Derry and Toms department store was built in 1933, designed by architect Bernard George in the art Deco style. It had beautiful Art Deco details outside and inside by sculptor Walter Gilbert, and exterior stone reliefs by C. J. Mabey.
Derry and Toms was a branch of the John Barker and company department store who also owned nearby Pontings. All three were run as separate entities. The roof gardens of Derry and Toms were designed by Ralph Hancock a landscape architect.
He was commissioned by Trevor Bowen the managing director of Barkers department store who had been very impressed by Hancock’s roof garden design at the Rockerfeller Centre in New York. Work on the Derry and Toms garden construction started in 1936 and they opened in 1938.
Our move to the roof garden from Westbourne Park in the spring of 1973 went quite smoothly and we were installed in the big Art Deco style empty tearoom at the southern end of the one and a half acre gardens. The tearoom had ground to ceiling windows facing south, and mirrored walls opposite. Two large doors each end led to the staircases which were at each side of the building. We set our desks up at the windows to catch any sunshine because it was freezing up there with no heat at all. It was incredible up there though, the flowers and trees were beginning to bloom. We took any opportunity to walk around and look at the views of London over the brick walls and Mick and Chris took some photos, I only wish we had taken more.
On the floors below however there was organized chaos,I now know there were about 600 workers at that time putting Biba together and the noise and dust was unimaginable. The marble floors and carpets were being installed and beautiful Art deco details were being uncovered as the work progressed, we would go down in the evenings and wander around. There was no chance of ever taking a lift , they were all taken over by the workmen humping things around and we had to climb the seven floors on the side staircases every time we went out. This is where I would meet Barbara a lot running up or down with her walkie talkie [everybody had them]. She would cheerfully greet me and tell me what good exercise this was, but in my high heels I was not convinced . The two Brians were not with us this time, they were working at the Whitmore Thomas studio conveniently situated a five minute walk away in St Albans Grove [or Groove as they called it]. We had two craftsmen join us who were making miniature furniture for the kids’ department.
they also painted the big black and gold display windows that were to be installed on the outside of the building. On these windows the black background of the logo was painted in reverse on the back and the line work was left clear, then the line work was filled in with real gold leaf. We would watch holding our breath as the packages of gold leaf were opened and the line work delicately filled in. The result was stunning.
There were quite a lot of people who traipsed through the gardens that spring and Barbara or Fitz often brought people up there. Sometimes they would come into the tearoom which was becoming quite messy now. We used a lot of paper of course and there was always garbage bags full around . Uriah would come upstairs with Barbara’s dog Otto and sweep up for us and take the garbage downstairs. [More about Uriah next post]. Some people who came through wore suits and looked very official and somewhat bemused especially at us lot, and others were obviously friends of Barbara and Fitz , you could tell the difference. Workmen were constantly walking around too, quite often I would be working away and a group of them would set up right next to me and start sawing and hammering covering me and my artwork in dust and shouting at each other in foreign languages. One afternoon however I heard a cockney voice outside the window talking with glee about the ducks, I looked up and there was Twiggy. I believe she was there to do the famous Vogue fashion shoots in the Rainbow Room which was almost finished. The gardens only had ducks at that time , and there were tons of them. It was mating season and their behaviour was terrible, the drakes flew around chasing the females up and down the stream squawking and quacking. They attacked them constantly and it went on all day. Later , the females walked the little ducklings around and it was so cute to see them all in a line, the problem was they insisted on coming into the tearoom. They would march in through one door walk across the room and out through the other door, we could not chase them out because they might panic and fly everywhere. I saw quite a few guests or people having a meeting have to step aside to let the ducks pass. The female ducks were very cruel, they would peck and maim any stragglers in their brood. I set up a little duck hospital with some empty Biba shoeboxes but none of them survived. Sometimes nature close up is not so nice. Another wildlife drama happened one beautiful weekend afternoon. Chris and I stepped outside for a ciggie and admire the clear blue sky when we saw a big black cloud in the distance, it was coming towards us and then we heard the buzzing ” it’s ****ing bees!” Chris shouted and we dashed inside to wind up the top windows as they all descended on us hitting the windows like machine gun fire. They must have been attracted by the flowers. The work was really piling up at this time and everything was urgent. With all the logos completed they had to be applied to the packaging which was designed and art worked by Steve , Chris, and Mick. Meanwhile , I worked on the soap flakes pack . I took the idea of the washerwoman from the film ‘Gone with the wind’, she was based on the actress Hattie Mc Daniel who was Scarlett o’Hara’s maid. I wanted someone who was big, strong and vigorous. To get the artwork right I drew her in the negative so she originally looked white, the printers got it wrong however and did not reverse the artwork to make her black. I believe the packs were sold anyway, I wonder if any exist?
I was working on the soap flakes pack one day when a little boy sidled up beside me and was looking over my shoulder, “Do you work for my mummy and daddy?” he whispered. I realized later it was little Witold Fitz- Simon who was visiting the gardens with his nanny. Steve came up with the idea of the mens’ colouring book with black and white pin up drawings. I drew tons of roughs and Steve and Barbara selected the best and I set about the artwork. We had a great time at Thackery’s wine bar around the corner thinking up the captions, my favourite is ‘Barrelina’ for the Marlene Dietrich lookalike pinup on the barrel. Its a word that sounds like you have been drinking a lot of wine. A lot of the finished printed work was delivered to us and it looked amazing, everything was really taking shape. The Biba Diary followed after the pinup book I believe and of course the monumental task of the Biba newspaper was ahead. There were so many other things I illustrated that I cannot even remember some of them. The opening day was fast approaching, we were often taking peeks downstairs. It was all coming together and the units were being assembled , carpets and marble floors being cleaned up and the many faceted mirrors gleaming in the dark.