Monday, February 15, 2010

New Oxford Street, London


Umbrella men

This is one of my favourite London shop fronts, and I expect a lot of my readers are familiar with it too. So, instead of the main double-fronted New Oxford Street façade, here’s a photograph of the part around the corner in West Central Street, which, like its bigger conjoined sibling, is largely from about 1870 (although the business was established 40 years earlier) and packed full of Victorian exuberance. Gone is the restraint of the Georgian and Regency periods, when shops often had rather discreet bow windows and shoppers had to peer through small panes of glass at the goods within. Instead there’s Victorian display in all its hyperactive glory. The Gothic iron cresting above the fascia, the use of mirror glass, the division of the glazing into large sections, the brightly polished metalwork just below the window, and, most of all, the lettering – it is all very much and very richly of its time.

Most of the signage consists of lettering painted on to the back of glass panels. This is done in a choice of letterforms that will delight anyone with an interest in 19th-century graphic art – I especially like the capital J with its branching top and all the ornate gold capitals in the upper part of the window (the transom light in shop-parlance).

The stock that’s being advertised also harks back to another world. Not just umbrellas, but sticks and whips are offered, and, on the New Oxford Street front, Malacca canes and tropical sunshades evoke the imperial past. Dagger canes and swordsticks are mentioned too – you’ll not be able to get those today – all lovingly lettered as only the Victorians knew how.

Swordsticks or not, there’s something satisfying about the fact that, after 170 years in business, the umbrella men are still plying their trade here, with ranks of brollies at the ready for a London downpour. And if your fabric’s torn or a spoke gets bent, the Victorian signage advertises repairs too: ‘Umbrellas recovered, renovated & repaired. Sticks repolished.’ Bring your parasol…

20 comments:

Fr Lawrence Ng said...

nice, I must remember to come by this part when I visit London hopefully next year in June.

Hels said...

I do love the attention paid to gold and silver "mounters", and to the fact that the official hallmark would appear on all silver objects. Even though the objects were fairly mundane (walking sticks and umbrellas), a careful person would not risk buying silver without the proper hallmarks.

Love it :)

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you both for your comments.

Hels: Yes, the bit about the hallmarked silver is good, isn't it. The shop is presenting itself as a quality establishment. You're meant to think: this is not some downmarket umbrella shop in a backstreet in the suburbs, this is the West End, where the sophisticates go for their canes with hallmarked silver mounts. I'll not feel out of place at the opera if my cane comes from Smith's!

London has another marvellous umbrella shop with an Art Deco front, but I don't have a photograph of it yet. One of these days...

Peter Ashley said...

I have bought an umbrella here; a cheapo grabbed in a London downpour. How they must pray for rain in Smith's. And I love the red bus tucked in there.

Bucks Retronaut said...

I seem to recall that a Chefs` Outfitters named Denny`s,had a similar shop front somewhere in Soho.
I hope it`s still there.

DC said...

One of the "must sees" for any London visitor. Sadly they don't repolish canes any more...I took my Grandpa's malacca opera cane to them for just that. But they did have the gold top repaired. I plan to get a new umbrella there within the next week or so and insist on anyone I know who needs one patronising them

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Pleased you like the bus. Rows of buses going along New Oxford Street was one reason I couldn't get a decent photograph of the other frontage - frustrating, although I quite like seeing the side for a change.

Peter Ashley said...

A red bus and a building neatly brings back the memory of watching Ron Combo launch himself across the old Bath Road in Bedford Park outside Norman Shaw's Tabard Inn and narrowly missing the radiator grille of a Routemaster.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Had a similar near miss in the Kings Road once. 'Alcohol is a good anaesthetic,' said my companion. A warning shot across the bows.

Wartime Housewife said...

An elderly lady of my aquaintance is too proud to carry a walking stick but is nonetheless intermittently unstable. She purchased an umbrella with a charming duck head handle from that shop that is reinforced to double as a walking stick. First rate.

Philip Wilkinson said...

WTHW: What a good idea. I'll remember it for when I get wobbly.

Jon Dudley said...

Do you think this is where grandma of the Giles cartoons purchased her gamp? I like to think so. Passed the wonderful shop on friday en route to a life-enhancing lunch at the Ivy...can't remember anything else after that so it can't have been that life-enhancing. How do James Smith keep going? I'm glad they do.

Philip Wilkinson said...

It's marvellous that they're able to carry on doing what they do, on that same site. Having blogged about Lock, the hatter, I must do some more shops that are still in the same premises after many years. Next stop Berry Bros and Rudd?

Jon Dudley said...

I have more of an understanding of the rapidly consumable product that is wine...but how many times a week do you buy an umbrella?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jon: I know, it's extraordinary isn't it? And the range of back-up stock they offered in Victorian times - swordsticks, Malacca canes and all that - is hardly keeping them afloat these days. It all reminds me of the friend who once went into a traditional gentlemen's outfitter's to ask for a solar topee. The assistant politely responded: 'I think you will find, sir, that they are not much worn now.'

DC said...

I assume they must own their freehold to keep operating. Mind you, I went in on Saturday to buy my umbrella and was far from the only customer; as I had been when I took a collegaue there to buy one a few months ago (which he has since lost and has subsequently gone back to them for a replacement for!).

As to survival, the umbrellas are well-made but not inexpensive; a gent's will cost either c.£70 or c£150 depending on quality. Money well spent.

Jon Dudley said...

Which I suppose takes us in a round about way to The Railway Lost Property Shop...always full of lost umbrellas. Whatever happened to this treasure store?

TIW said...

Bucks Retronaut: Denny's is still going strong, though they've moved round the corner from Old Compton Street to a modern shop opposite the French House. Must have been about 10 years ago. I remember the old shop too, full of mahogany drawers with brass knobs. I think that's now a Costa Coffee outlet.

steve said...

It is a wonderful place, and good service. Personal visit essential even though they have a website as it is very limited.
Unfortunately they will only repair etc items they have sold.
excellent webs ite (yours) by the way. Steve

Philip Wilkinson said...

Steve: Thanks for your comment and appreciation. Good to hear they are still going strong.