Monday, January 20, 2020

Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

High Street heroes

At first glance, this striking shop front is confusing, first because it’s not the 17th-century building it might appear to be and secondly because the premises are occupied by W. H. Smith, a company once known for ornate facades. But it wasn’t built by Smith’s. Originally, this was a branch of Boot’s the chemist, who could also put on a bold front. In the early years of the 20th century, Boot’s did a number of revamped shop fronts using timber framing with ornate plaster infill, and some of these were festooned with eyecatching details such as carved bargeboards, fancy brackets, and even statuary.

I’ve long been a fan of the large former Boot’s in the middle of Derby, which is on a prominent corner site and has a succession of statues of local Derbyshire worthies that must be almost life-size. The former Boot’s in my photograph, in Bury St Edmunds, is smaller, but equally ornate, with a full compliment of woodcarving, pargetting, and four large statues. The design dates to 1910 and was the work of the company’s in-house architect, Michael Vyne Treleaven, who set this style for their shopfronts in this period.*

The statues set in decorated niches across the facade were the work of a London sculptor, Gilbert Seale & Co of Camberwell, who did more than one job for the company. They feature, from left to right, Agricola, St Edmund, Edward I, and Edward VI. These figures all have local relevance as well as their wider significance: Edmund was the local saint, Edward I held parliaments here, Edward VI founded a local grammar school, and the Roman general Agricola led his people’s conquest of Britain and crushed the uprising of Boudica, local queen of the Iceni; one source suggests that this figure is actually another Roman general, Trebonius, who accompanied Caesar on his Gaulish and British campaigns. Boot’s the chemist, under its gifted owner Jesse Boot and his successors, was well aware of the benefits of local publicity, and was keen too that his premises should be assets to the towns where they were located. It would be wonderful if today’s retailers took such care over their architecture.

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* Thanks to the reader who confirmed that the design of the Bury shopfront was Treleaven’s.

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