Tuesday, December 6, 2016


To th’Elephant

I was so pleased to find this sign, because, like so many three-dimensional inn signs, it enhances a city street while paying tribute to a business that goes back centuries. Bristol’s Elephant Inn in St Nicholas Street was originally built in the 17th century, but was demolished in 1863 when the street was widened. It was rebuilt, to a design by Henry Masters, in 1867, which is presumably the date of the carved elephant sign. Set among scrolls, acanthus leaves, and classical window surrounds, the sign stands out, and helps the facade stand out.

It must have seen a lot over the nearly 150 years it has been here and it’s an unusual and memorable addition to my collection of three-dimensional inn signs, themselves a scarce but I hope not endangered species – a bear here, a swan there, a unicorn rare, white harts almost everywhere. Why do I like these signs so much? Well, it’s obvious on one level isn’t it? I like most things that enliven the streetscape with a bit of art or craft and most things that are distinctive – that show someone trying to be a bit different form the usual hanging pub sign, excellent as many of these are. But it’s more than this. Old pub signs seem to embody memories. They make me think of the decades of enjoyment that people have had here, of the bottles of wines and spirits, the succession of pints and pink gins that must have been consumed here. Places of hospitality. We need them more than ever in these tough times. ‘To th’Elephant,’ as Antonio says to Sebastian in Twelfth Night.* Cheers! Or what you will.

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* Twelfth Night, Act 3 scene 3


KirstenM said...

We've got a three dimensional bear hanging outside the pub of that name in Horsham. Favourite haunt of Morriss Dancers on May Day.

Philip Wilkinson said...

KirstenM: Thank you. Yes. There are a few bears around (Devizes, Wareham, Horsham) and the signs are very attractive.

Hels said...

Love it, thanks!

White harts yes, but have you ever asked the drinkers/bar tenders why an elephant? I was fascinated by elephants in French public art, as was Geri Walton in her post "Hans and Marguerite: The Elephants of France". But we never considered the elephant's relevance in Britain.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Why an elephant? It depends who you ask. In this case it seems to have been a very longstanding name, going back at least to the 18th century. Back then elephants were used emblematically by the cutlers, who used ivory for knife handles and so adopted the creature as a symbol – could there have been a link with the Company of Cutlers? I don't know.

This is NOT, by the way, an Elephant and Castle pub, a name that may have also derived from the cutlers (though there's a persistent story that 'Elephant and Castle' is a corruption of the phrase 'Infanta of Castile' – but these etymological corruption stories, like etymological acronyms, are almost always wrong).

In the 19th century, anyone in Bristol seeing an image of an elephant would think of Bristol zoo, which opened to the general public in 1868 (the zoo was actually founded in 1835), just after this pub was rebuilt. That could have helped ensure the continuing popularity of the name, but could not have been its origin.

Just as likely as anything else was that the original owner liked the elephant as an unusual label. European people did know about elephants in the 18th century, and in the early-19th century there was a famous one displayed in London at Exeter 'Change - Thomas Hood made this creature the speaker of a Remonstratory Ode. Elephants have always caught the imagination.

LondonRemembers said...

These 3D inn signs are often Victorian and they demonstrate the confidence of that era - the building was the Elephant Inn and always would be so why not proudly announce the name with an expensive sign? They did not foresee that, if it survived as an inn at all, the building might become the Slug and Lettuce only to be renamed the Frog and Parrot the following week, etc.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Absolutely! This is also seen in Victorian shopfronts, built to last in durable materials because they didn't belong to a world that expected to have to reinvent itself every five minutes with, in the case of modern shops, some ephemeral plastic sign.