Without St. Petersburg paints, there wouldn’t be a Jackson’s. Back in the early ‘90s, Nick Bell, a friend of mine from art college, was on an exchange to Moscow. He stumbled across an art shop that stocked these very inexpensive artist oil paints, labelled only in Russian and with a Cyrillic letter logo that looked like a 3 and a K but was actually a 3XK.
3 – завод – plant
X – художественных – artistic
K – красок – paints
He decided to bring some home. He gave me some to try, and although the oil-soaked, leaking tubes were slightly sticky, I was amazed by the most intense colours that I had ever used or hoped to afford. It was a similar story with the watercolours — beautiful paints in pans that were almost impossible to unwrap. In fact, we used to advise customers to leave the pans in the fridge for a few hours, so that they wouldn’t be as sticky and you could get the foil off in one piece. Nick persuaded the Royal College of Art shop to stock the oils and quickly his import business grew from a suitcase to a van.
At the time, I had opened a gallery with another art school friend in a converted shop in Waterloo, London. Although we had the occasional visit from prominent artists and collectors, Waterloo was, at that point, not the most conducive site for a contemporary gallery and as a result, we struggled to make ends meet.
So, Nick with only one (albeit very good) customer, and nowhere to store his paint, joined forces with us and our struggling gallery, and we began to sell art materials from the basement. There was a trickle of customers, but most were not overly impressed with the rough Russian packaging, the barely decipherable colour names, and the 5 ft high ceiling of our shop! Even with prices at a fraction of the high street brands, the sales didn’t take off. Then, out of the blue, an artist, searching for a rare Russian green pigment, ordered a watercolour set and wrote a glowing review for one of the practical art magazines. Almost overnight, we were inundated with cheques from all over the country, and a mail-order company was born: 3K Project Art.
We added other products to the range—acrylics from Spain and Handover brushes (more about that later)—but quickly realised that in order to fulfill customer expectations we needed a complete array of art materials. We mentioned this to the owner of an art shop in Leeds, a trade customer of ours at the time, and he offered to fund the enterprise with stock from his shop. We left the gallery in safe, single salary hands, and Nick and I packed our bags and moved to Leeds to start our new baby—Art Express.
Digital photography was barely a thing, but we were the first to produce a fine art material colour catalogue in the UK. We even had a shoppable website, although no one really bought online at the time. We went from strength to strength as a mail-order company and very quickly surpassed the art shop in sales, setting new standards in delivery times and pricing. Unfortunately, our new business partner had other ideas for the business and at the peak of our success, we were unceremoniously dumped. We were very young and green, and looking back, we can now put what happened down to experience. At this point, Nick had had enough and returned to his artistic talent, architecture, which he has continued to this day and with a very successful practice in Sydney.
I, on the other hand, had trained as a painter—abstract at that—and needed to find new ways to fund the cost of living. My first venture was a stretched canvas business—Italian linen sold out of a railway arch under Putney Bridge tube station in Fulham, now the premises for one of our stores and run by another art college and painter friend, Tim. Whilst I was offering a great quality canvas, I had the same old problem of not offering enough diversity of product to fulfil the customer’s needs. It was tough, although I did have plenty of time to paint. The following year I received a call from Michael, the owner of Handover brushes, who had heard about our story in Leeds and he kindly offered to help me set up in competition to Art Express. I jumped at the opportunity, and in late 1999, I set about designing the new Jackson’s catalogue, full of incredible value brushes. In January 2000, we launched it and the company quickly grew in reputation.
Today, we send out 1500 orders a day to tens of thousands of artists in 150 countries around the globe, including to my delight, Russia. We are not a traditional family business but we do have families, many of us are practising artists, we are independent and not owned by any bank or corporation. Our ethos has always been the same, we hunt down the finest materials we can, often with the help and guidance of our customers, importing directly when possible, and by cutting out distributors we are able to keep the selling price down to a minimum. We’ll commission or make products that aren’t available, and if we think we can improve on quality or price, we will. Our level of service is second to none. Our great team of knowledgeable staff work very hard on educating artists about the best use of materials, and, more than anything, we listen to our customers and react accordingly. It seems to work.