Derek Parker - Inside the Historic Rocks Store

Story by Joe Frost

Reproduced with the kind permission of Artist Profile Magazine from Edition 46. 

Taking over the family business was not initially Derek Parker’s calling. During his twenties he was occupied with travel and aid work in Africa and was somewhat indifferent to his place in a long line of suppliers to some of Australia’s most celebrated artists. But his father’s early death and the birth of his own children brought him into the fold of Parkers Art Supplies, to be mentored as a future manager by his uncle Lindsay and grandfather Clarie.

Now, thirty years later he is overseeing the celebration of a remarkable centenary. For one hundred years the Parker family has served artists and galleries in Sydney through a business that is still located in The Rocks district, and is still owned and managed by the direct descendants of Sydney Albert (S.A.) Parker.

Parkers Art Supplies today maintains a large, abundantly stocked store on the corner of the historic sandstone excavation of the Argyle Cut, a smaller outlet at Darlinghurst’s National Art School (NAS), and a framing and canvas stretching workshop in Redfern. Derek shuttles between them in one of the city’s most understatedly stylish delivery vehicles, a timber-paneled 1977 Volkswagen Kombi utility. With around twenty employees (mostly artists) serving customers, the family has earned a reputation for treating people and products with respect, and countless customers have enjoyed a long association with the store.

Behind the old-world ambience of sandstone and sable it has been the family’s adaptation to change that has kept them in business, and while Derek is not one to boast, this year he may find it a touch more difficult to play down the significant intertwining of the Parkers’ story with the history of art in Australia.

The story begins as long ago as 1886, not in Sydney but Melbourne. There, the teenage S.A. Parker was employed in the photographic trade alongside Tom Roberts. Parker’s skill as a mount cutter kept him in work when he moved to Sydney, and in 1917 he bought the successful framing business that had been his employer. He did not place the Parkers name above the door until a few years later (hence the delaying of centenary celebrations until 2019), but the business went from strength to strength, meeting the prevailing taste for ornate, gilded picture frames, all handmade. George Lambert and Hans Heysen were frequent customers.

As the influence of modernism changed artists’ preferences, Parker created frames that were less elaborate but uniquely crafted to match the character of individual works by artists such as Margaret Preston, Ralph Balson and Grace Cossington Smith. Her 1928-29 The curve of the bridge is one of Derek’s favourite frames, with a textured finish that has subtly enhanced the work for generations of visitors to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In its second-generation Parkers remained dominant in fine art framing but also serviced the market for photographic frames, with clients including Kodak and Woolworths. At its height, a framing factory in dockside Sussex Street employed forty people, taking in raw timber on the ground floor and turning it into finished items on the levels above. Parkers leased space within its George Street premises in The Rocks to artists including Thea Proctor and Henry Dangar and ran an art gallery.

The art supplies store that is now the core of the Parkers business was established by Derek’s father Phillip in the 1970s, but there was significant work to establish the plenitude of stock available today.‘During my father’s time,’ Derek explains, ‘two brands of oil and one acrylic were offered, and when I took over there was an opportunity for me to take the store into a more progressive, contemporary direction.

‘We were not fully capitalising on new products such as acrylic paint in the ’60s and ’70s. There was an up-scaling of the work people were making as well – people coming in from New York who were used to getting rolls of linen that were not just two metres wide but three. Or visitors from overseas looking for a brand of paint we had never seen in Australia. Today we stock eighteen oil colour and twelve acrylic colour ranges.’

To secure the supply of quality products, Derek has visited manufacturers the world over, from giant factories to small, local businesses. Behind every shelf of products there are unique circumstances of production and procurement, and he has witnessed the struggle of smaller companies to maintain traditional methods of manufacture in the face of a massive, homogenised market for cheap products.

‘One of my passions is handmade paper. There is a character and texture that could never be duplicated by machine. I have gone to a number of mills but unfortunately there are fewer and fewer each year. We used to sell a paper that was two metres by two metres, a textured paper of linen and cotton, made in Spain. The weight of lifting the paper out of the bath was … well, let’s just say the muscles on each chap’s arms were very developed.’

‘That paper went out of production. We were able to have it made in France by Moulin de Pombie until they had a fire in their mill. They borrowed from the bank, the GFC came along and the bank sold the mill to a coffee filter paper company. A gain for the world of coffee, but the world of fine papers took a loss.’

‘The good news,’ he concludes, ‘is that the Spanish have returned to the making of the paper and it is a work of art in itself.’

It is the stocking of items like these, in a bricks-and-mortar store where artists can see what they are buying, that continues to make Parkers a destination. In his role as a procurer of materials, Derek is sometimes guided by artists and at other times takes the lead, introducing them to a medium that extends new possibilities for their work. Working with artists excites him and has provided him with some of his most cherished memories.

‘My earliest memory is the buzz and excitement of opening nights at the Parker Gallery, regular sell-out shows of Uncle Colin Parker and family friend Robert Wilson. As a teenager when I had just got my license I had the privilege of delivering canvases to Lloyd Rees. I strapped them on the back of my little ute and had them flapping across the Harbour Bridge, going over to Lane Cove. He was such a wonderful, warm individual who would invite you in for a cup of tea. And he was excited to have his new canvases.’

‘There have also been wonderful coincidences of one artist meeting another in the shop. Often, it’s the first meeting some people have had. And we’ve always had artists working for us who are passionate about materials. They often start working for us five days a week and as their careers grow, we adjust the roster, allowing them to work part time. We lose a few, however we have been able to maintain a loyal crew of dedicated staff.’

Like S. A. Parker, Derek has built a life in service of artists. With his daughter Isabella studying at the NAS and having worked at the NAS shop part-time for six years, the Parkers lineage has extended once again. But having been free to follow his own path, Derek has no intention to impose a succession plan. ‘There is some sense that maybe it won’t just be a fourth generation – there might be another,’ he ventures. ‘But it’s early days.’

The publication ‘S. A. Parker Framing Works’, produced by the AGNSW Research Library and Archive, provided much of the factual information cited in this article.