Unbelievably (to me, at least), last year marked the 30th anniversary of my starting at The Wine Society. A lot has changed, and a lot hasn't (and in more ways than I originally meant when I wrote this back in February 2020!) After all, as an organisation we have stuck pretty faithfully to the original tenets of our founders: 'to find the best wines at the lowest possible prices for our members' and our buyers continue to seek out wines 'hitherto unknown or but little known in this country'.
Something that has changed radically, though, is technology and the ways in which we can now communicate; dramatically so in the last year. My younger colleagues can't believe that when I first started, we shared a computer and a phone and used to write out wine notes by hand to be typed up to put into mixed cases. And a world without the internet?! Hard to compute! So, while what we do hasn't changed dramatically, how we do it has.
In 1990 our Chairman was Christopher Bradshaw (centre), a graphic designer who had been brought onto the Committee in the 1960s by then Chairman Edmund Penning-Rowsell (left) to rejuvenate our 'literature' (as it was referred to then). Christopher was instrumental in engaging the services of José Stocker, a freelance graphic designer, with whom we worked for many years and who transformed our leaflets and wine labels. Another of Penning-Rowsell's signings from the sixties, cartoonist Peter Probyn (right), though retired, used to pop into the offices occasionally (his daughter Claire, a graphic designer also later served on the Committee). Peter was as charming as you'd expect from his light-hearted and gentle-humoured drawings which were still being used at the time.
Also, on the Committee in the 1990s was another artist, Jim Russell. Jim wasn't just a talented artist, he epitomised the term 'people person' taking the time to really encourage the team in Stevenage, boosting our confidence to try out new things. His knowledge and experience (which he wore very lightly) proved invaluable when I was asked to take on the commissioning of artists for our wine Lists.
Always keen to bring on new talent, Jim accompanied me to grad shows to spot new artists (sadly for us illustration was already losing ground to installation and video art). We would scour papers and magazines for suitable candidates (and were particularly thrilled when we found those with connections to wine-producing regions!) Word-of-mouth within the artistic community also proved a useful source with introductions to established artists like David Gentleman, Graham Clarke and Sally Scott, many of whom were also Wine Society members.
We also built links with local artists and when we discovered that Hertfordshire-based textile artist Jeanette Appleton was travelling around Australia on a lecture tour and would have time to fit in a commission for us we were really excited. I was a little nervous about how hand-felted abstract art would translate to a List cover, but we were thrilled with the results. Jeanette used wool from Australian sheep and hand-dyed it using only locally sourced plants collected on her travels; her craft and skill an authentic representation of our winemakers' art.
And, of course, it made absolute sense to make the most of Jim's talents too, though he had to be pushed into accepting commissions – the most memorable of which for me was the painting of the Mortlach distillery. Mark Buckenham (our whisky buyer at the time) and I saw first-hand the blood (literally – the brambles were fierce!), sweat and dedication that go into producing a faithful and perfectionist rendition of the subject matter.
Though sadly long departed, Christopher and Jim's wise words live on (as do their artistic legacies). An important lesson that remains with me still is that even the most accomplished and famous of creative people like, possibly need, to be told that they have done a good job and that their hard work is appreciated.
Below I've chosen some of my favourite pieces of artwork which have graced our List covers and offers over the years. I hope you've enjoyed them too!