Wednesday 21 January 2015

A Stroll Around Soho part 2

Welcome to part two of Urbantyping's Stroll Around Soho. If you missed part one you can find it here

Like all good things, the last post finished with a trip to the pub. After a quick beer and a bizarre staring match with a bloke pressing his face against the window we headed back out to find another pub search for more exciting typography.

wardour mews painted sign soho

Straight out of the door and across D'Arblay Street we spotted the entrance to Wardour Mews, a narrow cul-de-sac of old warehouse buildings with a surprisingly colourful past. 

According to Herb Lester Associates, the mews was home to a selection of infamous clubs and coffee bars in the sixties such as The Casino, The Take Five, The Granada and The Limbo Club. An interview with DJ Amanda Evans at revels that visitors to the latter included Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Bob Marley!

Disappointingly, there wasn't much typographic evidence of this exciting past to be found in the mews, though there was the handpainted sign (above) and this intriguing old stencilled notice (see below). Sadly, it seems that life here is a lot quieter these days, but if these walls could talk...

wardour mews painted sign soho blue door

r n cattle painted sign portland mews soho

The next find was this beautiful hand painted wooden sign in the entrance to Portland Mews, where R.N.Cattle's firm of woodworkers were based. Although there seems to be little information available about the company the sign itself has been documented by quite a few excellent London blogs and with all that character it's easy to see why.

A painted sign like this is always going to be special but particular details liked the extended L on Ltd, the italicised type and the crude ampersand give it a human touch and it's great to see it surviving here after all these years.

bp energol painted sign soho

Next up were two of the best preserved ghost signs I've encountered anywhere. Just inside Soho car park these large advertisments for BP Energol and Regent Remoulds (below) sit within alcoves along the entrance ramp. Quite easy to spot from the street, their colour and detail have remained vivid over the years, no doubt due to their sheltered location.

BP Energol is naturally the more familiar of the two, featuring the company's characteristic green and yellow branding, albeit in a chunky uppercase slab serif rather than the slick sans of today. The advertising copy is probably just the right amount to read while driving up the ramp and is spaced generously, no doubt to aid readability while moving.

According to the Vintage Garage website, BP Energol was originally known as Price's Energol and was produced by a company called Price's Patent Candle Co, who were part owned by BP. By 1954 BP had rebranded the product in their own name, which means that the sign can be dated to around that time or later.

regents remoulds painted sign soho

Considerably less well known today, Regent Remoulds were a cost effective range of remoulded tyres popular in the post-war years. According to Laura Deane, The Regent Tyre & Rubber Co. was a subsidiary of Dunlop that was launched in 1938 and eventually boasted factories in Manchester, Glasgow and Bristol.

The sign itself is quite striking with its palette of red, black and grey and the painting of the tyre has a particularly impressive three dimensional feel. The typefaces all have a classic, hand cut English sans serif look, similar to the styles being produced at the time by typefounders like Stephenson Blake and Delittle of York.

Overall these are both great pieces of advertising history and it's heartening to see they've been allowed to stay in place all these years.

henry heath hat factory soho

Heading north a glimpse of typography on Hollen Street caught my eye. A closer look revealed a well preserved warehouse building that was once the home of Henry Heath's Hat Factory.

Heath's company was founded sometime during the reign of George IV (1820 to 1830) and was a well known manufacturer of top hats, the headgear of choice for any self respecting gentleman of the era. The Virtual Victorian has an excellent article on the company, be sure to have a read here.

The type itself is carved in relief from inlaid stone panels and evenly spaced along the width of the building, bringing a touch of elegance to the facade. The individual characters have slightly flared serifs and would be quite austere were it not for the V-shaped crossbars on the H and A. These give a subtle hint of 18th Century decorative style and are well worth a closer inspection than my picture allows (note for next time: more zoom!)

Apparently, the Oxford Street side of the building also features a weathervane and statues in tribute to the beaver, the animal whose hides were used to make the hats. I'll need to try and photograph these next time i'm in the area!

wardour house floor mosaic soho
Back on Wardour Street I spied this floor mosaic outside the entrance to Wardour House, a residential building that, unlike most of Soho, doesn't seem to have had much of an eventful past. Despite this, I like to imagine this doorway has seen its fair share of illicit nocturnal activity over the years.

The mosaic type features sharp serifs (similar to The O Bar in part one) and a skillfully composed decorative frame that looks fairly simple but clearly took some serious skill to get right. The arched type is a pleasing touch too, giving the whole thing an appropriately homely feel.

avince or a.vince floor mosaic soho

Possibly due to the aforementioned beer, I don't seem to have a record of where I spotted this floor mosiac. From what I can see it reads 'A.VINCE' or 'AVINCE' but annoyingly I've not been able to find out anything about it. I do love a good mystery though so I'll keep my detective hat on and see what I can turn up on the coming weeks. Watch this space!

ristorante isola bella restaurant floor mosaic soho
ristorante isola bella restaurant floor mosaic soho

Heading up Frith Street, this impressive mosaic marks the former location of Ristorante Isola Bella, one of Soho's original Italian restaurants. The site is now home to a GBK, who had the good sense to leave the mosaic in place. Although it looks as though it has seen better days the type is still largely intact, featuring flared serifs and a curvy leg on the capital R that will warm the heart of type obsessives everywhere. Also of note is the way the mosaic has been constructed, using a method where the white tiles are set in semicircular arcs that bleed into the letters. I'm not sure if this is practical or decorative but if any mosaic makers are reading this I'd love to find out!

berwick house decorative stonework oxford street soho
As the day wore on and the light started to fade (4pm, damn you January!) we headed back towards Oxford Street. The shopping crowds were thinning out so I took advantage of the space to grab the final picture of the day. I'd spotted this stunning bit of type high up on the corner of Berwick Street before, but I'd never had a good enough camera to reach it. This time I was better prepared.

This piece has got so much going for it, the lock up itself, the arched type, the decorative flourishes and the inner shadow on the characters all add up to a jawdroppingly impressive display of craftmanship. It makes me wonder why more people don't look up to admire these things, but then I remember that it's in the middle the busiest shopping street in the country and it all starts to make sense.

And so our day in Soho came to a close. As you might expect from an area with a long and storied past, we only managed to scratch the surface of what it contains. Fortunately, this means there's plenty of material left for a return trip, so at least I've got an excuse next time I fancy a few beers and a raid on the jukebox in the Crobar.

Thanks for reading and see you next time!

Wednesday 14 January 2015

A Stroll Around Soho part 1

I first visited London at the tender age of 17. Coming from the Scottish Highlands this was my first taste of the big city and a trip to Soho was high on my list of priorities. If music magazines had taught me anything, it was that Soho was a booze and sex filled wonderland where famous rock stars roamed the streets and classic albums were being recorded in the basement of every building. It's fair to say that I was quite excited and typography couldn't have been further from my mind.

Fast forward quite a few years and I'm living in London, my hair is a whole foot shorter and the most famous person I've spotted is the bloke who won Masterchef in 2007. Despite all that I still love a good wander round Soho so last weekend my better half and I ventured in with cameras at the ready and typography on our brains (okay, the typography part might just have been me).

great marlborough street sign london

We got off the tube at Oxford Street and headed towards Soho via Great Marlborough Street where the ultra condensed typeface of this street sign caught my eye. I'm not sure when signs in this style were produced but I'm a big fan of the angled terminals on the G and S that give it a slightly gothic feel. The small dot below the T in the abbreviated 'Street' is another satisfying touch of detail.

diamond reign pub window london

Further down Marlborough Street this intriguing window caught my eye. Above it you can see Queen Victoria in profile with the words by 'Diamond Reign' written in a curvy, decorative font. It turns out this was once the site of the Diamond Reign pub, which according to Pubology traded between 1895 and 1910. The site is now home to two shops called Barbour and Cowshed.

westminster dwellings doorway london

Around the corner we came onto Marshall Street and were immediately drawn by this impressive piece of decorative type marking the entrance to the City of Westminster Dwellings. This residential building features the Westminster portcullis symbol in several places, hinting at the importance the occupants must have once had.

addis coalhole cover london

Just opposite Westminster Dwellings I spotted one of my favourite ground-based items: a decorative coalhole. Once common outside most homes in London, these metal disks would be lifted to allow delivery of coal direct to the coal cellar of the house. The sheer variety of designs produced by the different foundries around the country make these really interesting items to watch out for, and this one is a particularly good example featuring a nice combination of decorative elements and type.

john snow pub window london

Next stop on the way into Soho proper was the John Snow, a pub named after Dr John Snow, the celebrated physician and founder of epidemiology who famously discovered that cholera could be transmitted through water. This decorative etched window features some great type, particularly the bar of the G which flicks satisfyingly upwards.

lex garage ghost sign london

Heading into the heart of Soho the next thing to catch my eye was this ghost sign for Lex's Garage on the corner of Silver Place. I do love a good ghost sign and the type on this one doesn't disappoint, boasting some flared serifs with loads of character. Following Ingestre Place round past the former Pulteney School we came across the garage proper, a grade 2 listed building built on the site of the former Ayres brewery in 1929. The garage was designed as a place for the wealthy car owners of the day to leave their vehicles as parking on the street was banned. According to The Soho Clarion (issue 148) the garage provided separate changing rooms for chauffeurs and ladies and is still in use today for parking and the occasional film shoot.

o bar mosaic london

Onwards to Wardour Street and we found this mosaic outside The O Bar. This is a fairly modern example of a doorway mosaic, the bar itself having been a pub known as The Round House at least until the late sixties. The sharp, latin-style serifs on the type give the characters a slightly crude, industrial feel which I quite like.

derber show shop mosaic wardour street london

This mosaic further down the street is a much older example, though I've not been able to trace it and I'm not even sure what it says. Deaber? Deabea? One for the list of mysteries I need to solve. Type wise it's fairly plain, though I couldn't walk past without taking a picture.

Update: It turns out this actually says 'Derber', which was the name of a shoe shop that was based here until sometime in eighties, the store now being an Anne Summers. Massive thanks to Defero Mundus for the tip off!

chemist sign soho london

Speaking of mysteries, this chemist sign high on a building next to St Annes Churchyard has also proved quite difficult to trace. The building doesn't seem to be a chemists shop anymore though if anyone happens to know what it was called when it was, I'd be grateful for the information. As for the sign itself, it looks to be painted though it's in pretty good condition. It stands out a mile too!

w a williams and norton architects comptons plaque

Off to the side of Comptons, the well known Soho pub, I spotted this crumbling decorative plaque. Looking a little bit lost next to the proud signage of the pub, it notes the architects of the building, W.A. Williams and Hopton of Regent Street. According to Wikipedia, Comptons was originally built in 1890 as the Swiss Hotel. After having its top two floors demolished following a bombing raid in 1941, the building was renamed the Swiss Tavern until 1986 when it became Comptons. The type on the plaque features a flat topped ampersand, a characteristic popular with engravers of the time. A really close inspection also reveals the word 'Architects' in a beautiful italic script underneath. Well worth zooming in for!

gold building mosaic wardour street

The next find was another great piece of type on a building in Wardour Street (I forget which one). Looking closely it's a mosaic that's been finished in gold and looks to have been pretty well cared for considering that it's almost 200 years old. Some nice quirks here - the flat topped number eight and the lock up of the A and D at either side of the date had me reaching for the zoom button straight away.

quo vadis mosaic

quo vadis mosaic

Speaking of mosaics, I was blown away to find this one outside the restaurant Quo Vadis. Sadly I couldn't get a good enough view with one shot but wow, a blackletter mosaic! This was the first time I'd seen one of these and the angular lettering style lends itself well to the mosaic medium. I particularly like the top of the ascender on the lowercase d and the strike-through on the s - little details that really show off the skill involved in mosaic making. Shame about all the chairs though.

maison philip mosaic

While on the subject of restaurants, next to St Moritz on Wardour Street an open door revealed this decorative floor with 'Maison Philip Ltd' written in a lovely, fluid script. I had to rush over and move the rubbish bags to get this photo just in case I didn't get another chance. It's just a shame I couldn't get the whole thing in! I've not been able to find out who or what Maison Philip Ltd was, but as the restaurant has occupied the building since 1974 it looks like they haven't been there for a while.

the george pub soho mosaic london

The final spot of the morning was this beautifully coloured doorway mosaic at the side entrance to The George, a recently restored pub dating back to 1727 and now run by Shepherd Neame. I love finding these old mosaics; they speak of some serious dedication to fine details and I imagine it would have looked pretty impressive when new. Worn and dirty as it is now it's still got loads of character, with a simple yet elegant sans serif typeface and a nicely detailed border. So inviting in fact, that we crossed the threshold and nipped in for a much needed pint.

See you in part two!