Saturday, November 26, 2016

London Wall, London

The red and the black

A lot of people like a fox. Attractively red-haired, bushy-tailed, and proverbially cunning, foxes capture our imagination somehow. They’re dog-like, but a bit wild. At least since the ancient Greeks* they’ve been admired for their resourcefulness. So if you’re actually called Fox, and you’re a shopkeeper, you must feel almost obliged to use the animal’s image in your publicity and on your shopfront. Like the wonderful Fox umbrella shop in London Wall. This is a delightful frontage that reflects the high fashion in retail architecture in the late-1930s. On one level, it’s very simple: just a plain rectangular window to set off the goods on display, a big name sign, the latest in black cladding – and the foxes, of course, on either side of the name.

But on another level this is a very elaborate and expensive confection. The metal window frames are stainless steel. The black cladding is Vitrolite, a coloured glass sheet material that was very popular in the 1920s and 1930s because it looked good, shed the dirt, and was available in the fashionable hues of the time – pink, eau de nil, black.† The windows had curved non-reflective glass. And that simple three-letter name plate is not so simple either. The steel letters light up at night thanks to neon tubes, also highly fashionable.
However, creating a good shopfront isn’t solely a matter of using the best, most fashionable materials. It’s also about arranging them artfully. The long rectangular window, for example, is a not quite as tall as many shop windows: this gives an almost cinematic feel, as well as allowing plenty of height for signage and the fascia, so that the short shop name can make its fully impact with large letters. Another artful touch is the way the steel letters of ‘FOX’ are edged in red, giving just a bit of colour during the day (there’s more at night, of course, with the neon lighting). Mr Fox’s shopfront is the bee’s knees.

The style of the shopfront reflected the quality of the products sold within. Apparently Winston Churchill used Fox umbrellas, and that personification of 1960s television style, the character John Steed in The Avengers, played by Patrick MacNee, carried an umbrella by Fox. The company still exists, though they no longer trade at London Wall.§ The premises are now given over to fine wines and dining, but the only concession to this is one line of signage below the shop name. The rest is still intact and glistening. Rain or shine.

- - - - -

* The poet Archilochus has a fragment, variously translated, that contrasts the fox and the hedgehog: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’, or words to that effect. And these days, foxes are all over greetings cards, on which they’re nearly as popular as hares.

† Vitrolite was used in the bathrooms at the Savoy Hotel. See my post here.

§ Fox are here.


Hels said...

Elegant! In a crowded cityscape, the shop had to stand out... somehow! The two elements that achieved this goal would have been a] the black, very smart Vitrolite and b] the neon tubes inside steel letters that lit up at night.

per apse said...

Once again - where your blog leads, others follow! Historic England (no less!) trailing closely behind you. to see The Fox facade again, along with some other great shopfronts. Profligate display - all the chocolates at once!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Per Apse: Great! Some of my favourites in their selection, including the two umbrella shops and Berry Bros and Rudd.