THE HISTORY OF M. SALTMARSH
Suppliers of fine artists’ materials in Tunbridge Wells since 1835.
The business known as M.Saltmarsh was established in the year 1835 – just before Queen Victoria came to the throne. Not only is Saltmarsh’s longevity remarkable for the Tunbridge Wells area, the celebrated art supply wholesalers Winsor and Newton (themselves established as long ago as 1832) maintain that Saltmarsh is the oldest surviving retail supplier of art materials in this country.
Be this as it may, by any standard this is a remarkably long-lived business. As might be expected, the actual Saltmarsh shop has changed position and ownership several times during the period of its existence.
Origins and Early Years
During the year 1835 a young man from Brighton came to Tunbridge Wells and opened a gilders, framers and art shop at 7 Edger Terrace, (above right) a row of buildings that has long since vanished but once stood at the bottom of Grove Hill Road. His name was John Saltmarsh (1837-41) and he gave his business the family name. Despite his comparatively young age he was a widower, but in the same year in which he opened the shop he took new wife – Elizabeth. The shop seems to have flourished and in 1837 the couple had a son Mark (1837-1910) who was one day to take over the business and from whom the ‘M’ in M Saltmarsh derives.
Sadly, the thriving new business was soon hit by catastrophe. In 1841, just six years after opening his shop, John died from a psoas abscess. How badly this hit the business is something that can only be guessed at, but we do know that Elizabeth managed to keep the shop going.
The coming of the railway also caused upheaval as Edger Terrace was sited where the tunnel now passes out from Tunbridge Wells railway station.
The business was, therefore, obliged to make the first of its several moves. The 1847 Country Trade Directory for Kent lists: Saltmarsh, Elizabeth, carver, gilder, High Street. By 1867, however, her son Mark had taken over, the trade directory listing for that year reads: Saltmarsh, M, carver, gilder, artist’s colourman, 5, South Grove Terrace, High Street.
Move to 39 High Street
South Grove Terrace lay just behind the High Street and behind a now vanished building called Picton House. Eventually, this became 39 High Street and at an unknown date Saltmarsh transferred and became established there.
Mark Saltmarsh's wife Maria (left) had thirteen children, four of whom died during childhood. Of those who lived, several pursued something of an artistic career and two involved themselves closely with the shop.
These were Louisa (left) (1861-1956) and Bessie (1875 –1964) and, remarkably, the two sisters continued the tradition of family ownership of the business until the second half of the twentieth century.
But only just - they finally sold their interest in January 1950 and The Kent and Sussex Courier commemorated the event with a headline and an accompanying article. Louisa was, apparently, still working in the shop during her 90th year, teaching drawing as a sideline and in the newspaper article she looked back to the days when she said: From 39 High Street we had a view right over the common for there were only little cottage buildings on the opposite side.
Although the sisters were retiring they retained their active interest in art and remained members of the Tunbridge Wells Art Society. Indeed their younger married sister Nellie Wright was well known for her portraits and miniatures.
End of the Saltmarsh Family Ownership
In 1937 the business had been transferred to the premises that so many residents of Tunbridge Wells area remember – 23 Vale Road, and it was this premises that the sisters sold, lock, stock, and barrel, in 1950. For the first time the business passed out of the hands of the Saltmarsh family. It was bought by a Mr Coton. His son Peter still remembers living in the rooms above the old Vale Road shop and his name, carved when he was just a boy, is still visible on the counter top. Although he long ago emigrated to Australia, he still visits occasionally and, at the time of writing still owns the old building at Vale Road.
In 1950, immediately after buying the shop, Mr cotton senior reintroduced picture framing. Under the sisters this aspect of the business had lapsed and the new owner set about re-instating it with a will. He purchased 200,000 feet of moulding and a state of the art mitre cutter. So newsworthy was this event deemed to be that it was reported with several columns of description in the local paper.
The Cotons ran the business for ten years. Mrs Coton is remembered very fondly in the town for her friendly approach to the customers. In 1960 they sold the business. The new proprietor was a gallery owner from north London by the name of Arthur Simmonds. Simmonds never actually worked in the shop but appointed two ladies who did so for years and are well and affectionately remembered by many - Ethel Boorman and Clare Hardy. Apparently, Arthur Simmonds travelled from London at the end of each day to attend to the books and accounts – and then travelled back again.
During the 1990’s Mr Simmonds became increasingly unable to run the business effectively. His two assistants, like him steadily advancing in years, left and the business started to show signs of neglect. Finally in 1998, the end was in sight. Facing tough local competition and in a state of considerable disorder, no-one could be found who would be prepared to buy the business. Saltmarsh faced imminent closure. Once again the shop made local papers (Left).
Saved by Sue Luck
At this low point in its history, the shop was being staffed by a number of people, most just filling in odd hours here and there. One of these was Sue Luck. Unable to bear the thought that the business would actually close after 163 years, she finally plucked up the courage and decided to buy it. At the last minute – and with no other offer on the table – Arthur Simmonds sold her the stock, the firm’s good will and the fixtures and fittings.
Much of the old shop furniture (left) she has retained and is still in used in the shop. For four years Saltmarsh’s new proprietor, Sue Luck, worked to re-establish the business on a proper footing and then in March 2004 felt in a position to move the shop to larger premises in a more central location at 32 Monson Road (Top Right).
Barely a year later she was able to acquire the lease on the shop next door, (Left) almost doubling the available floor space and allowing her to open a craft department and also to re-introduce one of Saltmarsh’s oldest services, picture framing.
As for the future, we will bring in new ideas, crafts and art materials of course but more importantly will still keep the spirit of Mark Saltmarsh when we celebrate the shop's 200th birthday in less than 30 years!