The plan to do last year’s Christmas shop at Peter Jones on 23 December was doomed from its sorry inception. I was soaked by the time I got there, my plimsolls waterlogged, kept going only by my expectation of a quiet and civilised department store, rammed to the skylights with perfect presents. Instead, I found myself spearing a path through the seething, teeming, hostile masses with my sodden umbrella, and, worse — finding its stock all but decimated.
The claustrophobia that ripped through me was so violent that I was forced to run to the toilets to hide — and even then I had to queue. I shivered in the stairwell and contemplated defeat. What do you do about all those uncles? In-laws? The distant and slightly boring cousins, the godchildren you can’t quite see the point of, the friends who every year make a point of sending amusing but completely pointless trinkets swathed in pop-culture wrapping paper? Two words came to me like a revelation: The Tate!
Enveloped in the great gallery’s warm interior, everything fell into place. The shop bulged with products suitable for all ages, creeds and categories: ‘how to draw’ books for children; Litchenstein cushions; massive murals by the madman Richard Dadd; Damien Hirst ‘pill’ scarves for the junkie in your life. The experience was enough to prompt a serious question: why make a hurried mass-purchase anywhere other than a museum shop? They are civilised and well-staffed and free from the tyranny of pounding, lifestyle-choice dance music that makes shopping almost everywhere else such hell.
Yesterday, a trawl around three major London galleries confronted me with everything from William Morris print scarves to a solar-powered statuette of the Queen that waves when placed in the sunlight. If you’ve aunts to buy for, the Royal Academy shop does a lovely line in canvas bags printed with Barbara Raes.
And come Christmas Day, you can delight in your perceived magnanimity, and quite forget your rotten disingenuousness. A gallery or museum’s branding suggests not only that you are au fait with a certain cultural landscape, but also that you’ve (ha!) genuinely thought about the intended recipient; it will appear that rather than doing a perfunctory, obligation-killing one-stop shop, you’ve visited an exhibition and on the way out happened to notice an object that for whatever reason put you in mind of them. You shouldn’t, of course, feel obliged to look around any exhibitions. It’s a curious but consistent feature of the museum or gallery shop that it is almost always a great deal more interesting than the exhibitions themselves. Were it not for the entertaining range of taxidermy and novelty products it sells, why on earth would anyone ever visit the Saatchi Gallery?
If you’ve done the Tates, Nat Gal and the RA too, and found no suitable gimmicks on offer, just buy a bunch of tasteful but dull art books — should anyone dare to complain, they’ll look stupid and philistine as well as ungrateful.