Feature

Bohemian Rhapsody

issue 7 - 2017
Words by CHARLOTTE HOGARTH-JONES · Images ANDREW WOFFINDEN

Since opening its doors in 2002, Petersham Nurseries has blazed the trail for eclectic bohemian chic and farm-to-fork cuisine. Francesco and Lara Boglione, two generations of the family behind this Richmond institution reveal how travel inspired their successful formula

issue 7 - 2017
By CHARLOTTE HOGARTH-JONES · Images ANDREW WOFFINDEN

Since opening its doors in 2002, Petersham Nurseries has blazed the trail for eclectic bohemian chic and farm-to-fork cuisine. Francesco and Lara Boglione, two generations of the family behind this Richmond institution reveal how travel inspired their successful formula

Lara and her sister Anna in India during Lara's gap year

Francesco chills out on the hippie trail in the 1970s

Francesco Boglione grins. “I was a hippie,” he says, “albeit quite an elegant one. When I was younger I spent about five years on the road from Kathmandu to Turin in a Volkswagen camper van, and then I lived between Kathmandu, Goa and Kabul, selling bits and pieces along the way to fund my lifestyle. There was a tribe of young westerners on the road at that time. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d end up becoming a restaurant-owner.”

Francesco is the man behind the famous Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, a family business that comprises an award-winning restaurant, tea rooms, shop and nursery, and is now settling into an enormous second site in Covent Garden. Headed up by his daughter Lara, this new branch includes a florist and homewares shop, with a delicatessen, restaurant and bar soon to follow. Not bad, considering Francesco never wanted to start a nursery in the first place. 

“They were selling the land surrounding my house in Richmond, and I didn’t want developers to ruin it, so I bought it,” he explains. “Luckily it wasn’t very expensive. I always think if I’d had four sons I would probably have made a five-a-side-football pitch instead! While I was scratching my head thinking what to do, my daughter Lara was travelling in India on her gap year. She was only a teenager, and I thought, ‘Right, I’d better go and see what she’s up to…’”

And here the Boglione story begins. For it was during their one-month journey around this captivating country that Francesco had the idea to create Petersham Nurseries, an elegant fusion of Indian, Italian, and British master-craftsmanship set in glorious English countryside. Thus inspired, he began collecting items for the nursery…

Travelling from Cochin in Southern India through Tamil Nadu, stopping via the spectacular temples in Madurai and taking a road-trip north to Chennai, Lara fell in love with the country. Francesco, meanwhile, returned to the life he had lived 40 years ago. “Back in the 1970s, I’d get a direct flight from Paris to Kabul and back, selling hippie paraphernalia on my stand, which was called ‘Afghanistan Bananistan’, in le marché Malik in Paris. When I was travelling with Lara, it all came flooding back – I starting seeing things and thinking, ‘Ah, that might look good in the nursery.’ Before you knew it, we’d collected enough to fill a 40ft container!”

At the market by one of the temples in Madurai, they found the elephant-decorated ribbons that all Petersham packages come wrapped in. In Pondicherry, they sourced hand-rolled incense made by women using their own organic herbs and spices. Tables were made, tattis (Indian blinds) were sourced, the nursery’s terracotta pots were made by the inhabitants of a village in Chennai.

“I think a lot of people go to India because it’s cheap,” says Lara, “but we both just actually love what they create there. We still use a lot of the same suppliers that we found on that first trip. I have an office in Madras now, and when we do an order of pots, we still have that whole village there making them for us. I’ve watched the children grow up.”

“It’s a pleasure because you feel like you’re preserving something,” adds Francesco.

Having a direct relationship with their craftsmen is something that’s of vital importance to the Bogliones, and they strive to support small businesses and charities. Speaking to them, however, it’s apparent that their connection to India is much more than just an appreciation of the beautiful objects produced here – it’s a lifelong love affair.

“It’s one of those places that’s so mad and chaotic,” says Lara, “but you can also find such peace. It’s a total sensory overload from the moment you get off the plane – from the temples to the cows in the street, to women walking past with the scent of jasmine in their hair. It’s life in all its colours.”

“I remember sitting in the back of a tuk-tuk,” adds Francesco, “and we were stuck in traffic. It was 40 degrees, everyone was honking their horns, and I was thinking, ‘Why on earth am I so happy here?’”

During their trip, the two shared a desire for authenticity, veering away from expensive hotels in favour of local guest houses. “When we arrived in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi,” recalls Francesco, “we said to the rickshaw driver, ‘Take us where you go to eat.’ He took us to the second floor of a private house – and it was amazing.”

Today, they continue to travel together to source objects for the ever-expanding empire. Indeed it’s their love of travel that has made Petersham the successful enterprise it is. And yet surely there’s more to achieving that much-lusted-after Petersham look of elegance and understated luxury than simply gathering up all your holiday purchases?

“It’s about the quality of the product,” explains Lara. “It’s easier than you think. OK, so you’ve got stuff from India, Morocco, France, Tuscany…. But if it’s all made with a very high level of craftsmanship, then it seamlessly fits together.” Maybe. And yet this is a family that has “effortlessly stylish” in its DNA – you only need to glimpse the supremely elegant mother of the clan, Gael Boglione, to understand that.

Today, Petersham is a business concern that involves the entire family. Lara’s sister Anna runs Petersham Road, the offshoot theatre company; Ruby is a buyer for the company; and brother Harry runs an organic farm in Devon that supplies all of Petersham’s restaurants, cafés and delis. This is a family that has an instinctive love of quality, and an eye for what’s aesthetically pleasing – from wrapping paper to wooden benches.

But it’s their travels, rather than the objects, that Lara and Francesco are most attached to. “I had some of the most free moments of my life in India,” explains Lara, “so it holds a sort of nostalgic power for me.”

“In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky to turn right out of Turin instead of left, all those years ago,” adds Francesco. “When I was younger I thought things would be there forever – they’ve been there for thousands of years! But sadly, what I saw has gone. Aleppo, the freedom of driving through Iran, camping by lakes in Afghanistan. There’s plenty of time to see the latest production on Broadway – and who cares if you miss one, anyway?”
petershamnurseries.com

“India is a total sensory overload from the moment you get off the plane... it’s life in all its colours”

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