I first stumbled upon L.Cornelissen & Son when exploring the Bloomsbury area of London, while walking back to the tube station at the end of my day. Tucked behind New Oxford Street on the very unassuming Great Russell Street, L.Cornelissen & Son has occupied its space since 1988. However, it was first founded in the nineteenth century by Louis Cornelissen, who was then known as the artist's colourman, and I can see why!
With shelves full to brim with pigments stacked high in jars and drawers lining every wall, the store is a collection of cabinets of curiosities. Open one set of drawers and you're met with dozens of different pastel shades. Open another and you can choose between calligraphy nibs of all shapes and sizes.
Ranging from ceramicists, illustrators and painters, the staff at L.Cornelissen & Son really know their craft and I was fortunate enough to be shown the most special product sold at the shop. Stored behind the counter, the shop stocks gold, yes real gold, of many different shades, ranging from green, lemon and red. This really is a store full of treasures and a lot of history!
L. Cornelissen & Son was founded in 1855, how did it come about?
Louis Cornelissen was a Flemish lithographer, who arrived in Paris in 1848 as revolutions swept through the continent. While there, he made the acquaintance of J.M.W. Turner, who encouraged him to move to London, where he would find a welcome audience for his trade. After working as a lithographer in Covent Garden, he set up his own shop on Great Queen Street in 1855, selling printmaking supplies, engraving tools and pigments. In today’s language, he traded business-to-business, but artists began to come to him to source pigments for making their own colours. As printing became less of a manual process, Cornelissen added additional products to establish himself firmly as an artists’ colourman. We still sell many of these items today: brushes, papers, drawing materials, canvas from Belgium, and paint from France.
Have you always been in Bloomsbury? How has the area changed over the years?
We have had two addresses in our 167 years. In 1987, we moved from our original premises in Covent Garden to 105 Great Russell Street, where we became tenants of the publisher Andre Deutch. When the publishing house moved, Cornelissen was able to buy the freehold.
Since our arrival in Bloomsbury, there have been enormous changes. The British Museum, a few hundred yards away, then had less than a million visitors per year; this increased to 6 million visitors in recent, pre-Covid years. Our side of Great Russell Street was full of empty, decaying properties until Florida State University turned several buildings into their European campus, working closely with English Heritage to preserve and repair them to good effect. The wonderful building opposite Cornelissen was designed by Edwin Lutyens as the world headquarters of the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), whose emblem is part of the front entrance design. It is now the fashionable Bloomsbury hotel, which celebrates Bloomsbury’s history through its poetry library above the ground floor, with portraits of poets commissioned from today’s artists.
What are the most unusual items you stock?
We stock all of the materials and equipment you would need to make your own paints, mediums, varnishes and adhesives. We display many of these items on our wall of pigments, gums and resins, which is unusual in variety of colour, specialisation, and origin.
Our resins include dragon’s blood from the small island of Socotra, while our gums include mastic from the Greek island of Chios, and gum Arabic from the Kordofan region of Sudan. Our pigments are also sourced from all over the world, our natural earth colours from France and Italy are particularly popular.
We group some of our more unusual pigments under the name “Early Colours”, which we keep behind the counter. Here you can find lapis lazuli, malachite, carmine, cinnabar, rose madder and verdigris – among many others.
Another key area of our business is gold leaf. We have over twenty shades of gold and other precious metals such as Palladium and Platinum, in addition to gold powder, burnishers, and gilders tips for lifting the delicate leaves of gold. Behind the shop we have a workshop where we stretch canvases to order, while in the basement we store an extensive range of artists’ papers.
We try to make our products as accessible as possible, so our specialist goods sit alongside plenty of materials that are ready to use. Following in Louis Cornelissen’s footsteps, we source many of our products from Europe, such as water-soluble graphite from Portugal and watercolours from Germany.
What are the best and worst parts about running an art store?
Our products remain a source of fascination, and we are constantly learning from each other and from our customers about the history and uses of the materials that we sell. We never know who will walk into the shop or ring our office, so each transaction can lead to an interesting conversation and mark the early stages of an exciting project. Another highlight is receiving feedback from our customers, particularly when they have been able to create something that they are proud to show us.
The worst part, as for many businesses, is compulsory admin, which has sadly been exacerbated for us since Brexit.
You have likely seen some wonderful artists in your shop... anyone we might know?
As mentioned earlier, Turner was a protagonist in the origin story of our shop, and it is believed that Walter Sickert was also a regular visitor. More recently, we have counted Lucien Freud and Howard Hodgkin among our customers.
In terms of contemporary artists, we do indeed supply to many prominent figures, although it is not uncommon for better-known names to use assistants to purchase their supplies. These transactions can generate a certain thrill throughout the building, but we maintain the stance that all of our customers are artists in one way or another, capable of making interesting and beautiful work. It is not uncommon for a customer or stranger to send us a photograph of the back of an old painting that they have discovered in an attic, with our name stamped on to the back of the canvas. These situations often generate more questions than answers, reminding us that many generations of anonymous artists have passed through our doors, and will hopefully continue to do so.
L Cornelissen & Son, 105 Great Russell St, London WC1B 3RY
Open Monday - Saturday 9:30-6pm, Closed on Sunday