You Can Stand Under My Umbrella: the history of the beloved brolly with James Smith & Sons
6 April 2019
There is something to be said about the gentleman who carries an umbrella. There is also something to be said for the gentleman who doesn’t carry a brolly: he gets wet. IN Covent Garden explores the history of the beloved brolly with James Smith & Sons.
Words: Lorie Church • Photographs: Sam Rockman
Our word ‘umbrella’ is a literal back-formation from classical Latin meaning “little shadow” which is really rather sweet. A contraption that we would recognise as a brolly was developed independently by a number of early civilisations: Babylon, China and Egypt all had their own interpretations and they were principally used to shield from the sun, rather than rain.
Fashionable London ladies had periodically carried fascinatoresque umbrellas since about 1680, but these were strictly as fashion accessories. Imagine those romantic BBC period dramas where the improbably fussy heroine blushes behind a lacy parasol in between swooning fits.
The functioning umbrella was not a common sight in London until 1750 when eccentric explorer and philanthropist Jonas Hanway took to carrying one about London. In the process he encountered a deal of ridicule and isms “Hoy! It is the mincing Frenchman.” Undeterred, he carried his umbrella daily until his death in 1786, by which time society had come round to his way of thinking. A matter of months after his death, the London Gazette ran an advert for “Gatward’s new invented Umbrella … opened and shut with the greatest ease and facility by spring lock pillar.” The revolution was afoot and Hanway had been vindicated.
Anyone who has been caught short in a downpour will know that cheapo brollies are a false economy, one can buy a shoddy umbrella for a fiver but, whether it can weather the weather is down to luck and the next strong gust. Better, far, to invest in a stout model with handsome styling and ergonomic fittings which will be good for 25 years. As luck would have it, there is a certain shop on New Oxford Street where they know a thing or two about umbrellas.
We met with Phil from James Smith and Sons to learn more about the umbrella and its place in London’s polite society.
151 years ago, buoyed by the industrial revolution, James Smith set up shop here, and today, five generations later, the same family is still running things in much the same way as their forebear. There is a lot going on at 53 New Oxford Street: Craftsmen in the basement occupy themselves fixing the sterling silver cartouches to works in progress, meanwhile on the mezzanine, office and admin staff look after the books, but it is the shop floor that is most beguiling.
To the East are the ladies’ umbrellas; dainty and feminine but just as stout as the men’s to the West. However, women also have the option of colours and patterns; for men it is unusual to carry anything but black. This is one of those curious rules of etiquette that you already knew (even if you didn’t know you knew it).
In the Northern entrance are the crooks and walking sticks with either traditional curved, comfortable Derby or practical root knob handles. The southern cabinets are given over to dress sticks with any terminal you could mention, the eightball, a gundog, birds of prey…
James Smith works alongside a number of British and overseas craftspeople and Phil explains that, sometimes, a carver’s output will be led by her or his raw materials, as was the case for the hewer who made the bonkers lobster finial. Much of the clientele of James Smith and Sons is the country elite, so it is no wonder that hunting, shooting and fishing are well represented too.
Unless he is an antiques dealer, a Spaniard or a darts player, by and large, men are restricted to exactly one or zero items of jewellery. So his opportunity for embellishment is considerably poorer than the lady’s (and a tailored suit leaves little room for individuality) so cufflinks and umbrellas have come to be known as the two custom items of a gent’s ensemble.
Phil delineates the range between “emergency and discretionary purchases”. During a downpour, cheaper models will do the business but for a statement piece or as a gift, the more elegant umbrellas are de rigueur. The handles are made from a single straight piece of exotic or UK timber, bent according to traditional knowhow passed down through the generations and the length can be tailored downstairs, according to the height of the prospective owner. Danny DeVito’s umbrella from Batman Returns would look foolish in the hands of John Cleese on his way to work at the Ministry of Silly Walks and vice versa. So there is more to the humble brolly than meets the eye.
As for the old chestnut about it being unlucky to open an umbrella indoors, don’t worry, in here they’ve got you covered; Sleipnir’s horseshoe hangs above the doorway.