If you plan to visit the British Museum, you must pay a call to the magnificent Victorian store of James Smith & Sons, on the corner of New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Street. Unchanged for 187 years, this shop sells timelessly classical umbrellas – the perfect British fashion accessory.
Imagine a set from My Fair Lady with dark wainscoting, an old counter, every imaginable size of drawers with handwritten labels, row upon row of umbrellas and walking sticks, three chairs and on the walls above the display cases, old advertising posters and antlers and horns, with a workshop in the basement and a tiny office upstairs.
Bright colours for ladies and dark for gentlemen and dozens of eye-catching wooden handles, depicting gnarled old men, crocodile heads, skulls and ducks, made out of silver, resin and hand-carved out of wood. An amazing series of hand-carved wooden dog’s heads: schnauzer, basset, boxer, pointer and terrier. You can buy an umbrella off the shelf or order one made to measure choosing the canvas, handle, wood and ferrule. The only thing that cannot be chosen is :
“each umbrella’s outstanding quality and reasonable price”
sums up Phil Naisbitt, manager of the emporium. This London shop proudly claims to cater to all budgets, illustrated by the London collection, which features an umbrella with a mahogany wooden handle at £59.50 and the Solid Stick collection with a bark blackthorn root-knob handle at £370.
“We sell three types of umbrellas, explains Phil. Firstly, made-to-measure articles using rare and precious materials; secondly we have a range of British designed and assembled umbrellas and sticks made with British and European components.
The quality of the materials, exotic wood, leather, horn, velvet, silver, canvas, is fundamental and for decades we have worked with leading European craft manufacturers to whom we are loyal, illustrated by a manufacturer of horn handles established in the 17th century !
Finally, our shop also sells some top contemporary brands such as Fulton, Knirps, Pierre Vaux, Lulu Guiness, Kate Kidston... with prices starting at £16. We make umbrellas for everyone.”
The company was founded in 1830 in London at which time James Smith sold umbrellas that he manufactured practically singlehanded out of copper and whale bones. In 1851, Samuel Fox invented the lightweight steel frame. The Smith son was the first to use Fox Frames in the manufacturing process. The business developed to such an extent that James Smith Junior extended the premises and moved the workshop-store to 53 New Oxford Street. The family business now employs 10 people and is a thriving venture.
“Service is the backbone of our company ethic and we repair all our umbrellas ourselves here in the workshop, says Phil. We have remained true to our tradition of lasting quality and conservative style. Timeless. No extravagant colours or motifs. Sober, classical colours dominate : black, dark blue, dark green, with a few tartans for gentlemen for example.”
Classical, understated, practical, solid and timeless. The quintessence of British elegance.
James Smith and Sons
53 New Oxford St, London, Greater London WC1A 1BL
Nearest underground station : Tottenham Court Rd