‘We may be the only ones who can tell these sto­ries and it’s im­por­tant we re­mem­ber them’

A brand’s her­itage is the build­ing block from which it may reach new heights. Nick Ham­mond meets the archivists cat­a­logu­ing, pre­serv­ing and proudly pro­tect­ing our na­tion’s re­tail DNA

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Richard Can­non

IDON’T nor­mally show peo­ple the orig­i­nals,’ con­fides An­drea Tan­ner in the fifth-floor of­fices of Fort­num & Ma­son, Pic­cadilly W1. She hands over a parch­ment-thin, type­writ­ten in­ven­tory from 1914. It lists a bot­tle of mint bull’s eyes, a dozen bot­tles of Carls­bad plums in brandy, game-pâté truf­fles, Black Le­ices­ter mush­rooms and a tin of vanilla caramels among its con­tents. ‘It’s from Shack­le­ton’s 1914 transarc­tic voy­age aboard HMS En­durance,’ she says with a smile. ‘It’s one of many spe­cial things I’m here to look af­ter.’

Dr Tan­ner is among a hand­ful of pro­fes­sional archivists work­ing in re­tail in the UK. She’s a brand guardian, a keeper of the flame, a ruth­less hag­gler and a studier of dusty tomes.

Judy Fara­day is an­other. She’s the head of her­itage ser­vices for the John Lewis Part­ner­ship. ‘I think the best way to de­scribe our job is that ev­ery­one has a box of things from their past that they don’t nec­es­sar­ily look at ev­ery day, but which they wouldn’t want to throw away,’ she says. ‘I look af­ter a very big box, which holds the cor­po­rate mem­ory of the part­ner­ship. Mine is much more than a com­mer­cial role—it high­lights the cul­tural value of our her­itage and charts the con­stant devel­op­ment of the busi­ness.’

The John Lewis Part­ner­ship was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ex­per­i­ment in com­mer­cial democ­racy from its founder, John Spedan Lewis. He re­alised his own salary, and

that of his fa­ther and brother, were roughly equiv­a­lent to all the other em­ployee’s salaries com­bined and spent the rest of his work­ing life re­dress­ing the bal­ance. ‘With­out un­der­stand­ing their past, it’s very dif­fi­cult for our Part­ners to un­der­stand why we do the things we do,’ says Mrs Fara­day. ‘How the busi­ness has devel­oped and the long-term ethos is im­por­tant for to­day and for the fu­ture.’

What ex­actly does a re­tail ar­chiv­ist do each day? Pa­per records are now be­ing re­placed with digi­tised ones, so a lot of time is spent or­gan­is­ing and dis­patch­ing doc­u­ments to spe­cial­ists in the field. Archivists are also re­spon­si­ble for stor­ing and pro­tect­ing valu­able works of art that may be­long to the com­pany and for buy­ing back long-lost mem­o­ra­bilia. They lead in­duct- ions for new starters, record the mem­o­ries of for­mer staff mem­bers and work along­side cur­rent de­sign­ers and cu­ra­tors to craft modern mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. Most of this work goes on back­stage, away from the ring­ing cash tills.

Har­rods has two full-time archivists, who have re­cently moved from the grand store in Knights­bridge to more modern premises in Ham­mer­smith. ‘We had to make way for a new shoe depart­ment,’ says ar­chiv­ist Se­bas­tian Wormell with a twin­kle in his eye.

How­ever, the move means ex­tra space and Mr Wormell leads me into sev­eral rooms of Har­rods trea­sures: cat­a­logues for or­der­ing by the camel­don­keyor boat­load; bizarrely, a sin­gle drum from a com­plete kit; sam­ples of ev­ery Har­rods Christ­mas Bear ever made; and an old-fash­ioned wooden knife-clean­ing ma­chine, made ob­so­lete by the in­ven­tion of stain­less steel.

‘We may end up be­ing the only ones who can tell these sto­ries and it’s im­por­tant we re­mem­ber them

‘Ev­ery one of these items has a story be­hind it,’ ex­plains Mr Wormell as we stroll through the care­fully stored mem­o­ra­bilia. ‘We may end up be­ing the only ones who can tell these sto­ries and that’s why it’s so im­por­tant we re­mem­ber them.’

Sto­ries such as the bet be­tween Harry Sel­fridge and Wood­man Bur­bidge, MD of Har­rods, in 1917. Proud of his up-and-com­ing depart­ment store, Sel­fridge wa­gered that his com­pany’s rev­enues would over­take those of Har­rods in a few years. It didn’t hap­pen. Bur­bidge’s prize was an ut­terly re­mark­able, cus­tom-made ren­di­tion of the Har­rods build­ing in solid sil­ver. The model even had a hid­den lid that re­vealed a cigar hu­mi­dor in­side.

It was proudly dis­played for many years in the store, on loan from the Bur­bidge fam­ily, but, to Mr Wormell’s dis­may, was even­tu­ally sold by the Bur­bidges for £86,000. ‘I’d love to know what hap­pened to it,’ Mr Wormell says, thought­fully, then bright­ens. ‘Per­haps one of your read­ers might know where it is?’

This ir­re­press­ible in­quis­i­tive­ness is key to the ar­chiv­ist’s role and a pen­chant for de­tec­tive work and an eye for de­sign is also use­ful. ‘I’ve been digi­tis­ing the en­tire ar­chive for the past 15 years,’ says Anna Bu­ruma, ar­chiv­ist for Lib­erty on Re­gent Street, W1 (see page 94). ‘We now have a very rich data­base, which is on my com­puter that sits in the mid­dle of the De­sign Stu­dio. I can show the de­sign­ers the past as I’m cat­a­logu­ing the present and they’re in­spired by it to pro­duce de­signs for the fu­ture.’

She adds: ‘I’ve had many peo­ple com­ing in to ad­mire our ar­chives, in­clud­ing [Span­ish shoe de­signer] Manolo Blah­nik, [English artist] Grayson Perry and [Ja­panese tex­tile de­signer] Junya Watan­abe.’

As well as Shack­le­ton’s list of good­ies, there’s a wealth of other price­less ma­te­rial care­fully kept by Dr Tan­ner at Fort­num’s. One of­fi­cer’s or­der book from the Sec­ond World War is par­tic­u­larly mem­o­rable. It lists tinned lob­ster and grouse and even Havana cigars avail­able for front­line ser­vice­men with deep pock­ets. Of course, the av­er­age John Bull had to sur­vive on far less el­e­gant fare, but can you imag­ine, just for a mo­ment, what must it have felt like to re­ceive a Fort­num & Ma­son pack­age amid that car­nage?

‘The time, the place, how so­ci­ety was in those days, all these things can eas­ily be lost,’ says Dr Tan­ner. ‘But the fact that com­pa­nies like ours are still here means we have adapted and changed with­out for­get­ting our roots. It’s my job to help keep open that link be­tween the past, present and fu­ture. Ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent— you never know what you’re go­ing to end up do­ing, who you might speak to or what you might dis­cover. It’s end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing.’

Fort­num & Ma­son’s ar­chiv­ist An­drea Tan­ner (fac­ing page) holds the orig­i­nal type­writ­ten in­ven­tory from Ernest Shack­le­ton’s voy­age aboard HMS En­durance

Se­bas­tian Wormell of Har­rods, one of two full-time archivists em­ployed by the depart­ment store

Some heavy-lift­ing re­quired: or­der from Har­rods by camel- or boat­load

Top: A toy­de­part­ment cat­a­logue from the Har­rods col­lec­tion. Above: A Fort­num & Ma­son of­fi­cer’s or­der book from the Sec­ond World War, of­fer­ing lob­ster, grouse and cigars

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