Tuesday, July 13, 2010

John Street, London


Bring on the apple sauce

The other day I went on an inspiring trip* aboard a Routemaster bus to look at lettering on buildings around the capital. This expedition was led by Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, experts in letters both typographical and architectural. We were privileged that our guides shared a wealth of information, giving background stories about familiar bits of lettering as well as pointing out examples that were new even to me (and I’m the one you’ll bump into as I walk around looking ever upward, oblivious to fellow pedestrians, who are probably cursing as they try to dodge me).

This boar is an old friend but I’d never been able to find out much about him. The building he adorns seems to have been a butcher’s shop with offices above, which seems fitting, this being close to Smithfield Market, an area rich in architectural lettering of all kinds. The text next to the boar says ‘Rebuilt by Wm Harris 1897’ and the façade also has a ‘WH’ monogram. So presumably the otherwise mysterious Mr WH was a butcher – probably a pork butcher, since butchers often specialized in the Victorian period.

The lettering, as our guides pointed out, is awkwardly arranged – the strokes uneven in width, the forms crude, the ‘S’ and ‘7’ top-heavy. And the boar itself has an unfinished look, as if Mr Harris, eager to get his premises rebuilt after some disaster – a fire, perhaps – was impatient to get the plaque up, the scaffolding down, and the doors open. In spite of all this, the plaque has a charm that, like so many decorations on buildings in the capital, made it worth an upward glance, and even a crick in the neck.

*And I must offer sincere thanks to both the friends who invited me on this memorable journey.

19 comments:

bazza said...

I'm so jealous - a Routemaster bus!
I know that part of London quite well. Next time I'll look skyward.
(I like the carved lettering on the entrances to Bush House in the Strand.) I think you've dicovered a vein that you could mine forever.

bazza said...

I'm so jealous - a Routemaster bus!
I know that part of London quite well. Next time I'll look skyward.
(I like the carved lettering on the entrances to Bush House in the Strand.) I think you've dicovered a vein that you could mine forever.

Philip Wilkinson said...

The Routemaster bus was indeed a memorable and nostalgic experience. Many is the number 9 and number 11 I've jumped on and off in my time, risking damage to life, or anyway limb.

The trip was a joy and a privilege, and you have reminded me to amend my post to thank the friends who made it possible. And the whole realm of architectural lettering is fascinating. No doubt I'll be returning to it soon.

Kit and Kaboodle said...

Just a thought, but might it be worth delving through a local Kelly's Directory to see if you can find out more about William Harris' occupation? A lot of libraries still retain them and you might just strike lucky and be able to verify your suppositions?

Philip Wilkinson said...

K and K: Yes, that's a good thought. Kelly's Directories are a good source for this kind of thing.

Valentin Mandache said...

The lettering looks quite in the vein of the Art Nouveau style to me, with somehow flamboyant shapes, although they are quite naively rendered. I see that the plaque has suffered perhaps one or some successive unkind restorations. It may be the original one, salvaged after whatever disaster affected the building before reconstruction. I think that the 1897 'restorers' were just cheaper brick layers employed by the butcher and not masons (there was an economic crisis in the 1890s); for example some bits of the boar's body seem just plastered with brick mortar- see also the strange shape reconstruction of its snort (made also from the same type of plaster), etc.

Neil said...

What fascinated me about this building were the Art Nouveau touches (not visible in your photo), and then round the corner was a complete Art Nouveau pub, the Fox and Anchor, from the following year. You wonder if the same builders were at work on both buildings.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, I think naively rendered Art Nouveau sums up the lettering. I wondered about the strange texture on the body - brick mortar does look a likely culprit.

CarolineLD said...

I envy you the trip, too - and this plaque is a favourite of mine. For some reason I'd assumed it was probably a pub sign, but the pork butcher theory does make a lot of sense.

Peter Ashley said...

Ron Combo was once very nearly run over by a Routemaster bus outside Norman Shaw's arts 'n' crafts pub in Bedford Park- The Tabard.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Neil: The Art Nouveau pub is a delight, but I'm not sure the pictures I took of it were good enough. Will have to return and explore the interior too, which looked interesting.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Stepping back to admire a building can be a dangerous business. I presume Ron had been in the pub before his near-death experience with the Routemaster...

DC said...

"butchers often specialized in the Victorian period"

Hmmm. I know what you mean, but this does make butchers sound like undergradulate historians: "It's not my period..."

Very jealous of your tour. I think most towns could suppport a 'look upwards' tour, though possibly not one solely focussed on architectural typography.

Philip Wilkinson said...

DC: Oh, very droll, yes. And it's not just undergraduates I've heard using such turns of phrase. I've heard professors backing out of an argument with hazard lights blinking while uttering the words 'But it's not my period'.

All looking up is good, and the activity is even more interesting when done under the guidance of experts like Baines and Dixon.

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Congratulations for this very enriching blog. Do you ming if I add a link from mine (http://on-sebs-steps.blogspot.com/) ? I shall be looking forward to your next post.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Sebastien:Yes, do please add a link to here from your blog and I'll link to you from here.

Sebastien Ardouin said...

Thanks. Done.

Ron Combo said...

That'll have been the number 94. A magical number, when it comes to being run over. Much better than the 22 to Putney as it happens, which nearly cleared me up one evening in Sloane Square having indulged too much in that ghastly Hooray bar, the Oriel Brasserie which, of course, I loved enormously.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Ron: There's much attention paid these days to the health and safety of people jumping on and off buses – sounds as if more should be devoted to those who find themselves in the path of oncoming red monsters intent on reaching West London before bedtime.