‘Band of Amateurs’: The Start of a Shop
A spirit of adventure, a love of home and family and a great eye for colour have always been part of the G&G story. G&G founder Antonia Graham told us a bit about how it all began…
It started, of course, with a shop. At seventeen Antonia went to work for cookery doyenne Elizabeth David, a friend of her aunt’s, in her now legendary Pimlico kitchenware shop. David, who had something of a fearsome reputation, was an inspiration to Antonia.
“She was terribly shy and I was terribly shy so we got along fine. And through her I met all sorts of interesting people.”
It was the swinging sixties, the era of Mary Quant, Terence Conran, David Mellor – shopkeepers who were rethinking what a shop could be. Elizabeth David had set up the shop to sell the kitchen utensils she couldn’t find in England.
“She went round France and collected up porcelain soufflé dishes and good saucepans and got a friend to import le Creusets.”
Three years later, having left her job at the shop for an engagement that didn’t work out, Antonia herself set off in search of products.
“My parents had a holiday house in Portugal, so I went there. I found a very large book which listed all the factories in Portugal, and enlisted my father because he spoke fluent Portuguese, and besides nobody would speak to a woman in those days. So we drove from factory to factory, and he chatted them up while I dashed around getting samples.”
Those samples became the start of her first business, Stock Design. “Lots of the stuff we sold then are things you’d still buy today, Spanish recycled glass, marble cheeseboards, rag rugs, that sort of thing.” Stock Design lasted six years. “Unfortunately we went bankrupt during the three-day week in ’73. I probably had my eye slightly off the ball because I’d just had my son Jamie.”
But another door opened when an old friend offered to invest £1500 in a new business. “He asked would I like to start again and I said ‘Yes, please!’ It was wonderful to be trusted.”
With baby Jamie in his pushchair, Antonia walked down the Portobello Road asking about premises and found that the United Dairies building on Elgin Crescent – across the road from G&G’s Notting Hill shop today – was vacant.
Journalist Henrietta Green offered to become a partner. “Henrietta had already written two cookbooks by the time she was twenty-four. She said would I like a little more money, and a little more help, so she put in £500 and worked on Saturdays, and we went off to the trade fairs together. That lasted for five years until she went off to be a professional journalist.” Thus the formation of the brand name “Graham and Green” was born.
‘Kitchen and basketware’, or Graham and Green as it soon became, stocked homeware from all over: Polish baskets, Spanish glass and, increasingly, Indian stock sent to Antonia by her brother Joss, an anthropologist turned trader who sent things to her from Bombay. Soon Antonia too was setting off on buying trips to India and Morocco.
Antonia’s buying philosophy was always ‘This is what I like and I hope you like it too,’ and the shops became a testament to her, and later her son Jamie’s, great eye.
Long before Mary Portas introduced us all to the idea of a ‘shopping experience’, the shops had a distinctive feel. “Perhaps because we didn’t think of ourselves as ‘proper’ shopkeepers, the shops had character. We didn’t set out to create an atmosphere but I suppose we did … We were very welcoming and we got to know our customers. We were always a neighbourhood shop.”
Now Antonia feels incredibly fortunate to be able to pass the shop on to her son Jamie. “So many people don’t have anyone to hand things onto, or if they do they haven’t the imagination to take it in a new direction. Jamie and Lou have gradually made it their own – it’s the same ethos but adapted to make it attractive to a different generation. I’m thrilled with it, and very proud of the whole family.”
She, meanwhile, continues to do what comes naturally, holding regular sales of Indian finds in her London home. “Elizabeth David always used to call us a ‘band of amateurs’, and in a way I always felt that about myself… I’ve only done things because I loved it. I love to travel, and I love buying… And I still do.”