PRIMAVERA: A History

May 30, 2017

Primavera has been open for over 70 years. It was founded by Henry Rothschild in 1945 and in 1959 moved from Sloane Street, London to its current location in Cambridge right opposite King's College Chapel, where it took over from the Cambridge Society of Designer-Craftsmen. After the interior was refitted by Gordon and Ursula Bowyer and the basement redesigned as a textile showroom, the shop was managed by Marian Goodwin and her friend Valerie Webb for the next nine years. The gallery was purchased by Ronald Pile in 1980 and then by its current owner Jeremy Waller in 1999.


One cannot help but suspect that Mr Rothschild chose this location on King’s Parade very carefully. Despite being directly opposite the dramatic architecture of King’s College and its chapel, these historic shop fronts have their own equally fascinating stories to tell. Primavera covers three floors- the top floor used to be the home of the poet and essayist Charles Lamb and his sister Mary over the summer of 1819, with rooms overlooking King’s Parade. Charles was a contemporary and good friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (to whom he dedicated his poetical works) and William Wordsworth. A sonnet written by Lamb called 'Written in Cambridge' gives us some insight into his time at King’s Parade:

           

Mine have been anything but studious hours.
Yet can I fancy, wandering ‘mid thy towers
Myself a nursling, Granta, of thy lap;
(…) And I walk gowned; feel unusual powers.
Strange forms of logic clothe my admiring speech (…)[1]

 

Lamb describes what it’s like to live in a city built upon serious academia while finding oneself hopelessly swept up in the whimsical daydream of it all. The romance and beauty of quotidian life in Cambridge is enough to soften the hearts of even the hardest academics.


As well as poets, many artists are associated with King’s Parade, and the street holds a tradition of carving, framing and print-selling businesses as well as art galleries. Of course, Louise Raynor’s much-loved watercolour hangs in the Guildhall and, unlike much of the artwork depicting King’s Parade, shows in some detail the shop fronts of the businesses which lived, figuratively and literally, in the shadow of King’s College.

Primavera 1960

Interior of Primavera c. 1960s. Many thanks to the Cambridge Collection at Cambridge Central Library.

Primavera interior 1960


But there was one night a year when all the attention fell to a humble shop front. Next door to Primavera at 9 King's Parade was a chemist’s owned by the Deck family who were renowned for carrying an exciting tradition; on December 31st of each year Cambridge residents flocked to King's Parade to see Mr. Deck let the rockets off for New Year's Eve while a street party roared below. Until 1914 these firework displays were highly anticipated events in the Cambridge calendar, and Isaiah Deck even became known as Guy Fawkes by his friends because of his flair for pyrotechnics.[2]


All these anecdotes and quirks of King’s Parade have shaped Primavera into the gallery it is today. Primavera has evolved at the same rate as contemporary art and crafts, but certain treasures such as our ancient upstairs gallery and our pottery by the legendary Lucie Rie and Bernard Leach are important links to the history of our landmark gallery. Mr Rothschild selected a Cambridge location that will never cease to inspire those who helped build Primavera, where beauty exists as much in the Cambridge day-to-day as it does in the intricacy of the architecture. No matter whether you’re a painter, writer or proud spectator, King’s Parade has attracted people who appreciate true beauty for centuries and will continue to do so. We at Primavera intend to do the same.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Harrod, Tanya, and Greg, Andrew, Primavera: Pioneering Craft and Design 1945–1995 (Newcastle upon Tyne: Tyne and Wear Museums, 1995)

Lamb, Charles, The Poetical Works of Charles Lamb, 4th edn, (London: H. G. Bohn)

Payne, Sara, Down Your Street: Cambridge Past and Present, vol. 1: Central Cambridge (Cambridge: The Pevensey Press, 1983). Individual chapters first published as a column in Cambridge Weekly News.