Monday 21 December 2009

'Come and take choice of all my library'

W H Smith in Weston-Super-Mare has an extraordinary shopfront. Not at ground level, of course, where it's the standard chain-store signage. Look up, though, and there's a riot of ornate leadwork. Frustratingly, I've been unable to find out much about its history either online or in Pevsner, but the decorations themselves are full of information. (You'll probably need to click on the images to enlarge them, in order to make out details.)

The centrepiece is a quotation from Shakespeare:
Come and take choice of all my library
And so beguile thy sorrow
It's garnished with Tudoriana: hunting dogs, flourishes of vegetation, and a scattering of Tudor roses. Even more intriguing, though, are the panels below. Heraldic in theme, they include a bear, dragon, rather wicked-looking cherub, and a unicorn.

The bear features on the coat of arms of the city of Bath, and indeed the city's shield is also here. It's sat over the town's motto: Floreat Bathon. However, it really ought to have a pair of keys as well, although the Roman column is a nice flourish. We're perhaps not talking about pedantic levels of accuracy here!

The dragon doesn't have a convenient label. Although it's facing the bear, it isn't another representative of Bath (which prefers a lion). Rather, it's the symbol of the county of Somerset - and thus covers a much wider area than its companions. A common misconception is that the beast is actually a wyvern: they're popular locally, having been the symbol of the kingdom of Wessex. However, they also have only two legs - when Somerset County Council got its official coat of arms in 1911, the dragon was used instead.

The third panel offers a riot of Taunton symbolism, including a banner which evokes the seal of the town of Taunton - the source of that cherub and crown; the town motto Defendamus;* and a scattering of letter Ts. The current coat of arms, granted to the Borough Council in 1934, also has a peacock while the royal crown has been simplified to a Saxon one. That may well suggest a pre-1934 date for the shopfront.

On the far right is a unicorn. Once more, we have some handy clues as to what it represents: a coat of arms and the motto virtute et industria. These place us in Bristol, whose linking of virtue and industry seems rather ironic given its role in the transatlantic slave trade.

We have, then, Somerset, Bath, Bristol and Taunton - but no reference to Weston itself. Perhaps that's because, according to Civic Heraldry, Weston was first granted arms in 1928. After all, the place was a small village until the Victorian boom in seaside holidays. Might this hint at the shopfront being pre-1928? The style would also suggest so.

Finally, after decoding the first floor decorations, it's worth looking up a little more to enjoy the castellated drainpipes at the top.

* 'We shall defend': it dates from the civil war, when the town was besieged but refused to surrender to Royalist forces.


Philip Wilkinson said...

Extraordinary - I've never seen anything like this. Thanks for a fascinating, if somewhat mystifying, post.

Hels said...

Caroline and Philip, the mystery to me is why the original owners would have spent a good money commissioning beautiful and ornate leadwork, KNOWING that it could not be easily seen from ground level.

Assuming the pre-1928 date is correct, what was the chance of people going past at first floor level via double decker bus (for example).

I wonder what the original allegiances to Somerset, Bath, Bristol and Taunton were. Someone wanted to really honour those four places.

Stephen Barker said...

Caroline can I suggest 'English Shops and Shopping' by Kathryn A. Morrison, YUP, 2003. Smith's shops are examined on pages 200-2008. From 1905 to his death in 1938 the design of Smith's shops was controlled by Frank C Bayliss who was made FRIBA in 1925.
The quotation was used on shops in Stratford-upon-Avon and in Kingsway in London. Cheltenham was treated to Wordsworth. The house style adopted was neo-tudor or neo-eliazbethan would would be adapted for specific sites. For key projects local architects would sometimes be employed.
The shop almost certainly dates before 1928 when Bayliss was told his shops were too lavish and a simpler style was required. From the mid 1930's a modern style was adopted with marble, bronze and neon signs.
The original lettering on Smith's shops was designed specially designed by Eric Gill in 1903 who painted a number of fascia's up to 1905 when the work was taken in-house.
Smith's in Winchester has similar detailing to the rainwater head.

CarolineLD said...

Hels, Weston-Super-Mare is in Somerset: Bath and Bristol are the nearest cities, while Taunton is the county town. Not the closest connections, but presumably to make up for a lack of heraldry in the town itself!

Stephen, thank you for all that information! It's hugely helpful, and I'll definitely get Morrison's book.