This story begins in 1832, with the establishment of Winsor & Newton, famous for the artists materials that it makes. William Winsor was a scientist and Henry Newton was an artist and they set up a shop at 38 Rathbone Place, London.
The company quickly grew to become one of the main suppliers of art-related materials in the world, manufacturing a wide array of items that included oils, alkyds, watercolours, acrylics, pastels, brushes, canvases and papers.
They won a warrant to supply the Royal family and Queen Victoria was much taken with their brushes for her watercolours.
Even more important were their inventions. In 1840 they introduced glass syringes to replace the pigs’ bladders that had previously been used to contain their oil-based paints.
Then – two years later – they went one better. The fragile glass syringes were replaced by metal tubes with metal caps.
They were the first company to sell pre-prepared oil paints in this manner. This became the standard way to sell oil paints and it remains so to this day.
In 1837 Winsor & Newton acquired a varnish factory at King’s Cross and also took premises at Blackfriars for the grinding of oil colours.
These facilities were replaced or extended in 1844 when they set up a steam power factory in Kentish Town, known as the North London Colour Works.
This was established on Spring Place.
So, what was the connection with the Impressionists?
In 1870, the Franco-Prussian war drove Monet, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley to seek sanctuary in London.
They were already well on the way to inventing a free, immediate style of painting that would soon earn them the nickname “Impressionists.”
Claude Monet began using the Winsor & Newton handy collapsible tubes to paint along the Thames.
He ran into another man who was doing the same thing.
The other man was Charles-Francois Daubigny, another French painter, who was also escaping from the Prussian invasion of Paris.
Both had been side-lined in Paris because their art did not appeal to the Academie des Beaux-Arts.
The two became firm friends and soon a whole salon of French émigré artists came together in London.
This painting, by Daubigny, St Paul’s from the Surrey Side, dated 1873, was either begun on the spot and finished in the studio, or was worked up from sketches made of the river during this visit.
They were joined by their soon-to-be dealer Frederic Durand-Ruell and, when the war was over and it was safe to return, they went back to Paris to become known as the Impressionists.
That development started in London and was aided by Winsor and Newton. Without paint in tubes there would have been no painting en plein air, nor would there be Impressionism.
This conclusion was supported by Renoir.
He said: “Without paint in tubes, there would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what journalists were later to call Impressionists.”
The story does not end there – the factory still exists. In 1938 Winsor and Newton moved out of the building to Wealdstone.
Seventy odd years later the factory has been re-purposed as Spring Studios – fashionable photographic studios with a stylish daytime restaurant and bar.
It’s a favourite for fashion shoots and magazine cover stories for stars like Lady Gaga, Madonna and Pet Shop Boys (read about their experience here).
Its restored spaces plays host to a buzzy young crowd of sharply-attired creatives.
Rather different from the paint factory that served the Impressionists so well!