Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Turn Back Time: The High Street & Eric Ravilious, part 2

How has the British high street changed over the years? Here are two of the shops illustrated by Eric Ravilious in 1938, and notes on their subsequent history. These extracts are from 'Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street' (Mainstone Press, 2008):


A sense of timelessness pervades Jermyn Street, where Paxton and Whitfield still sells its fabulous cheeses from the shop depicted in High Street, but this belies a turbulent history. A combination of trust ownership and planning restrictions has made change to the built environment difficult since the eighteenth century, but there are no rules to protect a small family business, and the famous emporium has known its hard times.

Winston Churchill summed up the shop’s significance when he remarked that, “A gentleman buys his hats at Locks, his shoes at Lobbs, his shirts at Harvey and Hudson, his suits at Huntsman and his cheese at Paxton and Whitfield.”

It was no coincidence that these businesses could all be reached on foot from St James’s, since it was the emergence of the streets around Piccadilly Circus as the locus of fashionable society that attracted their founders in the first place. The men who established Paxton and Whitfield were, as current Sales Manager Jeremy Bowen puts it, barrow boys from St Paul’s, and they seized the opportunity to trade “within the gaze of the Prince Regent.”

Handy for Boodle’s and White’s, and with Buckingham House nearby, this was the place to be in 1797 when Harry Paxton and Charles Whitfield opened their shop at 37 Swallow Street. Unfortunately this first shop was demolished to make way for the magnificent new Regent Street, and the move was made first to 18 then to 93 Jermyn Street.

The shop today
The future looked bright as the twentieth century dawned, but economic depression and war almost proved disastrous for the shop; during the nadir of World War II it was unable to offer the exiled French leader Charles de Gaulle anything more specific than ‘cheese’. That it survived is perhaps because it has remained, through numerous changes of owner, a private, family-run business. Retired businessman Fred Moore saw Paxton and Whitfield through the crises of mid-century, then his son Archie took over, passing the business in turn to his partner Dermot Adamson.

In 1992 the Adamson family sold the shop to the current owner, Arthur Cunynghame, who already owned thriving cheese shops in Stratford upon Avon and Bath. Nowadays the nerve centre of the business is its national distribution centre in Gloucestershire, from which fine cheeses travel to shops, restaurants and markets around the country, and direct to the homes of online customers. The company links expert producers and discerning consumers with an efficiency unimaginable before the Digital Age.


Although advertising itself as ‘Baker and Confectioner’ this shop only seems to be selling bread, and indeed Ravilious includes in an early list of shops, ‘Soho baker (bread only, no cakes)’. This being said, an independent bakery that only sold bread was an unusual find in the mid-1930s.

By the end of the Victorian age mechanization was already enabling wholesalers to produce cheap bread on an industrial scale, and over the following decades production massively outstripped demand. So much of this bread was delivered direct to the customer’s door that most shops diversified into cakes, pies and other baked goods (which put pressure on specialist cake shops like Buszard’s), and for an independent baker to make a living selling only bread he must have enjoyed the support of a large local population. In Soho, with its eclectic pre-war population of Italians, Greeks and Jews working close to home in the clothing trade, this baker evidently found his market.

Change of use... the building today
Considering Soho’s more recent history it is not surprising that the bakery has gone, taking with it late-night warmth and light and the smell of baking bread. However, we do know where it stood, and its fate. Derick Martin, CEO of Cooks the Bakery, remembers the shop from his boyhood. He told us that the business remained independent until the 1960s, when it was acquired by Clark’s, a division of RHM Retail. It survived almost until the century’s end as a retail operation, and when it finally closed the brick and coal ovens were still in the basement. Today, however, the scene is rather different.

Occupying a prime site on the corner of Brewer Street and Walkers Court, the shop now lies near the heart of (the late) Paul Raymond’s empire, and the basement store is strictly for adults only.

Turn Back Time: The High Street & Eric Ravilious

The Family Butcher

If you're interested in the history of the British high street, you might enjoy this extract from 'Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street', which was published in 2008 by The Mainstone Press.

My contribution to the book was an essay based on a quest undertaken by Tim Mainstone and I, to find each of the 24 shops depicted by Ravilious in his 1938 book 'High Street'. We wanted to know whether the shops were still there and, if not, what had happened to the business and the building itself...

You'll find my essays on two of the shops in Part Two, here.

This essay began as a mission to track down the shops but, as material began to accumulate and information emerged, it became apparent that this exercise in social history was developing in unexpected ways. Each shop has its unique history as a building, a business premises and a business, and each history involves families and individuals whose lives are in many cases otherwise undocumented. Research into 1930s Castle Hedingham (the artist's Essex home) conjured shopkeepers out of the buildings where they once conducted their business – people like Bennett Smith, the ceiling of whose hardware shop was hung with chamber pots. Working back from the present incarnation of Castle Hedingham, with its general store and tea room, we can reanimate the village the artist looked on as he worked.

Castle Hedingham site of the Butcher's Shop

Other discoveries have opened unexpected avenues and offered valuable insights into artist and work. A number of photographs have come to light, showing the real shops on which the High Street illustrations were based, and some of these photos show startling discrepancies between reality and art. Seeking documentary evidence to confirm the identity of a shop, we found instead evidence of artistic licence, which seems to have found its fullest expression around Sudbury and the Hedinghams. Why is this? How, we might wonder, was Ravilious inspired by the village itself, with its idiosyncratic mix of medieval, early modern and Victorian architecture, and its fanciful plasterwork?

Of the 24 shops depicted, the Clerical Outfitter (Wippell’s) and the Cheesemonger (Paxton and Whitfield) are still trading from the same premises, but what of the others? The publication of High Street in 1938 seems to set it at the end of a pre-war golden age, and one might expect to discover shops destroyed by bombing or put out of business by the more subtle effects of World War II. Yet, as Richards makes clear, change was already altering the appearance of the high street when the book was published, and this is confirmed by an observant chronicler of London life in the mid 1930s, Thomas Burke.

The shop in 2007 - it's changed again since

Contrasting the pre-war years to those of his youth at the turn of the century, he noted the transformation of small shops into large stores, with a corresponding loss of character and distinctiveness.

He writes of, “Provision-merchants selling sporting equipment; gramophone makers selling refrigerators; tobacconists selling cutlery; cutlers selling foreign stamps; greengrocers selling butter and eggs, and bookshops selling gramophone records.”

Looking back, Burke makes an unfavourable comparison between contemporary retailers and the shopkeepers of his youth:

“In the past, shopkeepers knew their own minds and minded their own business. They described themselves on their shop-fronts in terms of definition. The butcher was a ‘purveyor of meat.’ The greengrocer was a ‘pea and potato salesman.’ The man who sold hats was a hatter and it was useless to ask him for overcoats or skis.”

Historian Dorothy Davis describes the role of this old-fashioned shopkeeper in more detail: “Grocers had to understand how to choose, blend and grind as well as weigh and package much of their stock. Even haberdashers bought cotton and thread by the pound and disentangled it and folded it into hanks for sale…

“Every trade,” she continues, “Needed its own knowledge and skill.”

The Public House

This is the world Ravilious set out to explore in High Street, a world of defined spaces and roles that was already falling apart when the book was published. With the development of manufactured or semi-prepared goods, and with the spread of advertising, the modern shopkeeper found himself dealing in products that were not only made and packaged but also, in effect, sold beyond the walls of his shop. In this environment there was no reason for a retailer to specialise, hence the diversification noted by Burke, and the accompanying loss of distinctiveness. What he notices in particular is the disappearance of olfactory stimuli.

“The store has one large and nondescript smell,” he writes, “But when I think of shopping I think of each separate shop and its separate smell. There was the smell of the draper's shop; the smell of the chemist's; the smell of the grocer's; the smell of the pastrycook's - what a smell! - the smell of the oil-and-colourman's… You could range the gamut of the human nose from pungent to mawkish.”

We are now so unused to shops having a smell that it comes as shock when, walking into a shop like Paxton and Whitfield, our nostrils are assailed more powerfully than our eyes. The supermarket environment is visually stimulating but odourless, with smells suppressed by refrigeration and plastic packaging, and the same is true of the DIY store, with its pungent products sealed into branded containers. For a child, the experience of shopping must be far less intense than it was twenty years ago, let alone seventy. True, there are some shops that retain their atmosphere: the shoe shop still has a leathery aroma, and the secondhand bookshop its dust; the weary smell of the charity shop might even be new to Ravilious and Burke. However, the greater thrust is towards uniformity and ever-higher economies of scale.

In the Foreword to High Street Jim Richards argues that, “It is no use regretting the coming of the multiple store and the standardization of shop fronts, as these… make better goods available to more people.”
The Public House today - recognise it?!

The logic of this attitude, played out over the subsequent decades, has brought us to a crisis point. In 2004 2,157 independent shops either went out of business or became part of a larger company, compared to a previous average of around 300 per year. Our love of convenience and low prices has given us the great supermarket chains, but as the giants tighten their grip we begin to see that shopping is about more than price and efficiency. As we drive down the high street we despair that charity shops and fast food joints have taken the place of butcher’s and baker’s, greengrocer’s and boutiques selling ladies’ fashions.

Yet some independent retailers have survived. Look at the hardware store, which started out as the ironmonger’s, trading in raw materials like lamp black and brick dust, and which then evolved with changes in production and demand. Some traders transferred their allegiance to the new labour-saving devices, like washing-machines, while others responded to the explosion of interest in home decoration and gardening that accompanied interwar suburban expansion. The 1930s saw a huge increase in multiple stores specialising in decorating supplies – the ancestors of today’s DIY superstores – but on many high streets the general hardware store adapted and survived. Among the old, independent retail businesses that persist in twenty-first century Soho are venerable hardware stores like Gould, Hopkins and Purvis, which have so far withstood rising rates and rents.

Shopping in the old days

Meanwhile, concern over loss of distinctiveness in the retail world has given us several recent books, whose authors share Ravilious’s love of the idiosyncratic. In Still Open: the Guide to Traditional London Shops, Sally Venables highlights a selection of businesses that might have been included in High Street, suggesting that this vision of the English shop persists today. Indeed, the success of internet-based retail operations like eBay has encouraged the growth of a new generation of specialist shops funded by the proceeds of online businesses, niche outlets that double as storage facilities for the internet trade.

The specialist, whether selling cheese or stuffed animals, still has an important role to play, and in London particularly whole streets of independent businesses continue to prosper. Consider Jermyn Street, home of Paxton and Whitfield, which can claim among its famous shops Taylor of Old Bond Street (gentlemen’s hairdressers and purveyors of toiletries), Floris (a perfumery dating from 1730) and Bates the Hatters, the latter still overseen by Binks, the stray cat who wandered into the shop in 1921.

Jermyn Street is of course unusual. On most streets dramatic changes have occurred since 1938, and this tour of High Street at seventy will show how a particular set of twenty-four shops, divided between London, Suffolk and Essex, has fared in the intervening years.

A Soho hardware store
Each shop is a gateway that will lead us into a new realm of historical, biographical or artistic discovery. In part this process of exploration is a kind of game, a treasure hunt in which we follow the clues left by artist, writer and friends, to try and piece together not only a historical record but also a more private story that brings together places and characters that are otherwise unconnected. High Street is not just a book of shops, after all, but also a kind of autobiography: a portrait of one man’s geography of pleasure.

Inside the Cider House

In the past the way cider was drunk reflected the way it was made. Fashionable London folk of the 1660s may have drunk their Redstreak like wine, from elegant, engraved glasses, but villagers across the West Country gathered around the barrel to share the cider they had helped to make.

The barn or shed in which the cider was stored and shared was known as the cider house, a casual, non-commercial institution that was an integral part of village life – and unknown to anyone outside the village. As industrial cidermaking took off in the last decades of Victoria’s reign, draught and bottled cider was sold alongside beer in pubs around the country, and gradually the village pub replaced the cider house, even in Somerset.

For a glimpse of the old country cider house, the top destination has to be Rog Wilkins’ Lounge Bar, which is a bare, draughty room adjoining the main cider barn at his farm overlooking the Somerset Levels. The place is a bit fancier these days than it used to be, with a mural of Rog decorated one wall, but the window still has no glass in it and the chairs are a mismatched assortment of office and kitchen rejects. If this is a bit disconcerting to the uninitiated, the strangest thing is the manner in which business is conducted.

When you walk in. Rog or one of his staff asks if you want Dry, Sweet or Medium, and pours you a half pint from one of three hogsheads that stand side by side in a corner of the barn.

If it’s pressing time, the man himself will probably stop building a cheese, come over to pour you a drink, then go back to work, leaving you to enjoy your cider. You might be wondering how much it is, how you pay for it, how strong it is, and what happens next. By drinking your half are you signing up to some wholesale deal? This is a different world from the uniform, regulated world of the pub. Outside, across the road, you can see the trees on which the apples grew to make this cider. The barn is filled with the smell of apple juice and the racket of the mill. And the cider is being made right there, in front of you; you can see the physical effort that goes into the making.

November is the month to visit Wilkins, when the pressing is in full swing. In the summer the experience is more of a tourist trip, with hen parties out from Bristol and families doing the Somerset tour. Go when the old boys are sat round, gossiping about village life, on a nasty afternoon in autumn or winter.

Cider has rarely been as commercially important as beer or wine, but that’s mostly because it’s a drink people tend to make themselves for their own pleasure. Who knows how many groups of friends and neighbours are gathered right now in sheds and garages around the country, enjoying a cup of their own cider?

Anyone can make cider, and anyone can create a cider house – it’s just the place where your cider lives. But if you really want to get into the spirit of the thing and design something a bit more stylish (imagine one of those home improvement programmes where they have to turn a 30s semi into a mock-tudor mansion while the owner’s out buying some fags) here are some tips:

Start with a shed, garage or other form of shelter, where you store the cider while it ferments and matures

Display your cider with pride – up on a shelf, not hidden on the floor behind an old bike

Get in some chairs, not a patio set but a motley collection of discarded office chairs and hospital rejects

Arrange dusty old bottles, ancient garden tools, pilfered pub ashtrays, old brooms, beer crates, out-of-date trade calendars, dead bikes and suchlike to create atmosphere

Provide a good pile of old newspapers and magazines, the more dog-eared and mildewed the better (Wilkins has this down to a T)

Fill your quart mug, switch off your phone, settle down and enjoy…

This is an extract from The Naked Guide to Cider.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Eric Ravilious in Sussex - a Miscellany

Seen from the slopes of Beddingham Hill, the cottage is Furlongs, where Eric Ravilious often stayed during the 1930s...

Eric painted this painting, Downs in Winter, nearby. When you walk around the area everything looks slightly familiar...

The immediate surroundings have changed a lot since the 1930s, with much more tree cover...

The contours of the land are the same though...

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings

We're putting the finishing touches to the next instalment of the 'Ravilious in Pictures' trilogy. It will be out in early November and is looking really good.

‘Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings’ celebrates and commemorates the wartime career of Eric Ravilious (1939-42), who died on active service in Iceland at the age of thirty-nine. One of a series of books that began with ‘Ravilious in Pictures: Sussex and the Downs’ (2009), it creates a vivid portrait both of the artist himself and of life in the wartime Britain.

As an Official War Artist, Ravilious visited ports, naval bases and airfields around Britain, witnessed the Allied invasion and retreat from Norway and produced watercolours and lithographs of subjects ranging from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal in action to the interior of a mobile pigeon loft. This remarkable body of work blends defiance with exhilaration and insists that there is a place for beauty in the darkest times.

‘Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings’, features twenty-two of these fascinating images, each accompanied by a short essay in which I explore the historical context of the work. Drawing on the artist’s correspondence and other contemporary sources, these essays offer an unusual, intriguing vision of life during the early years of the war.

‘Ravilious in Pictures: The War Paintings’ is a 48-page hardback book priced at £25. It will be published in early November by the Mainstone Press, and will be available in all good bookshops.