5 generations.

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Many of F&M’s core products have been around since its inception.   Tea, being the first comestible sold, is still one of its staples.  Fortnum’s blend of Earl Grey tea was allegedly beloved by the Earl himself.  Pickles and preserves such as ‘Gentleman’s Relish’ (described on pack as ‘anchovial alchemy’) and classic English marmalade are also among favourites. Fortnums’ beautiful wicker picnic hampers were introduced by the shop to the early Victorians. The F&M branded hamper quickly became de rigueur at the events of the social season, where its the size and contents were (and continue to be) a status symbol at the RoyalAscot races, the Eton-Harrow match and Henley Royal Regatta.

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Currently priced from a reasonable £35 for a ‘’Tea at Four’ hamper to a rather more pricey ‘Fortnum’s Formidable’ for £500, today’s hampers have evolved to encompass more everyday events:  Children’s hampers with ‘Tuck Box’ and ‘Midnight Feast’ themes sit alongside the ‘Gentleman’s Hamper,’ the ‘Ladies Pamper-Hamper’ and summer picnic hampers with names like ‘The Picadilly’ and ‘St-James.’  These house the finest of Fortnam’s food hall:  vintage champagnes, old fashioned and exclusive sweets, foie gras, luxury cheeses and biscuits as well as gifty things like perfume, toys, candles and creams.

Despite selling ‘traditional’ luxuries, F&M has refused to settle comfortably into dusty old age.  The shop has always been good at finding new things – products, combinations, flavours – and at presenting them in a novel and enticing way. At George V’s silver jubilee in 1935, F&M assured hostesses that, if one had an Indian prince coming to dinner, they would supply all the food, cooked according to Hindu or Muslim dietary laws, and served by turbaned staff, if appropriate.   Floris, the luxury perfumiers, today located round the corner on Jermyn Street, got their start at Fortnum’s, as did the designers Jean Muir, Zandra Rhodes and Ferragamo’s shoes.  The rather more humble Heinz baked beans were introduced to Britain when Henry Heinz convinced F&M to take on a few cans. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes also made their British debut in F&M’s food hall.

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Today, Fortnum’s are perhaps the only large food retailer in Britain who continue to take risks and do things differently.  Champions of British food and farmers but also global in their reach, F&M’s buyers are encouraged to go out and find small independent producers of ‘curiosities’ to get what they ultimately want.  Fortnam’s ‘rose petal jelly’ is handmade by one woman in Oxfordshire:  when the roses in her garden run out of petals, there is no more jelly to be sold that year. The shop’s coffee buyer recently undertook an unusual project — the ‘laying down’ of fresh coffee beans, just as you would a bottle or case of wine – an experiment with an unknown outcome.   Jonathan Miller, the shop’s ‘sweet grocery buyer’ had another such bold idea to tie in with F&M’s tercentenary:  he thought it would be rather nice to “bring home” the countryside bees who made F&M’s honey in the gardens of Shropshire.  Taking the idea of local food production to an extreme, the F&M bees’ palatial, custom-made hives (featuring gold flourishes and Roman, Mughal, Chinese and gothic porticos –no kidding!) were placed on the roof of the Piccadilly building.  The bees made their return from the countryside by London black cab (where the partition from the driver proved useful) and are now able to “fly high above Mayfair, visiting the grounds, gardens and squares of the best addresses in London, gathering rather superior nectar.”  Which other department store in the world would ever allow such eccentricity?

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F&M’s staff and the exemplary customer service they provide are legendary. In the 18th and 19th centuries, unmarried male members of staff lived above the shop—on hand to supply needy customers at any time of night.  Such dedication did not go unrewarded; in 1846, one of the Fortnam family, Richard, left a substantial legacy to his loyal employees.  Nor has this loyalty dwindled over time.  Chris Blackwell, a theatrical set designer from New Zealand joined F&M in 1973 and over his 32 years at Fortnum’s, made their shop windows world-renowned. Blackwell treated product display like theatrical artistry. Arthur Lunn, who served in F&M for close to a century, famously took a course in Pelmanism to help him remember the birthdays, preferences and phone numbers of all his customers’ (the King of Norway among them).  In return for this assiduousness, F&M has remembered his name:  “Mr.Lunn’s  savoury biscuits” are now a staple of the food hall. Gaius Backholer – due to retire in 1939 after 50 years service – stayed on to serve throughout WWII.  When he finally left in 1946, the Princess Royal (now known as Queen Elizabeth) called at the shop to say farewell.

Royals are not the only F&M enthusiasts.  Dickens despatched his butler to Piccadilly for his favourite game pies when he finished a novel.  Fortnum’s offical shop historian discovered a letter Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clemmie during the first world war, in which he longs for a hot water bottle and a case of Fortnum’s whiskey. The PM apparently came in to the shop himself for own-label champagne and was rather partial to their Dundee fruitcake.

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Fortnum and Mason’s descendants ran the shop until the turn of the 20th century, when a management buyout resulted in new ownership, and in 1905/06, F&M became, for a spell, a limited company. The Weston family quite recently brought F&M back to its roots in private-family ownership.  In 2007, Fortnam’s celebrated its tercentenary, and made sweeping changes to an institution that has not wavered from its core values in years.  The premises at Piccadilly were given a facelift in keeping with its regal and elegant history; the food halls were expanded to include fresh foods; and its less relevant departments closed down.

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Today, F&M continues to play to its strengths as London’s top supplier of luxury foods and gifts. A tour of the shop’s non-food floors would have you discover superb quality leather travel cases; bespoke perfumes; perfect wedding and Christening gifts like china, glassware and silver; and classically English goods, like the John Jacques croquet set and Hunter’s Wellington boots. The shop’s new Parlour restaurant is now the place to enjoy a famous ‘Knickerbocker Glory’: an ice cream sundae enjoyed by generations of (spoiled) English grand- and god- children at Fortnum’s old ‘Fountain’ restaurant.  The Minghellas, the family who supply F&M’s ice cream –their son was famous director, Anthony –have created flavours to reflect the store’s famous wares, like its ‘Sandringham blend’ coffee and ‘Amedei’ dark chocolate;  named after the grandmother of one of F&M’s longstanding chocolate suppliers, Tessieri.

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One can still ‘take afternoon tea’ in any of Fortnum’s restaurants, a classic ritual made up not just of F&M’’s finest tea; but finger sandwiches, cakes and scones, and even canapes.  The St. James’s restaurant features armchairs ready to fall into, and the tea menus “change with the seasons, to make the best of seasonal ingredients as well as to reflect cultural events.”  Earlier this year, F&M ‘s chocolate cakes were adorned with sunflowery icing, to tie in with neighbouring Royal Academy’s Van Gogh exhibition.

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On the 4th floor, in a quiet corner behind a door marked “Beauty a la carte,” a host of treatments are available in the sanctuary of F&M’s beauty rooms, and although the women’s clothing department is no more, ladies can lose hours (or if you’re like me, days) among the sparkly counters of perfume jars and jewellery, colourful scarves, silky lingerie and night ware, magnificent hats and bags.

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If you are accompanied by a gentleman on your visit, send him down in F&M’s wood-panelled lift to the 3rd floor, to wander through the leather goods, ‘games,’ grooming products, books, pens and stationery.  Then swap places.

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A few choice new services have been introduced; perfectly in keeping with Fortnum’s reputation and heritage.  The shop’s restaurants now showcase products from the fabulous food halls, and if a particular dish is enjoyed, its ingredients can be purchased downstairs for re-creation at home. For nervous young men planning to pop the question, F&M ‘s ‘Proposal’ service will take care of everything:  a romantic outdoor picnic with strawberries and champagne served by a liveried member of staff, umbrella at the ready in case of showers. Staff are still on hand to wrap and even carry your purchases out to your car in advance of Christmastime, and the creation of bespoke hampers or requests for special assistance are never frowned upon or unusual at Fortnum’s. Staff genuinely seem to relish answering any and every customer enquiry, like: “Tell me about this violet creme chocolate/vintage of wine/obscure sort of tea leaf…”  This is one shop that knows what it stands for and that has every intention to be here, at 181 Piccadilly, doing more of the same for 300 years to come.  At least.

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Unique Boutiques would like to extend special thanks to Dr. Andrea Tanner, Fortnum & Mason’s archivist and brilliant copywriter, as well as to Resonate PR and F&M’s marketing department.

Some pictures shown here feature products which are part of F&M’s current exhibition:  “Handmade:  An Exhibition of British Craft”, from April 22nd to June 20th, 2010.  More information on this exquisite display of goods made by British artisans can be found here.

 

 

 

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