In September 1960, Papers and Paints opened at 4 Park Walk, in the heart of an area of London once known as Little Chelsea. Park Walk connects the Fulham Road with the curious kink in the King’s Road that is known as ‘Moravian Corner”. Many years before this minor side street had been lined with elms and was known variously as Lovers’ Walk and Twopenny Walk and marked the western boundary of Chelsea Park, which had formed part of the old estate of Sir Thomas More. In the early eighteenth century the enterprising Raw Silk Company had leased the park and planted 2,000 mulberry trees on which to breed silk worms, but the company failed, apparently because the wrong sort of mulberries had been planted and the silkworm larvae perished.
In the nineteenth century Park Walk was thick with trees and was considered by many to be too dangerous to pass through after dark. The neighbourhood had always been mixed, with…
“…sizeable houses in private occupation by people of note [were] mingled with cottage terraces, lodging-houses, private mad-houses and, especially, the schools or academies that gathered here.”1
Charles Booth’s Poverty Map of 1889 indicates that Park Walk was marked in pink, in the category of “Fairly Comfortable – Good Ordinary Earnings”. No 4 is marked with an ‘O’ in the centre of the extract above. The Fulham Road was lined with houses marked in red and belonging to The “Well-to-do Middle Class” (the next rung up). One can see the nearby houses in the Boltons and Elm Park Gardens (now Chelsea Square) marked in yellow, which indicated that they were occupied by the “Upper-Middle and Upper Class – Wealthy”.
The “X” marks the street shown in the drawing below – Hobury Street – but seventy years after. In the interval between the two images it had slipped from being a “Well-to-do” street to a semi slum, but one that was on the rise again.
By the late 1950s the neighbourhood was ‘mixed’ – parts were in the process of being transformed from a slum into “a peaceful and pretty district consisting largely of what agents…would call well-appointed residences of charm and character.” While one side of a street might show “clean and elegant exteriors” the other would “have its front doors open, revealing shabby linoed passages, with broken banisters beyond, and motor cycles in process of being disembowelled on the pavement and roadway.” Several of the nearby streets were reserved as play streets, banned to ordinary traffic. You might have had the “strains of Brahms or Debussy wafted to you from next door’s Hi-Fi gramophone”, but it is just as likely that you would get a “football wafted through the dining-room window, accompanied by the raucous shrieks of boys.”3
Number 4 Park Walk had been a dairy at the end of the nineteenth century and then a grocer’s shop. Soon after the War it was taken over as a photographic studio by a Pole and his wife. On one side was a very run-down “greasy-spoon” cafe and on the other a small antique shop run by the legendary ‘Nan’ Hodson and her assistant “Chelsea Helen”. That shop still retained its ‘Blitz windows’ until she died, when it was taken over by the head of Willis Faber and Dumas as another antique shop – a sideline to his City activities.
Opposite Number 4 was “Gibbs Brothers” a small builders’ merchant, “Nobby” Clarke the cobbler and a newsagent’s shop. On the corner of the Fulham Road was another antique shop that specialised in “poodle faking”, or tarting up pieces of dubious furniture. Further along the Fulham Road could be found Old Ma Parsons, whose shop sold corsetry to the gentry along with white wood furniture. Chelsea was a very different place and in the immediate neighbourhood, which has now become known as “The Beach”, one could find a tobacconist side by side with a coal merchant; a dairy; a baker and a butcher. It was an area that had changed little in thirty years and many of the wartime scenes from Joan Wyndham’s published diaries were still recognisable.
With money borrowed from an uncle, Robert Baty and Bill Rutter were responding to the growing trend in DIY as seen on British TV in the form of Barry Bucknell whose Do It Yourself was first broadcast in 1958. Robert had had a brief career in the family wine business, followed by a spell in P.R. and in advertising. Bill had been a graduate trainee at the John Lewis Partnership with political aspirations; however as John Lewis already had two MPs amongst its staff there was room for no more.
The arrival of Papers and Paints at the beginning of the 1960s coincided with the start of a gradual change to the area. Park Walk was at the wrong end of the Kings’ Road to be greatly affected by the antics of Swinging Chelsea, being closer to the area known as World’s End. It would be ten years or so before the small tradesmen began to make way for trendy eateries such as The Great American Disaster, one of London’s first hamburger bars, and the Hungry Horse a true English restaurant. These were soon followed by the first of the more exotic Thai and Greek restaurants and the much-loved Belgian pastry shop, which was just opposite for many years.
The area had what has been described as “raffish charm”. There were many pubs, now mostly gone, perhaps the best-known being Finch’s (since renamed), on the Fulham Road, with regulars such as the poet Laurie Lee, the actor Leonard Rossiter and the TV newscaster Reginald Bosanquet. The Goat in Boots,4 originally with its Victorian Saloon and Public bars, which were swept away in favour of egg-like hanging chairs, has since seen many subsequent makeovers.
It seems an unlikely setting for a shop selling specialist wall-treatments. Within a few months of opening the shop this handbill was distributed to all the houses in the immediate area. It sets out what nowadays would be pompously called the mission statement of Papers and Paints:
• To offer a truly comprehensive home decorating service.
• To give our customers personal advice on technical problems and help and suggestions on colour schemes.
• To help those customers who cannot conveniently shop during the day, by staying open until eight o’clock every evening.
In those days Papers and Paints had its own range of wallpaper designs and the original pattern book survives together with many other artefacts of the early years, including hundreds of paint colour cards from companies long gone. As well as stocking a range of sixty wallpapers, a trimming service was offered, as wallpapers still came with a border that needed to be removed before they could be hung.
The hours were long: almost twelve hours a day, six days a week, with a half day’s “early closing” on Thursday. However this was reduced when Bill Rutter decided to leave and open up a business of his own a year after the opening of Papers and Paints. Robert continued with the help of his wife – part-time – for the next twenty years.
The early clientele was composed of customers ranging from the residents of the nearby council flats to members of the aristocracy. One of the latter, a Duchess no less, was a model cutomer. Her arrival was marked by a middle-aged Rolls Royce and a leather-gaitered chauffeur who opened the shop door for her. Unlike some customers, she would happily await her turn for attention, chatting to a local ‘Mrs Bloggs’ about matters of the day. It was understood that “His Grace” told her that they could only afford to redecorate one room a year.
During all this time Robert was helped by his wife Diana who even took over the shop completely when he went to hospital with pneumonia. Like ‘The Windmill Theatre’ it never closed.
Other well-known visitors to Park Walk were the actors David Hemmings and Christopher Reeve (Superman) and footballer George Best.
The sculptor Elisabeth Frink worked in the next-door Stanley Studios, and she and a number of other well-known artists would often buy tins of Brolac house-paint.
Finding the British Standard colour range too limiting, Robert Baty was one of the first retailers in the country to adopt the Robbialac Colorizer system. This offered a few hundred extra colours, which were originally thought sufficient. However, it wasn’t long before yet more colours were sought. Because of the demand for custom colours he began to colour match samples brought in to the shop. Over the years many thousands of custom colours were formulated and these early records still survive in the Papers and Paints’ archives. This service has been extended and surfaces and objects can now be measured on a client’s own premises – see Colour Surveys.
As well as a full range of decorating sundries, in its early days Papers and Paints also sold carpets and offered a fitting service. Receiving, on one memorable occasion, an order for over a mile of carpet for a house in the nearby Boltons. The large shop window was used to advantage and one Christmas might see a display of framed Arcimboldo prints, while the next might see a colourful collection of Spanish rugs or boxes of wine glasses.
Throughout its first twenty years Papers and Paints developed a reputation as a colour specialist, incorporating a range of over a thousand colours. Customers would bring in a wide range of objects and ask for paints to be colour matched – old paint chips; wallpaper and fabric being everyday items. However, large or unwieldy objects would frequently appear, be they pieces of furniture; pub signs or articles of clothing. Several well-known interior decorators commissioned Papers and Paints to develop custom paint ranges for them and these collections survive and provide a perfect snapshot of fashionable colours of the 1960s and 1970s.
The next phase of the business started in the early 1980s, when Robert Baty’s son, Patrick, joined him after a brief career in the Army.
1 Quote from British History Online
2London Topographical Society publication No.130.
3 Nicholas Bentley (1907-1978). “On Moving to the Wrong End of Chelsea”.
4 Its rather strange name is thought to have come from the Dutch ‘Mercurius is der Goden Boode’ which means ‘ Mercury is the Messenger of the Gods’ . (Mercury was the sign used by inns where post-horses were kept). The original feature of the gods’ messenger was transformed into the figure of a goat with boots, cutlass and spurs by the artist George Morland, an impoverished artist in payment of his tavern bill. Park Walk History
View Larger Map