Chinacraft founder and philanthropist who took Nightingale House to “a new level”
WHEN STUART Lyons, then chief executive of the Royal Doulton china company first met Gerald Lipton, he recalled a figure in a black leather chair, feet resting on a glass desk, cigar in hand.
Tall, athletic in his youth and blessed with an easy charm, the founder of Chinacraft would tell people he “sold cups and saucers in the market”, which disarmingly understated the business he built with his sister Jeanette. Chinacraft became a showcase for the finest English china and crystal, helping brands such as Wedgwood, Waterford and Royal Doulton to grace dining tables across the world, within a network of 45 shops, many in prime West End locations.
Born in Hackney and raised in Hendon, Gerald Lipton, who has died aged 89, lost his father when he was seven, which influenced his decision to leave Haberdasher’s Askes in Cricklewood, without qualifications at 16 despite the headmaster’s efforts to dissuade him. He wanted to improve the lot of his mother and two sisters; memories of a coin-box for hot water and a stone floor in the bathroom proving incentives.
Beginning as an office boy in a publications export company, at 21 he was elected a corporate member of the Institute of Export. Via an ad he placed in the JC offering his services, an opportunity arose and he started exporting tea-sets.
Government restrictions on selling decorated tableware at home remained in force, although export rejects were allowed. Armed with a £1,000 loan from cousins, Gerald opened the first Chinacraft shop in Hendon in 1950, the name suggested by his elder sister Rita (who as Rita Levy later became Mayor of Barnet). Amid the greyness of the austerity years, the brightly coloured crockery found a ready clientéle. Trade was often so brisk the shop had to shut during lunchtime to restock. Within a year an Oxford Street branch had followed.
While Jeanette provided the creative flair, Gerald looked after the finances and logistics. Behind his relaxed manner lay a shrewd business brain and, respected as a man of his word, he won the trust of top suppliers.
Communally minded, he was a board member of Western Marble Arch Synagogue (as it is now called) who recruited Jonathan Sacks as its rabbi. At a packed memorial service at WMA in May, the Emeritus Chief Rabbi remembered him “as one of my best advisers”.
He had a knack of being able to get his point across without upsetting people. He once took out the food and beverage manager of the Israeli hotel where his family would spend Pesach to the best restaurant in Tel Aviv – to show him what good food and service actually were: they became firm friends.
It was a conversation in shul one Shabbat morning with David Clore, younger brother of Sir Charles, who headed fundraising for Nightingale House, the south London Jewish home for the elderly, that led to his involvement with the charity. He became a trustee, then chairman in 1985 and latterly its life-president.
A more recent chairman, Harvey Rosenblatt, recalled, “Dave Clore was a phenomenal fundraiser but Gerald took it to a new level”. He presided over a significant development of the home as care challenges grew more complex, enabling it to rest on a secure financial base without having to dip into reserves. His charitable service earned him an MBE in 1999 and when he stepped down as chairman after 16 years, a wing was named after him.
His first marriage to Shirley Lipert in 1957 ended in divorce. But he had 44 years of happiness with his second wife Wendy (née Kingsley).
As home dining declined during the 1990s and suppliers opened shops abroad, Chinacraft switched to catering for the restaurant and hotel industry. Three of his children, Carolyn, Tim and Sam followed him into the business.
For many years, he studied Torah at home with Rabbi Joey Grunfeld, director of Project Seed, and played chazanut in the car on the journey down to his flat in France. He was a keen golfer and frequent bridge player.
A broken leg sustained when a motorbike hit him when he was 20, cut short his cricketing and rugby days. When he took up golf in his 30s, one club instructor asked why he had not yet joined it. “What is your position on Jews?” he asked. “We don’t have any,” came the reply. “Which is why I am not a member,” Gerald said. He is survived by his wife Wendy, children Carolyn, Jane, Sam and Tim, 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. SIMON ROCKER
Gerald Julian Lipton; born November 1, 1927. Died April 9, 2017.