Many buildings in London are decorated with art works that reveal the business of the original occupants. You have to keep your eyes open for some surprises – and you can learn a lot with a little research.
J. Wisden & Co at No. 21 Cranbourn Street, Covent Garden sold sporting goods
My friend Caroline told me that Wisden & Co. are publishers of the cricketer’s bible – Wisden’s Almanac, the cricket reference book published annually. It was founded in 1864 by the English cricketer John Wisden (1826–84) as a competitor to Fred Lillywhite’s The Guide to Cricketers
Heal’s on Tottenham Court Road is a home furnishing store that was founded in 1810 as a “feather-dressing” business. I must admit – I’m not sure what that means!
In 1818 they moved to Tottenham Court Road and by the end of the 19th century were one of the best-known furniture suppliers in London. When you look for antique furniture today, a Heal’s label is an indication of well-made furniture.
Sir Ambrose Heal, great-grandson of the founder, was one of the group of designers, industrialists and business people who founded the Design and Industries Association in 1915. The group’s slogan was “Nothing Need Be Ugly”.
The central part of the present building on Tottenham Court Road was commissioned by Ambrose Heal and designed by his cousin, and best friend, Cecil Brewer. It was completed in 1917 and is a distinctive modern building, immediately hailed as a landmark in shop architecture. The façade features panels that reflect the things for which the store was famous.
The Barkers Building is an Art Deco masterpiece on Kensington High Street – and it has an interesting history. The business was started in 1870 when John Barker and James Whitehead opened a small drapery business at 91-93 Kensington High Street. Whitehead (a city merchant) was the investor, and Barker ran the store.
Over the next 40 years John Barker gradually bought up all the small properties around his shop until he owned the entire city block and more. The first large Barkers store was built in 1914, but business suffered significantly during the First World War. The business survived and prospered after the war and by 1930 plans were made to build two large buildings on either side of Derry Street to house all the departments including a “high class catering business”.
In 1957 House of Fraser bought the business and started streamlining – this was the beginning of a slow decline which ended in 2006 when House of Fraser built a flagship store in the new Westfield Mall in Shepherds Bush and closed the 135 year-old Kensington business. The building now houses small shops along the Kensington High Street front, offices for Associated Newspapers and the Whole Foods grocery store.
The façade of the Barkers Building features two incised panels that show types of transportation and things that were sold in the department store. What a variety of things one could find – a kitchen pan, radio, tea kettle, man’s jacket and lady’s dress, haberdashery supplies, toy train and a tin soldier, a teddy bear, and bowling pins – among other things!
The metal panels between the long windows on the sides of the Barkers Building in Kensington show things that were sold in the department store –
A neighbour in Kensington, who had lived in the same area for 85 years (!!) told me that during the Second World War Barkers sold chickens and chicken feed because people started keeping chickens in their gardens. I felt very lucky to have had the chance to talk with her about her memories. She told me that during the war, 5 families lived in my house – at the same time!
Most people never notice the art work on the building. Thank goodness the building was protected and all those Art Deco decorations that reflect the original use of the building are still there for us to appreciate.
Here’s a building where the business promotion is a little more subtle – the Faraday Building on Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.
It would be easy to dismiss this huge building as an anonymous office block – until you check out the decorative details.
The Faraday Building opened in 1902 as the Central Telephone Exchange at the Savings Bank Building on Queen Victoria Street. Initially the exchange served only 200 customers – but those included the Treasury, the War Office and Fleet Street. In just three years the exchange had 10,000 customers.
The large building we see today was built in 1932; the architect was R.A. Myers. It actually caused a change in the law. Because it was so tall it obscured the riverside view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. So a law was passed protecting the view and limiting the buildings along the river to a height of three levels above ground.
Wikipedia tells an unexpected secret: During the Second World War, the Faraday Building was transformed into a redoubt where the Cabinet could retreat if the need arose and the Prime Minister run the war in greater security than Downing Street could provide. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faraday_Building
The keystones are what make this building so interesting. The designs are quite modern – they show telecommunications apparatus including telephones, undersea cables, and even electrical signals.
Above the entrances at each end of the building are classical symbols – the head of Mercury, messenger of the gods, and his caduceus, symbol of commerce.
Finally, here’s a building that defies the prohibition about putting advertising signs on buildings in London.The building was built in the late 1800s as a power station to supply electricity to the Royal Mail post office. In the 1920s the power station was no longer used and it was sold to the Liebig Extract of Meat Company – manufacturers of OXO beef stock cubes. Much of the power station was demolished but the river façade was retained and extended. The Liebig company wanted to build a tower with illuminated signs spelling the name of their main product – OXO – but the plans were refused. However, the architect built the tower with three windows in a vertical line on each side. They just happened to be in the shape of a circle, a cross and a circle – which look curiously like they spell “OXO”.
All photos taken by Cathey Leitch @Cathey Leitch, 2015