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!


  1. Hi there. I came across your site after googling one of the mosaics that I came across while walking through a very quiet Soho today. Regarding the chemist, I've done a bit of digging and discovered that the chemist John Christopher Addison used to be based in that corner of Wardour Street. There's a fascinating article about it here. (At the time, his address was known as 25 Princes Street, but it's now 52 Wardour Street.) Great site! All the best, Lee

    1. Oh, the article:

  2. That mosaic on Wardour Street is Derber (Shoes)