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Jim Howett’s Spitalfields Shopfronts

August 2, 2010
by the gentle author

Over the last fifteen years, the subtle work that Jim Howett has done on numerous shopfronts in Spitalfields has become such an integral part of the identity of the neighbourhood, that most people have no idea these edifices were ever any different from how they are today. This is exactly how Jim would wish it of course – it was his intent. He was always pursuing an art that would conceal itself. Yet there is a story behind each one, and it was by no means inevitable that any of these buildings would survive to become the local landmarks we all recognise.

The nature of the location of Spitalfields at the boundary of the volatile City of London renders the neighbourhood as one that is always in a state of change. It was in the late eighties, when the departure of fruit & vegetable market was imminent and developers were hungrily eyeing up the opportunities, that the Spitalfields Trust set about purchasing buildings in Brushfield St. Ironically this undervalued terrace facing the market was itself created by a brutal stroke in 1780, when a new road named Union St was driven through linking Christ Church with Finsbury Sq (the other half of this road still exists as Sun St on the other side of Liverpool St Station). In the process, structures were sliced in half, leaving buildings only one room thick, and refaced with windows in the odd positions that accommodated to the circumstances, defining the unusual rhythm of this terrace today.

When designer Marianna Kennedy and husband Charles Gledhill, bookbinder, bought 42 Brushfield St from the Trust in 1996, the ground floor had been stripped out for use as a vegetable store and it fell to Jim to design a shopfront that would be in keeping, so that the space could be used as a workshop and showroom. Without money to spend, they were lucky to attract the attention of a film crew that needed a shopfront location for an episode of Maigret. The location fee covered the cost of construction and, once his design was approved by the conservation officer, Jim worked through the night to complete the work. And when the crew arrived on the first morning of filming, the paint was still wet.

Jim’s design was based upon a thorough knowledge of East End shopfronts both existing and as recorded in old photographs, and the success of this key piece of work led to it becoming the model for the other traditional shopfronts at the Bishopsgate end of Brushfield St, but a comparison reveals that these are mechanical reproductions.  They lack the idiosyncrasy and craft details of Jim’s work. At number forty-two, he used cedar wood that would provide longevity and a textured grain, and he planed the sashes by hand. It is this attention to intriguing authentic detail - he built-in rising sashes that allow for an open shop window - combined with an understanding of the proportion and the dignity of utilitarian design that makes Jim’s understated work so pleasing.

At the same time, Jim also found Mr Verde’s daybooks from the nineteen thirties recording his visits to farmers in France under the name Jean Verde, farmers in Spain under the name Juan Verde and farmers in Italy under the name Julio Verde. These daybooks revealed that Mr Verde was scrupulously fair with his suppliers, informing them that never less than nine-tenths of their produce had arrived in good order with no more than one tenth spoilt. Recalling Mr Verde and the other vegetable traders of Brushfield St, Jim told me, “They traded in mushrooms, watercress and potatoes, and were in their seventies when I knew them, many fought together during the Italian Campaign, and their families had intermarried. And they ran an unlicensed horse betting racket that earned them more than the vegetable trade!”

While Jim was doing his work at one end of Brushfield St, Peter Sinden’s renovation of the Market Coffee House (the oldest surviving building in Spitalfields, dating from the seventeenth century), bookended the terrace, securing the personality of this block of buildings with so much to tell about Spitalfields history.“It just shows that if you cherish a neighbourhood, you can make it something better than it is.”disclosed Jim, with proprietory delight. In finding such ingenious and modest ways to design shopfronts that are in tune with each of these frontages, Jim Howett has contributed to preserving buildings that are distinctive in Spitalfields. They tell the history of working people here over the last two centuries, allowing their presence to remain visible on the street to remind us every day of those who were here before us.

Next week, I will show you Jim’s shopfronts in Commercial St and Fournier St.

42 Brushfield St as a fruit & vegetable store.

The shopfront that Jim designed in 1996, seen today. The signwriting is nineteenth century, revealed when the paint was picked off the fascia.

The location filming for Maigret that paid for the shopfront

125 Brick Lane in a watercolour of 1914.

125 Brick Lane prior to restoration of the exterior.

Uncovering the door that had been plastered over.

125 Brick Lane today – it is Jim’s regret that circumstances prevented re-instatement of the top storey.

40 Brushfield St, with the brick walls which were added to stabilise the building

40 Brushfield St today, with the original shutters used to conceal the brick walls.

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Nick permalink
    February 25, 2011

    It’s so nice to see these considered and beautiful restorations – thanks so much for sharing. I’ve walked past these shops for years wondering what their history was, a fascinating read. Does he continue to be involved in these sort of projects I wonder?

  2. Eliza S permalink
    April 16, 2011

    I love the before and after pictures of the work of Jim Howett in the above blog and have sat many times in Verde and Co having a lovely coffee. I thought the place was unique and your history of it and the other shops on the block is fascinating. It is wonderful that you are preserving all the stories of this area as it changes so fast. Since I last visited, The Market Coffee house, where they do super tea and cakes is now open in the evenings for dinner. These places have such character and charm, unlike the modernised end of the market opposite. When places are smartened up too much they loose the patina of age, unlike Jim’s magnificent work.

  3. Kate C permalink
    November 24, 2011

    It is of great pleasure to me that these shops on Brushfield Street have been so sympathetically restored.

    Of particular interest to me is the parish-boundary stone above the number ‘44’ on the 2nd photo. The ‘R. A Cole’ – still clearly visible on the stone – was my 2x great-grandfather, Robert Andrew Cole, one of the churchwardens of Christchurch, Spitalfields. He was a grocer and tea-dealer who lived on Brushfield Street (originally called Union Street East) from the 1850s until the time of his retirement in the 1890s. I suspect (but can’t prove) that the arrival of the new market buildings in the 1890s cleared away his original shop . So, after a lifetime of living in first, St George in the East and then Spitalfields, he moved out to the suburbs of Walthamstow.

    His son, also Robert, married into the Parnall family, an extremely wealthy Welsh family from Carmarthenshire who had one or two businesses on Bishopsgate. I have an original of Tallis’s London Street View for Bishopsgate and the Parnall shop is marked on it. Until I read your blog page http://spitalfieldslife.com/2010/10/23/in-bishopsgate-st-spitalfields-1838/ I hadn’t realised that there were also paintings of all the shop-fronts. The Parnall’s businesses were at 100 and 187 Bishopsgate – sadly these frontages are not on your blog so I will have to pay a visit to the Bishopsgate Institute to have a look.

    If you are interested in learning more about R. A. Cole, I have a photo of him (hand-coloured) and two of his children taken in the 1860s.

  4. January 21, 2015

    Do you happen to know the date that the Verde & Co front was restored?
    Also, I presume that the A.Gold – Traditional Foods part of the sign is a contemporary nod to the previous Milliners, as that would be an unusual combination of goods sold…

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