Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Weston-super-Mare, Somerset

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More than skin deep

Not long ago the building housing W H Smith’s shop in Weston-super-Mare was listed. That, in my opinion, is a cause for celebration, because it’s a rare example of how magnificently this company decorated their shops in the interwar period, a time when they were expanding and upgrading many branches, using a repertoire of techniques that included tiling and classical style lettering, the latter designed by Eric Gill. The Weston shop is a rare remaining example of the decorative leadwork they sometimes used – the upper floor is covered with leadwork coats of arms and heraldic symbols representing Bristol, Bath, Taunton, and the county of Somerset – everything, you might say, except for Weston itself, which didn’t have a coat of arms until 1928, two years after this shop was rebuilt. The facade includes the same Shakespeare quotation (‘Come and take choice of all my library / And so beguile thy sorrow’ from Titus Andronicus) that was used on the branch at Stratford. The lending library in this branch was upstairs, and the room that housed it still has decorative plasterwork featuring figures such as a man carrying a leather-bound book, another reason for preserving the building.

All this decoration was of course a very effective piece of advertising. But it’s also testimony to the quality of the goods Smith’s sold. Many branches of Smith’s are today dominated by stationery, newspapers, and magazines. They have always sold goods like these (the Smiths made their first fortune out of railway stalls selling newspapers), but they were just as committed to bookselling, as well as to their lending libraries. Even when I was growing up in the 1960s, the local W H Smith’s was a good place to go for books. I had quite a few children’s books that came from Smith’s (Ladybirds, Observer’s books, that kind of thing) and later I bought a few shelves of Penguins and Pelicans from Smith’s, some of which I still have. The range was wide, and the attractions for a book lover with little money who didn’t live in a place with a big specialist bookshop were obvious. So if you look up at the fancy leadwork and the Shakespeare quotation and think it’s all a bit much for a shop stocking mostly magazines, stationery, and a few mass-market paperbacks, remember that once upon a time, you could almost educate yourself at Smith’s.

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Note on the photograph The last time I visited Weston it was a dull day and the light wasn’t very good. I’ve therefore increased the brightness and contrast in the picture, in an attempt to make the design of the leadwork clearer. Clicking on the picture will enlarge it and make it clearer still.


Jenny Woolf said...

I love the old Smiths and wish that more effort had been made to preserve the artwork in other branches.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Jenny: Thanks so much for your comment. I do agree! There are one or two good facades left, such as the Bury St Edmunds one I posted a while back. Plus some lovely tiles, as at Malvern (also blogged), but so much has gone. The best W H Smith branch is the one at Newtown, Powys, where the whole branch (including several tile panels, some plasterwork, original windows, lettering, etc) has been preserved; upstairs is a company museum.