range from hideous examples of commercialism to exquisite examples
of contemporary design. Jonathan Taylor outlines their historic development
and the importance of good detailing. Illustrations of typical details
are supplied by John Clenshaw, Historic Shopfronts.
origins of the traditional shopfront lie in the market stalls of the
Middle Ages. Prior to the industrial revolution and the vast urban
development which accompanied it, retail trade was dominated by the
market. The earliest shops were generally simple variations of the
market stall, and only partly enclosed by the building. An awning
over a projecting stall was common. In another variation, the opening
was protected by two horizontal shutters; the top one folding up to
double as an awning or 'pet roof', and the lower one folding down
to form the stall board. Today the term 'stall-riser' is still used
to describe the front of the shopfront below the window.
1. Elevation showing elements of late 18th and early 19th century
shopfronts. Note the entablatures, consisting of cornice, frieze
and architrave. The frieze is enlarged to carry the sign-written
name of the shop. The entablature is supported on the pilasters
by capitals or console brackets.
the mid 18th century, the shop as we know it today had emerged. Glazing,
which had probably first appeared in the late 17th century was now
common. Small paned windows, frequently projecting out from under
a canopy appeared in the more prestigious retail areas of London and
the principal market towns. Hanging signs were also introduced at
an early stage, growing larger as each competed for attention until
they were banned in the City of London in 1764. By 1784, shopkeepers
were sufficiently numerous to be targeted for taxation, as William
Pitt struggled to raise funds in a period of continuous conflict with
the spirit of classicism which then prevailed, a language of ornamentation
emerged which was unique to the shopfront. Classical detailing was
introduced to relieve the appearance of large shopfront openings in
the walls of ordinary urban terraced houses. The beam or 'bressummer'
which supported the facade above was disguised by an 'entablature',
and classical columns, pediments or scrolled corbel brackets were
introduced to give visual support. The entablature provided an ideal
opportunity for displaying the name of the shop, and the frieze or
fascia was enlarged accordingly.
Georgian shopfronts are relatively rare, but isolated examples can
be found in many towns and cities throughout the UK. These are typified
by the paired, bow-fronted oriel windows on either side of a central,
half glazed door, which were popular from the mid 1740s to the end
of the Regency period. However the Georgian period was equally responsible
for a wide variety of other designs, covering the whole spectrum of
popular taste, from the cool classicism of the Greek Revival, to the
pointed arch glazing pattern of the 'Gothick'. Shopfronts designed
to display state-of-the-art produce were often required to be of the
latest design, and their forms reflect the fashions of the period.
Many interesting designs were consequently destroyed with every change
huge urban expansion which occurred in the Victorian period resulted
in a proliferation of retail developments in every town, city and
suburb. Manufacturers such as I and J Taylor and SW Francis and Co
offered wide ranges of standard designs which could be selected from
catalogues. Typical examples included tall shop windows, frequently
incorporating a decorative cast iron ventilator underneath the timber
or glass covered fascia. Sunblinds were often incorporated in the
cornice and timber roller security shutter were introduced towards
the end of the century replacing detachable timber shutters. At the
base of the window the timber frame included both a bottom rail and
a deep sill
- a detail frequently overlooked by modern interpretations. Panelling
of the door and stall-riser was usually raised and fielded.
machine-produced plate glass was available from around the turn of
the century, its use in shopfronts was quite rare until the 1840s
when tall panes unbroken by horizontal glazing bars began to appear
in increasing numbers. The production of larger sheets was limited
more by cost than by the technology available. Isolated examples of
full size plate glass appear in shops such as Asprey's on Bond Street,
London in the 1860s, becoming increasingly common towards the end
of the century.
variety of designs increased rapidly throughout the period, with the
early appearance of cast iron, followed by brass- and bronze-clad
timber around the middle of the century, with fine detailing often
incorporating a stone or marble stall-riser without a sill.
local authorities are becoming increasingly concerned by the disastrous
effect that the appearance of modern shopfronts and signage have had
on our town centres, and are imposing tight controls on new designs.
Most of the more important shopping streets lie within conservation
areas, and the local authority will usually require conservation area
consent for alterations to original shopfronts.
examples should be conserved if at all possible. All original components
have an historic value which cannot be replicated, comparable with
the finest antique. A suitable replacement for some components, including
glass and metalwork in particular, may not easily be found.
apparently new shopfronts may contain sufficient numbers of the original
details to enable accurate restoration of the original. New fascias
may hide the original cornice and the upper part of the window head.
In such cases restoration inevitably results in a substantially more
impressive design than can be achieved with a standard modern replacement.
no original designs have survived, a modern solution will be the most
honest approach, but a high quality, traditionally detailed design
may also be appropriate, and often preferred. In both cases the quality
of detail is crucial to the success of the design. Crude, square mouldings
and planted mouldings are now common, often applied without any real
understanding of the way a frame is constructed. Secondary fascias
are often incorporated, disrupting the rhythm of tall shop windows
along the street, and the concrete floor slab is often exposed. Prior
to the arrival of the aluminium systems, shopfronts were almost always
designed to fill the opening, from the pavement to the underside of
the fascia, usually with a rendered or timber skirting, scribed to
JONATHAN TAYLOR is the editor of The Building Conservation Directory and a co-founder of Cathedral Communications Limited. He studied architectural conservation at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh and has a background in architectural design, conservation and urban regeneration.
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