9 May 2022

Reframed: The Woman In The Window at Dulwich Picture Gallery

Ooh this is a good idea, and something I hadn’t noticed or thought about until I heard about this show – the repeated motif that can be seen throughout centuries of art of a female framed in a window, whether from the perspective of her looking out, or us looking in.

Last week I joined a preview tour of the show led by its curator, Dr Jennifer Sliwka, looking fab in a grey two-piece double-breasted suit, btw. She first showed us the inspiration for the show, Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Girl at a Window’ by Rembrandt, and then picked out and explained some thought-provoking works, from ancient carved pieces, through Hockney, Bell, Rossetti and Blake, to end with Sherman and Abramovitch, two female artists whose photographic self-portraits literally puts themself in the frame. 

I suppose the question(s) being asked here is, are we and the artists voyeurs, or are we being provoked/invited to look at these women? 

There’s a very clever multi-purpose piece in the mausoleum by Isa Genken, shown bottom left in my montage, that allows you to put yourself in the picture. Inspired by this, I put myself in the picture and took a 'selfie' reflected onto the Howard Hodgkin exhibut (bottom right) which also shows elements of the large photgraphic artwork on the wall opposite.

It's a really interesting and diverse collection. On until 4th September. Find out more here

Reminder to self: finish research for my walk/talk “Female Forms: sculptors and sculptures" 

29 April 2022

Coal hole cover plates made by the Luxfer Company of Finsbury

Striding up Sackville Street earlier this week, cutting through from Piccadilly to Vigo Street, I happened upon these two unusual coal hole cover plates made by The Luxfer Company of 16 Hill Street, Finsbury (Clerkenwell), London EC.

I say 'interesting' because these two have keyholes in them, one having been subsequently filled in with a strange circular disc device. I would estimate that I have only ever spotted about ten coal hole cover plates with lockable elements within them, such as this other Luxfer example here outside 107 Gt Russell Street.

These 12-14" lids cover access holes used by coalmen to drop the black stuff directly into  bunkers/cellars below street level. Many others sport the words 'self-locking' although I am still at a loss as to how the self-locking mechanism worked. I mean, the cover plate with its tapered sides probably locked itself with a click once it was reinstalled, but surely some kind of mechanism was needed on the underside to release it pre being lifted to take delivery of the coal...? Answers and suggestions please!

The keyholes in cover plates/lids such as these are surely later additions to the original design being as they do not appear to be geometrically aligned in any way – note the difference in these two. I suggest the addition of locks was a kind of belt and braces system to foil would-be coal thieves, or super skinny child burglars gaining access to the basement area.

Lots more coal hole cover plates here in my previous posts, including some that have these bizarre keyholes within them.


UPDATE, 1st May 2022... 

Can you believe it... two days after I wrote the above... I stumbled on another plate with a keyhole that was new to me. This one is outside 21 Riding House Street, W1. It's unusually set within a small concrete panel complete with six lightwell/ventillation blocks that must've been added at the same time.  

I'll probably start noticing these all over the show from now on.

26 April 2022

The Good, The Bad and The Unfriendly – Van Gogh Portraits at The Courtauld Gallery

The Courthauld Gallery closed its doors in Autumn 2018 for a refit and rehang that took three years , reopening in November 202. As one of my favourite London galleries I was keen to return as it's an absolute delight, both for its interiors and the marvellous pieces that hang on its walls. Thereare so many very important works of art at the Courtauld. I used to love the quirky hanging, the feel that these rooms were old and special, the mix of different centuries in each room which contrasted the ever-changing styles throughout time. I later read that this was because the artworks had barely been moved since the gallery opened in the 1930s. How cool, I liked that.

Last week I went with my friend to see the collection of Van Gogh portraits – excellent – do go and see them as this now only has a fortnight left to run, ending 8th May. But note that this exhibition is on the top/3rd floor, accessed through the upper gallery of Impressionists art. On the day we visited we had to climb lot of stairs because the lift wasn't working. I was fine, but my friend was in the wars having recently twisted his back. When we finally reached the upper galleries and entered the Van Gogh rooms we saw an exhausted elderly tall man looking around for somewhere to sit and then asking a member of staff for a stool or something. She came back with one of those lightweight fold-up chairs on which he sat looking like a very uncomfortable fisherman, his knees almost reaching up to his ears. 

After enjoying Vincent's exuberant works, and spending quite a while debating whether he was left or right handed* we went for a wander around the adjacent main gallery rooms and immediately we both bemoaned the colour of the walls, especially in these rooms containing the Impressionsts' paintings, which are painted an insipid, almost nicotine-tinged, pale grey that does little to enhance the  paintings which were achieved in the glorious sunshine of the South of France, Paris and Tahiti. Surely here a deep dark blue 'feature wall' could have been implemented to lift and contrast the works within the space? Had it not been for the for the vaulted ceilings and glass above us, we would have assumed we were in any modern gallery anywhere in the world. There was no sense of personality, history or place.  Oh, and the flooring, replaced years ago with light colour solid wood, at first glance resembles cheap clip-together laminate flooring. Surely the enormous budget spent on this renovation could have stretched to a few tins of wood stain in a warmer teak/oak colour...? It just looks unfinished, complete with visible nails. The ramps installed at doorways using the same material seem to be makeshift, but they're not.

And so we made our way down to the ground floor, peeking in at each floor. The pale bland walls persist on all levels. I really did prefer the warmer earthy tones of the gallery pre-2018. Today, the much older works and religious pieces are crying out for at least a stone or terracotta ground to better enhance them. There is only one room that gives a sense of time and place and it's devoted to Vanessa Bell and her tiresome Bloomsbury cronies. 

Back in the foyer, we looked for the gift shop. But where was it? You will recall that the gift shop used to be immediately to the left as you entered the Somerset House complex off The Strand – this space is now a café. We asked the young female greeter with a touch screen where the shop was. She pointed to a long thin sign on the wall that tells us what's on each level and right at the bottom it says 'shop' with an arrow pointing down to the left/right. Er, yes, "but where?" we asked. Without an attempt at a smile she gesticulated us to the Information/Tickets vestibule (which has a big sign above it!) and from there we descended another flight of stairs which took us into a thin underground corridor. I almost walked past the door to the shop which is in a recess on the left. Turns out the shop is vast, much bigger than before and bpacked full of lovely things. Yet we were only two of five people in there, one of whom was a member of staff. We walked all the way to the other end of the shop only to find that there was no other way out and we had to go all the way back again to that narrow door. 

Back in the foyer the joyless female took it very personally when I quereied the location the hidden shop and how they thought they were going to sell anything from that space when it couldn't be seen/found. She evidently took it personally and suggested we could buy online! Eh?! Amused by this response, and also confused how a person who is acting as a customer-facing infomation point couldn't mamanage to communicate in a civil manner, I decided to put my overly jolly hat on and also tell her how disappointed I was, as a visitor for decades, that walls of the galleries had been painted such bland colours. She as good as shrugged. I doubt my feedback wehent any further.

Later, I googled reviews of the gallery's renovation and reconfiguration and found that nearly all the critics seem to have rewritten almost the same thing– how it's now chronological as you go make your way up the building, is a marvellous improvement, that the new cloor and use of light illumates the classical architecture, that the paintings 'sing' against the bright walls. Eh? Really? To my mind, slapping the same colour all over everything enhances nothing in particular.

It's clear to me, having received pre-press packs by galleries prior to preview days myself, that most of these critics had simply just re-hashed the promo information sent to them in much the same way as we were encourged to do in English classes back when I was 12 years old. you know, re-write this in your ownn words, etc. I noticed that only a couple of those reviews made any specific references that lead me to believe that they had indeed been to the gallery themselves and scrutinised it in any way personally. 

No pics – go and check it out yourself, but note that it used to look like this.

Further feedback... 

The café restaurant to the left as you enter the couryard serves bland overpriced food on unstable tables and has a stupid ordering and payment process. I had a sort of warm chicken, bacon and salad sandwich. It was toasted only on one side, barely any chicken, soggy bacon (eurgh), half a small lettuse leafand perhaps two slices of tomato. My friends halloumi and avocado wrap was as bland as the gallery wlls. Luckily, there is a Gregg's a few doors along(!) plus the usual big names and a couple of curry houses. Actually, I'd recommend the LSE canteen on the other side of Alwych, which is excellent value.

There are three large sculptures at the rear of the courtyard that look a bit War Of the Worlds. I could see that they were something to do with the recycled plastics, akin to monsters of the future. I went to find out more about them but couldn't find any info panels so I went inside the northern reception space and asked the chattering ladies at the desk. "Hello!' I said, all jolly, "I wonder if you could tell me about those large sculptures outside, only I can't find anything out there". The silver-haired woman with an accent from across the pond looked at me blankly as if I was speaking another language and informed me in a matter-of-fact manner that there were people out there with clipboards who could explain. As per the young girl in the foyer, she also didn't crack a smile, and I wondered if this was part of the training. Or, perhaps they are automotons. I said it was strange that I hadn't seen anybody out there especially as I had been wandering about for about 5mins quite plainly on the hunt for something. This provoked no response – even those self-service tills at Tescos issue pleasantries!  I moved to the sofas to readjust my clothing and a man who was passing through and had heard the exchange told me there was indeed an info panel out there on the eastern side. So I returns to the silver-haired desk robot and endeavoured to pass this news back her/it should the info be of use going forward. Again the blank stare, as if I was the mad one. Oh well. 

And so I went outside and read the A-board. I finally noticed a young woman with a clip board hovering around at the north side. I stood and waited, thinking she would wander over. Nope. So I stood or paced in an inquistive manner, adopting a series of poses that screamed 'confused' involving scratching my head or chin whilst furrowing my brow and looking from the boar to the sculptures a lot. But, although I was the only person looking at these things, she didn't see me for a full 7 minutes. Yes, I timed it. She then wandered round to the west side, seemed to stare at the paving a lot, and then disppeared into a doorway on that side. 

Basically, it's easier to find the info on their website. And perhaps the woman at the desk can't use the internet. Also, I don't think the plastic elements used in those sculptures are recycled... they all look freshly-manufactured to me.

*some of his paintings are most surely mirror images but others contradict that. I deduce that he was right-handed.

22 April 2022

Circles of delight in WC2

Last week whilst ambling from Piccadilly to Holborn via Long Acre, admiring the architecture and generally enjoing the sunshine, I happened upon this lovely hexagonal mark in the doorway of one of the businesses opposite Freemasons Hall.

It reads, 20 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden. 

Cool huh?! 

It appeals to me on many levels; geometry, typography and graphic design.

I am not sure who installed it/ how long it's been there.

It is set into the very front of the metal strip that runs across the doorway of No.20, to the left of Walker Slater menswear shop (at No.19) shown here  from Google Streeview:


20 April 2022

Criminal loss of curved Art Deco windows at Balenciaga, New Bond Street

I am often to be heard talking about how surprising it is that many of the marvellously constructed and well-embellished buildings along Old and New Bond Streets are not listed at least Grade II. This, I assumed/hoped was because the kind of companies who trade here are aware and proud of the beautiful buildings in which their products were being sold and they simply look after the heritage they inherit. Indeed, one only has to look at the excellent revamp by Victoria's Secret at the northern end of New Bond Street, where many of the modern shopfittings installed a decade ago were cleverly created with modern products to appear as if they have been there since the 1930s. The outside of that building is stunning, never mind that gorgeous glass staircase inside.  

But this post is about what I believe is criminal damage/wanton destruction at 24-25 New Bond St, on the corner of Conduit Street, where beautiful, possibly unique, curved windows at ground level that meandered in and out of the supporting columns as a wavy curtain of glass, shown above (Google Streetview screengrab) are no longer there.  

This building used to be home to C. J. Lytle Ltd, as shown by this marvellously evocative pic from 1948. More recently, until 2020, this was a branch of Russell & Bromley who made excellent use of the undulating glass as shown above. When R&B moved out, the street level windows were individually covered, as shown in my pic below from Feb2021. Phew, I thought, they'll be fine.

Then Balenciaga took over the building and installed bigger bright green hoardings around the curtilage (I love that word!) as shown here in June2021. I continued to naively assume that this was to protect the lovely windows, that they were simply performing a bit of TLC behind there. I mean, who would remove what surely must be some of the best curved glass in London? 

But last Easter weekend, whilst walking past, leading a guided tour, I stopped in my tracks, exclaimed, "No!" and then had to explain to the group why I was so shocked, even though this was not the subject of the walk on that day.

The gorgeous curves and undulations have been removed and replaced. The windows are now flat and rectangular and the columns have been boxed in. Balenciaga are so proud of their new boxy space that on their website here they call this 'a treat' – I call it a 'blandification' and I think Villanelle, that character in BBC's Killing Eve who has been pictured sporting Balenciaga's expensive boots, would call this renovation "BORE-RING!"

It's amazing that Balenciaga didn't go the whole hog and install chickenshop-style UPVC doors and windows as this is barely a step up from that. I am so upset. But you understood that paragraphs ago(!).

It occured to be that the gorgeous glass curves were very similar to other excellent shop fronts created and installed by Pollards such as here and I was hoping that when those greeen hoardings came down I might be able to fins one of Pollards patent marks embedded in the metal edges. But now that's not possible. And, to add insult to injury, I was convinced that I had taken some good close-up photos of those curved windows a while back when R&B was still trading and these I could include as slides for one of my online talks about Art Deco buildings, but now, frustrtaingly, I now cannot find them. Let's hope they show up and I simply didn't get around to naming the files.

It's a huge loss when cleverly-designed bespoke elements like this are renovated or removed completely. A similar example can be found at No.1 New Bond Street at the Ralph Lauren flagship store, a building that resembles a Byzantine-style palace which, in 1939, was home to The National Provincial Bank, F.W.Woolworths, CondeNast publishing, and offices of the aformentioned C.J.Lytle advertising before they moved to the Balenciaga site later that year. Today the Ralph Lauren store sports plate glass at street level but here's a link to how it used to look in 1955. I do not know when the ground floor windows were altered, although many buildings of this type suffered blandifications in the 1960s and 1970s in an attempt to remove what was then seen as fussy embellishements. A similar thing occured at the Louis Vuitton store, on the corner of Clifford Street but, on the plus side, LV must be commended for a revamp a few years ago when they altered the lower external façade to echo the designs within the upper floors, which is marvellous.

I can only hope that the curved glass windows have been repurposed elsewhere. If I find out more, I will add to this post.

11 April 2022

Little letters at low level

Has anyone else ever spotted this on the streets of this fair city?

Only, I have showed the image above to many London historians, guides and friends, and, despite the letters shown, which sit on a half inch metal rod just off the pavement, only a couple of people have ever worked out what it means and therefore where it might be. 

And when I explain what it stands for, almost everyone says something like "oh, my god, how have I never noticed that myself?!"

Here's a wider view. It's street-facing, in front of a very well-known historic establishment:

Have you got it yet?

It's Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, 145 Fleet Street, EC4. See it on a reprospective Google Streetview here.

5 April 2022

Owen & Thomas, linen drapers, 376-378 Bethnal Green Road, E2


I took a quick snap of this when I spotted this last year, but being as that was a very dull day and there was some scaffolding covering half of the wall, I am here showing a screengrab from Google Streetview.

It's a simple sign for Edward Owen and William Thomas who were trading here 100 years ago. Thus far I can only confirm the two Welsh linen drapers here in the period 1910-15, and I understand that they also had another shop in Battersea. I am also informed that a younger Williams brother was running this shop in 1926. 

You can bet that this shop was much more attractive than those that front the businesses along this busy market street today. Oh to be able to time travel to get glimple of the gilded shop fronts and window dislpays of old. Sigh.

4 April 2022

Another shop fascia reveal – this time at 237 Upper Street, opposite The Union Chapel

So there I was, leading a guided walk down Upper Street last Thursday 31st March. The subject was 'Islington's Golden Mile – drapery, corsetry and fancy goods' all about how this busy thoroughfare used to be lined with beautifully gilded shop fascias, curved glass and the like. 

I positioned the group twixt the two parts of Compton Terrace Gardens, intending to talk about the tall early C19th Georgian buildings along this stretch, and long-gone emporiums that once filled the lower parts. I looked across the street and noticed a newly-uncovered shop sign three doors north of Laycock Street, where once was a lurid green sign, see right. Wow! What a nice surprise. I had to explain to the group that this was the first time I'd seen and I was sure I hadn't spotted in that past week.

The gilded letters tell is this was (? high class?) F. Horn & Sons, furniture stores and, having checked, I can tell you that the Horns were at this address for a short time from/around 1910, having taken over a site previously occupied by Harry Joel, fruiterer, part of what had been Whittards hosiery store at 237-238 (the Whittards evidently contracting rather than expanding at this time). In 1915 the Horns are shown at 236-237, which includes the shop to the left.

If you look at bottom right you'll see the signwriter's name which reads, Clang & Sons, 239 Goswell Road. This is very intruiging – I might be going word-blind here looking through all these old directores, but I cannot find a reference of any signwriters at that Goswell Rd address, or any Clangs or C.Langs in that profession during the period 1910–15. Very strange. There is a chance, being as there is no number on the sign, that the Horns brought their expensive gilded sign with them when they moved here from elsewhere. I cannot say how long the Horns traded at this address as I don't have enough reference to hand. 

The later sign painted over the top looks to be interwar era when the shop is again offering fresh produce, as is shown by the script, Highbury Fruiterer. This could be, perhaps, John Oliver listed here as a fruiterer in 1939.

As, ever, do let me know if you have any further info.  Here's nother pic:


16 March 2022

Another ghostsign – Benjamin, Shepherd Market, Mayfair

You probably think all I look for and write about about these days is ghost signs. Well, that's not true – I've got a folder fit to bursting with mosaics, ironwork, etched glass, architecture from all eras, parks, gardens, and lots more that I just haven't the time to collate. 

It's just that when I spot a faded sign on a wall I stand there scribbling notes that later are almost undecipherable (just like the sign!), hence I do the research for these asap, while it's all fresh in my mind. And this is what happened yesterday when I was walking around Shepherd Market in Mayfair, planning an idea for a guided walk in the area. 

I'm surprised I haven't written about this sign before, or indeed this enclave of delightful little streets which still has that village feel. It sits on the corner of what is is today No.34 Shepherd Market. However, back in the day this was No.8 Market Street, as is clearly shown by the hand-painted street sign.

The sign reads N. BENJAMIN / TRUNKS & BAGS for all CLIMATES. There is some over-painting here, most visible in the lower left part, so the name and the product could be from two different eras. 

In 1910 Edwin Alexander Atkins, trunkmaker, was at this address and this ties in perfectly with the products offered, but the name is wrong. He also had another shop opposite at No.10 selling boots (sort of where I took this photo from)

The sign is evidently for Nathaniel Benjamin, portmanteau dealer, who, in the same year, was next door to the boot shop at No.12. Tho why Atkins would want the name of his immediate competitor advertised on his own building is beyond me. Perhaps these men were related. Or perhaps Atkins offered smaller bags whist Benjamin offered larger ocean-going luggage for those Grand Tour experiences and the two companies bounced off each other? As ever, any further info welcome.

I'll leave it there for now. I've got the aforementioned bulging 'ToDo' folder to attend to, and I still need to design those walking tours and create some slides for my online talks...!

13 February 2022

Blooms Pianos, Kingsland Road – two signs and at least four workshops

I was in Shoreditch recently, wandering about admiring things, planning walking routes and generally enjoying the Winter sunshine. I decided, as I was close by, to go and visit an old friend, the hand-painted sign for Bloom’s pianos on the north side of the block that overlooks the front garden of The Museum of The Home

BLOOM’S PIANOS / illustration of upright piano / FOR PERFECTION 

I stood there deciphering what I could see, making notes. When I got home, I tried to find out more info about its content, but what I did find was scant and posed more questions, and so began days of bloomin' research (see what I did there?!) to try and work out if this signage is from the 1910s or 1930s

This large hand-painted sign looks to be from the approximate Edwardian era as regards the letterform with those blobby serifs, undulating cross bars on the E and F, that lovely kick on the R, the curves, arcs and stretches and, of course, there's that upright piano at the centre. Also, there are direct telephone numbers shown here – exchanges of this kind did not become available until 1912, though I cannot, as yet, ascertain who the Bishopsgate 9087 number belonged to. And, despite the directional at bottom right in the form of a manicule pointing to the front of the bulding, I can find no ref of any Blooms listed along this terrace in the 1910s. Though they make an appearance in the 1930s. Read on...

134 Kingsland Rd is the address of the whole block from the museum to Cremer Street and comprises seven premises A-G. If this sign is from the 1910s then it's likely that this excellent advertising space, facing the traffic coming into London from the north, was simply used to advertise products made at nearby workshops, the sign being commissioned by an enterprising family of cabinet makers who made cases for pianofortes and had connections to someone in this block who could accept correspondence on their behalf. This might well have been William Richard Mitchell, shopfitter, who was at D&E in 1914, or Clarke & Greenfield, glass mould makers, at G. Indeed, in 1925 every one of these spaces is occupied by a company making or selling something to do with wooden furniture.

Bloom is a fairly common Jewish name and there have been many cabinet makers by this name living and working in the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch area. For instance, in 1899 there was Joseph Bloom at 54 Ravenscoft Street (1), a road that was mainly cabiinet makers at that time, and Nathan Bloom a short walk away at 29 Redchurch Street (2). Then, by 1910 Marks Bloom is at No.64 Ravenscroft St (1) and Joseph has moved into new premises at 5 Sunbury Works, Hocker St (3). To muddy the waters further, there was also Leckstein & Bloom in Cheshire Street (4) in 1910 with other workshops in Tabernacle Street (5) and Christina Street (6), and then in 1915 there’s Jacob Bloom in Dunbridge St (7) as well as Israel Bloom in Leonard Street (8) and Barnett Bloom in New Inn Yard (9). I have no idea if they were all related, but it's very possible.

Phew! So I’m thinking this sign could be just pre-WW1 which is backed up by the signwriter’s name, written in small ‘one stoke’ at the bottom right corner: Howell Signs, Clerkenwell – 7275. John Thomas Howell, illuminated signs, was at 2 Vineyard Mews, just off Farringdon Road, in 1910, but he’s gone from there by 1914 and I can find no evidence thus far of him having that Clerkenwell phone number at that time. 

It is interesting that Howell was not local to Bethnal Green, E2, and I wonder if JTH might have been a friend or work associate of the Bloom family because I notice that Mozart & Co organ builders were at 32 Vineyard Gdns from at least 1895-1910, so it's possible that the music maker connects them all, such that Mozart's mechanics might have been housed inside cabinets made by Bloom. 

The Clerkenwell 7275 phone number makes an appearance in the 1923-25 directories when Lionel Victor Howell (JT's brother or son?) is listed at 10 Penton Place, Islington (Angel area but classed then as part of Clerkenwell) and the phone number is carried to larger premises in the 1930s, just around the corner at what is now 91-99 Pentonville Road here.

Another idea (ooh, I am full of them!) could be that it was J.T.Howell who painted another similar-looking sign that includes an early C20th illustration, for Daniel Leakin’s valet and car hire service at 19 Wellington Row which is on the corner of Ravenscroft Street, coincidentally a couple of minutes' walk  from a Bloom workshop in that street. It's very likely that, just like the Bloom's sign in Kingsland Road, this was inititially an advertising site used to advertise services that were available close by. This is a small cottage-style terraced corner house so it's very doubtful a fleet of vehicles etc could be kept here. Until 1915 (just after I've lost track of any signwriters by the name of Howell) this corner location is shown as John Bates, coal dealer, who I think lived there and used it as his office. The vehicle depicted looks to be a 1920's Ford Model T light commercial inproduction 1908-27. As far as I am aware Leakin does not make an appearance here until the 1930s. But I've gone off on one of my tangents here, so let's park Daniel Leakin and his interwar motor haulage company for now and get back to the Blooms.

As I have hinted in the subject line, there is actually a second sign here which starts further down, sort of halfway through the big letters. If you scroll back up to the top you'll notice that the lower two thirds are stronger in colour than the upper part.

I have warped and stretched my original photo to better illustrate this. The tinted yellow box rule shows where the edges of this later sign are visible and in white I've added the letters I can ascertain thus far (though I have guessed the word 'please' at the centre).

At the bottom right there is a different telephone number from the earlier Bishopsgate one. Weirdly and confusingly, in 1939 this NORTH 1827 number belonged to George William Every & Sons, gear cutters of 49 Thornhill Road, N1, an address in Barnsbury, Islington, and miles away from E2. Why on earth would Blooms be using this number? Hmm, ponder ponder... perhaps, again, this was a correspondence address rather than a place to buy. 

I then considered the number 181 at the bottom left corner and which road in the area might this apply to – my hunch being that it must be one of the shopping streets in that area. I quickly found Blooms House Furnishers (Isaac Bloom) at 181 and 187 Caledonian Road in 1939 as well as opposite at No.198. So the missing/hard to decipher part in the centre of the last line here must say Caledonian Road (I have been told that it says 'ISLINGTON' somewhere under there). 

Back to Kingsland Road... In 1930, Bloom Bros cabinet makers is/are at 134 C, D & E, but they've gone from that location by 1940. I suspect this might coincide with the opening of the outlets in Caledonian Road, the Kings Cross area probably being better for transport and distribution, and also closer to the many piano and organ makers in north London, specifically in Islington and Camden, north of the canal.

The 1939 directory also shows that Nathan Bloom was still busy at his workshop at 29 Redchurch Street (1) and by this time had also taken on additional premises at 19-21. There’s also H&L Bloom listed at 3 Fountain Street which backs onto Sunbury Works (3) which surely must be the same family seeing as this was where Joseph was listed two decades previously. By this time there's also J. Bloom at 24A Calvin Street (10), an attractive terrace of workshops which still looks good today

As regards the design of the ads, note that the smaller/later advertisement has no illustration. OK, so there was less space, and the inclusion of an illustration was probably expensive, but perhaps pianos, even the ones in beautifully-made wooden cabinets, were not as much of a selling point by the time this was painted, especially with domestic gramophone players becoming more affordable.

But I do have a good idea why the newer sign is less tall... if you study that end wall today, or look again at my pics above, notice how the bricks at the Kingsland Rd side have been replaced – the uppermost front section of the wall has been rebuilt. It occurs to me that this might possibly have been damaged during WWI Zeppelin raids – the red line on this map clearly shows that two airships passed quite close to 134 Kingsland Road in May 1915. Alternatively, if it's a1930's sign that was later repainted, this could hint at it being repainted during or shortly after damage during WW2. The date of the second hinges on when the Blooms opened those premises in Cally Rd.  I'd love to see how the wall above the thinner sign would have appeared at the time it was created – perhaps the visible elements of the earlier sign at the top were overpainted in black. 

I am still torn as regards the date/era of these advertisements. The available information is intriguingly inconclusive. The style is 1910s but the info within seems to be hinting at the 1930s which, to me, is at odds with the old fashioned letterform used. Perhaps they used a logotype in this fin-de-siecle style, hence why the letterform continued through the decades...?

I think I will stop now as I’m bloomin’ exhausted. 

Watch this space for more updates, as I will amend the info above as and when I find out more. If you can help, please use the comments box below or contact me @janeslondon via social media 

Thanks to Sam Roberts for some additional archive reference from 1920s and 1930s.

10 February 2022

Shaftesbury Hotel ghostsign – a bargain price at a great location with breakfast and billiards

This might be the best hidden-in-plain-sight ghostsign in central London.

I have been busy pulling together some online talks about old defunct and faded signage of all kinds in central London, specifically Soho, Covent Garden and Fitzrovia. This has involved revisiting and updating my 'show and tell' folder and the accompanying notes for the central London walking tour I have been leading for the past three and a half years. 

When I first devised that route from Long Acre to Rupert Street, a friend and I test-walked it one sunny winter's day in Jan 2018. As we used the zebra crossing on Shaftesbury Avenue, heading from Seven Dials to St Giles Church, we turned to look back up Mercers Street just in case we'd missed anything and were amazed to spot a sign that neither of us in all our decades of wandering about armed with cameras had never noticed before. Way up high, facing north, there is a hand-painted sign on the back of what is now The Mercer Street Hotel.

Had it been covered and made a sudden appearance? Doubtful. We think we'd simply missed it due to the tree on the corner of Mercer Street than when in leaf as good as obliterates the sign completely for most of the year. Also, the sign is only visible from a couple of specific spots along that junction. Blink as you walk past Mercers Street and you'll miss it. See Google streetview here.

I returned to the site a few weeks later and did my best to take some photos. And I've tried again a few times since. It's difficult to get a decent view of it, because the weather, the angle of opportunity and the faded blue/white letters obscured by what looks like layers of black soot all play their part. I'm really glad that I have returned to all this because I was convinced that I had added this discovery to this site ages ago, but no, it turns out it was still lurking in my 'To Do' folder as a simple note to self.

This is what I have found out so far... 

The Shaftesbury Hotel was constructed on a site that previously George Russell's rope and twine business at 47 Great St Andrews Street (later to be renamed Monmouth Street – you'll see refs to these old street names on the road signs in the area). Images of Seven Dials, dated 1910, show the hotel covering the site of nos. 43-47, and this is corroborated by the gap in the directory for that year, hinting that the building was nearing completion. I think we can assume that the sign was painted onto the rear of the building during or shortly after construction, intended to be clearly seen by traffic coming down St Giles High Street from the junction of Tottenham Court Rd station when buildings in the vicinity were much lower than they are today. This hotel was probably at that time one of the tallest in this area.
It would have been an unusual move to open a hotel here, albeit a cheap/budget one, in a district that had previously been tainted during the Georgian era as being inhabited by thieves and prostitutes, a stone's throw from the rookeries of St Giles as depicted by Hogarth in Gin Lane. But by the 1880s the street of the Seven Dials had evolved to become merely an area where the working classes lived and worked, with a thriving street market. A clever entrepreneuer must have seen the value of the central location as we do today.

I have done my best to decipher the wording on sign. I've boosted the pics using Photoshop and included a hand-drawn version to make it easier to understand. The very top, I think, could have been 'English' as in English Breakfast. The big 4 looks to have been in a circle and was probably 4/- (four shillings) per night for a room, which equates to about £25 today. Wow!

Billiards was very popular in the late Victorian era, especially within Temperance Halls, and I wonder if this was constructed as a Temperance Hotel being as the design is similar to some others of that time, such as The Kenilworth in Gt Russell Street near thr British Museum, where activites and good food would have been an attraction rather than alcohol. Note that a bar/drinks lounge is 'missing' from the list of facilities offered on this painted sign. The 1915 directory sheds no light on this idea and simply shows it as Shaftesbury Hotel, Thos. Gordon (London) Ltd., at 44, Great St Andrew Street.

I also found this ad for the hotel in a 1953 guide book to London. As you can see, it is advertising the hotel's prime location as close to Theatreland and the West End. The price still equates to about £25. You'll be hard-pushed to find a warm cupboard for rent at that price today!

An online search throws up no additional info or photos, indicating that no one else has spotted this corker of a ghost sign either. Ooh I feel like a treasure hunter who found gold! 

One of London's best hiding-in-plain-view ghostsigns, I'm sure you'll agree.

8 February 2022

On the tiles at George's Fish & Chips shop, 45 Tottenham Lane, N8

At the northern end of Tottenham Lane, on the right and just before the fork where the road meets Church Lane and leads down to the right and Hornsey railway station, there is a fish and chips shop, opposite the old police station buildng

The shop doesn't look like much at first glance, being as the exterior is modern plate glass, having lost almost all of its Victorian metalwork and embellishment over the past few decades. You need only to look around at some of the nearby shops to be able to get an idea of how attractive this junction would have been 120 years ago. 

if you venture into George's because you'll find some fabulous examples of fin-de-siecle tiles along the lower sections of the walls on both sides, specifically in the small seating area at the left and behind the counter too, albeit mostly obscured by cabinets. But hey, they are there and that's great.

These tiles really show of the colourful patterns of the Art Nouveau 1890s area. The grassy greens, deep golden yellows and jadey blues are absolutely gorgeous. There is also a stained glass panel at the rear which I assume is of the same era, but I doubt it would have been situated exactly in that position when the shop interior was first created. As regards the 'since 1890' claim, I am not sure what is intimated here. The 1901 directory shows this shop as No.9 Rathcoole Parade and the premises of James Brunton, fishmonger. Perhaps George is a descendeant of James? Or they simply mean a chippy has been on this site since 1890.

I popped in to check up on the place earlier this month but, though the door was wide open and the place clearly open for business, there was no one about to talk to – I called out 'hello' but got no response and, in a rush to be elsewhere, I simply snapped these pics and sped off. Last time I popped in, ooh about 3 years ago, I'd had a nice chat a man who worked there. He was really proud of the tiles and loved that the history of the place is appreciated by many people who come into admire the original features (and eat the lovely chips!). I didn't ask if his name was George.

Nearby, there are other places that still hang on to their mad patchworks of Victorian glazed tiles. I mean 'mad' in a good way. Personally, I'd never consider putting some of these patterns together except in a catalogue. But the effect is dazzlingly good, such as a few doors along, at 59 Tottenham Lane, on the corner of Harvey Road where there are some lovely vertical panels of mixed tiles that are strangely at odds, yet enhanced and contrasted by, the faded ultramarine paint of Garden Transformations. The 1901 directory tells me this was Lucas & Co, house furnishers. You can also find lovely mixed tile collections surrounding the front doors of many residential properties in the area, as well as some excellent examples of old shop fronts in Hornsey High Street, but I will save those for a separate bulletin.

3 February 2022

An update on the renovation of Hornsey Town Hall and the surrounding site

Yesterday I went up to Hornsey Town Hall to see what's happening at the Town Hall site adjacent to Crouch End Broadway. As you can see, there's still a fair bit to do but the future looks good.

I met up with the lovely ladies at the marketing suite, which is housed within the old electricity showrooms building on the left as you face the town hall, and they talked me through what's happening with the 1930s buildings and, after studying a marvellous 3D map of the area (ooh don't you just love a scale model?!), we went for a nose about at the new builds at the rear, accessible via Weston Park.

A collection of residential blocks is being constructed, each named after the architects and sculptors who designed the Town Hall and the gas and electricy showrooms. This space had orginally beein designed for car parking and tradesmen but over the past few decades had become a wasteland littlered with broken deckchairs and the like. 

I was shown a 2-bed flat and a one-bed flat and they are lovely. In fact, if I didn't have so much stuff, such as books, furniture and other guff, I would be rather tempted to move there myself. I only took one pic from the lounge of the 2-bed flat, which faces the town hall, see below

As regards the town hall building itself, I am told it's being renovated to a high standard; cleaning up and restoring the existing parts as much as possible, and replacing with like-for-like where necessary. For instance, the metal window frames throughout have been stripped back and repainted and the glass within them replaced. It's looking great and I can't wait to see the end result. I will be going back for another visit once the construction company says it's safe to do so.

Find out more about Uren's municipal buildings and Arthur Ayres' sculptural pieced here.  

Some of my cards and prints feature Crouch End – a guided walk visiting many of the places in the photographed, plus lots of other interesting items of inderest, will be available soon – pleaese keep an eye on my walking tours here.

1 February 2022

Reveal of old Wills's tobacconist sign in Hornsey Road, N19

Earlier this year, as I was exiting the Post Office at Hornsey Road, I spotted a lovely old shop fascia across the road at No.526, advertising Wills's Gold Flake.

I crossed the street to take a closer look. It's in fantastic condition, so I wondered if it was an old sign that has simply been protected by subsequent layers or a modern pastiche. I took some snaps with the idea to do a bit of sleuthing.

Passing again a few weeks later, the door was open and I saw a fella working inside. He came out to chat to me and told me that he/they had found the sign under the modern one here whilst pulling apart the layers of adaptions during renovations and they fully intend to keep the sign. How lovely. We talked about the tobacco brand and how lovely the sign was but I completely forgot to ask his mname or enquire what kind of shop this will be. I will update this when I do know.

So who/what was A&R?  This could be the name of the people at this location, or a chain/franchise. The old street directories show that this was a greengrocer's shop in the early part of the C20th, run by Daniel Arthur Colby until 1914. The shop was ten empty for some time during WWI because nothing is listed for the period 1915-19 and I have no refernece beyond that. But I suspect the shop became a tobacconist in the mid-1920s. I can confirm, however, that by 1939 it is the business Mr. Herbert John Ranson who could quite possibly be the 'R' of A&R.

It's great to see this area of N19 finally evolving. As someone who has lived near here for over 30 years I have seen the shops become neglected in this island twixt Archway, Crouch End, Finsbury Park and Holloway. Hence there are quite a few interesting old bits of signage to be found herea and it's great to see so many new finds being preserved. For instance, across the road from this Wills's sign there is the old Hancock/Plumb butcher's shop that I have written about here. Further down the hill, south of Hanley Road, there is this old grocer's sign advertising tea at the rear as well as many more hints of the past here.

14 January 2022

Please help to save the unusual 'Art Deco' style façade of Willen House, Bath Street

If you have been on my 'Art Deco Shoreditch' walking tour you will know that a popular and provocative stop along the route is Willen House at 8-26, Bath St, London EC1V 9DX

It is such an unusual building because it looks to be 1930s, yet it was constructed soon after WWII, opening in December 1948 as shown within a plaque on the Lever Street corner. For the past few decades the building has been student accommodation and has suffered from a lack of care, the secondary double-glazing being particularly shabby.

Earlier this month, whilst out walking with some like-minded friends, I noticed seven information sheets in the windows of Willen House to the left of the main Bath Street entrance outlining tp bennett LLP's proposed changes for an upgrade to the building. Keen to keep up with my friends, I took some quick phone snaps so that I could read the info at a later date. And a good job I did that otherwise I would have been moaning about it for the rest of that day. The planned changes will effectively make it look like a new structure rather than a carefully-restored and adapted building. To say I am disappointed is an understatement. 

Having checked the 'work' section of tp bennett's website I can find no mention of this project to provide a link for you, so I have included my photos of the info sheets below (scroll down to the end) which, incidentally, were affixed L-R in reverse order which is itself sloppy.

I can also find no reference of these proposals on Buildington, which suggests to me that this is considered a cosmetic change, being that planning permission might not be needed here.

I have written a letter of complaint to the architects (see below) which I have cc'd to other parties who I think should be alerted to this insenstive shambles. 

If you are also concerned about these propoals, please do write a letter of complaint yourself and make this issue known to any other parties you think could assist in preserving this unique and unsual building. 


tp bennett LLP
One America Street
London SE1 0NE
Date: 12th January 2022
Re: Willen House Consultation / Revamp of Willen House, 8-26, Bath St, London EC1V 9DX 

I lead guided walks across London and have a keen interest in architecture, especially the ‘Art Deco' era. One of the most popular stops along my Shoreditch and Finsbury route has always been Willen House, especially when I explain to the group that this is not a 1930s building; that it was actually constructed just a few years after WWII and is therefore very unusual, not only for its lovely warm tones and quality of products used, but also because very few buildings were built at this time and certainly not to this excellent standard using quality products.
Earlier this month, whilst walking past the building, I noticed in the windows some information sheets that illustrate how tp bennett, a company who I have until this point respected and promoted, in the main for the excellent work created and overseen by Thomas Bennett back in the 1930s (such as, for instance, well-designed residential blocks in St John’s Wood and Westminster), is here planning to disguise almost all the original features which make Willen House so special and worthy of preservation.
Willen House is very unusual. There were only a handful of buildings constructed in the 1940s in London. This building has distinct ‘Art Deco’ styling yet, as the plaque on the Lever Street corner shows, it was completed in 1948 and opened on 7th December by W. Barrie, J. P., the then Mayor of Finsbury, hinting at how important an achievement this was to the borough and to the Willen Key Company at that time.
I have long been of the opinion that the Willien Key Company, which was founded in Battersea by James Walker in 1903, and moved to this area in 1923, had already planned and prepared for this building just prior to WWII, hence the quality of the products which would have been sourced or produced beforehand and the speed with which they were able to construct showroom, offices and warehouse. With much of the area devasted by bombs, the company, with their well-made locks and other property protection devices, would have been a business that was much-needed post-war, the products needed to secure homes and businesses in the surrounding area, indeed beyond.
The fabric of the building has indeed suffered since the Willen Key Company moved out and certainly now needs some attention, especially the interior, the windows, and rear of the building. However, the Bath Street façade with its tiled elements surely just need a good clean up. The tiles are now almost 75 years old and have stood the test of time well. The soft warm tone of the building is both delightful and unusual.
What appears to be proposed here is that the Bath Street façade is to be re-modelled and re-coloured to better tie in with the products used for the new build at the rear, effectively adapting the old to visually match modern cheap-to-install products, rather than making the new additions tie in with the quality and colour of the existing structure.
I am appalled and very disappointed to see that the plan is to cover, and therefore eradicate, the lovely warm beige tones that evoke a Mediterranean sunset, as well as the soft fluted tiles and the unusual chocolate brown double-stripe detail that frames those areas, in dull shades of monochrome that will over time become even more grey and dull, especially on dark or cooler days.
The integrity of Willen’s original building will be lost of these changes are implemented. A reference is made to the changes being “a nod to the past” and that the aim is “to refresh and enhance” yet it is evident that what we see here, is not a sympathetic renovation but a complete makeover that will make the building look like a pastiche of the streamline-moderne, such as in nearby Bunhill Row.
I have been advised that the proposed renovation has an approximate life of 10 years and that pale-coloured renders on north/east-facing walls are prone to patches of green mould during the first winter, producing an on-going suede effect. Application of this unnecessary coating will require damaging the surface of the tiles to make a key, whether by sand-blasting or abrasion, thus ruining them forever. This is irresponsible and far from eco-friendly in many respects. We need only to look many reclaimed pub and shop façades to clearly see how the scars made by paint application and its subsequent indelicate removal processes have caused irreparable damage.
As regards changes, additions and renovations to the rest of the Willen building, I agree that the windows are indeed in need of replacement. However, there are many good quality double-glazed units available these days with fine, thin, profiles/frames, both Crittall-style metal or UPV.
I am keen to know if the plaque on the Lever Street corner will be retained in these renovation plans, as surely it should be. A similar unsympathetic ‘white-washing’ of the past can be found in nearby City Road where Buckley Gray Yeoman’s external renovation of The Epworth Press building uses a too-bright iridescent white coating over the original soft ivory/natural-coloured faience tiles. It is ironic here that the iridescence does not sit well with the natural colour employed by the architects for the additional upper floors.
Conversely, for a reference of how renovations of this kind can be sympathetically achieved, please see this example at The Drapery, by Brooks Murray Architects where a once messy site has been cleverly adapted and repurposed to marvellous effect.
I look forward to your reply, or at least an acknowledgment of this letter

Jane Parker / www.janeslondonwalks.com / jane@janeslondon.com / @janeslondon

I had no idea 'materiality' was a word until I read this – try saying it out loud – it's almost impossible!