Modernism in Bristol: Charlotte St and Gill Sans.

In 1926 Bristol bookseller and printer Douglas Cleverdon asked his friend Eric Gill to paint a shop-sign for him. The lettering that resulted was seen in 1927 by Stanley Morison of Monotype Corporation who asked Gill to develop it as a full typeface. The result was Gills Sans one of the best known faces of the 20th century.

The sign itself vanished years ago. A black and white photograph of Cleverdon’s shopfront in Charlotte Street shows two windows sitting close to the steeply sloping pavement, the sign and a few bits of the surrounding architectural detail. A rubbing also survives of the metal nameplate Gill cut for the entrance. The address was 18 Charlotte St.

I have tried several times to work out exactly where Cleverdon’s shop was and where the famous sign hung. No one seems to have photographed the lower end of Charlotte St – essentially the side and rear of 71 Park Street. Hill St behind is little more than a back alley. The present street numbering and that used in the 1920s/30s do not seem to match; Charlotte St has no number 18.

In the blitz on November 24th 1940 the end of the block between Park Street, Charlotte St and Hill St was gutted and subsequently demolished. A photograph of the junction of Park St and Charlotte St on the morning after the bombing shows the destruction. The corner building (71 Park St) has lost its front, roof and floors and the side wall into Charlotte St only remains vertical because steel joists and a column inserted as part of the shopfront are resolutely holding on. The side wall running up Charlotte St is visible as far as the front door to the building above and a bit beyond. The empty doorway opens on nothing but the opposite wall. Above is a large Guinness poster. A few doors down and two more shops are completely gone.

Today a temporary-looking single storey building is the last evidence of the bombing of the street and functions as a shop on Park St and at first floor level a restaurant in Charlotte St. Vincenzo’s Restaurant is accessed at ground level further up Charlotte St and extends out as a roof-terrace over the shop. Vincenzo’s is a longstanding Bristol institution if ever there was one and still boasts chianti bottles hanging in nets from the ceiling. Both give 71 Park St as an address; Vincenzo’s is 71a.

Stephen Groome recently published the wartime photo on the Facebook group Bristol – Then and Now Photographs and pointed out a detail I had not noticed before. Above the side door to the burnt-out building are painted the words Clifton Arts Club.

Suzanne Clarke wrote a history of the Clifton Arts Club in 1993. The Club originally met in the Royal West of England Academy but by 1922 the space was needed for other things and they sought new premises.according to Suzanne, in 1923 they moved into 17/18 Charlotte St ‘over number 71 Park Street… a large room with a stage, a smaller room and a kitchen, the rooms being entered up some steps from a door in Charlotte Street.’ ‘Further up Charlotte Street, in the same building was Douglas Cleverdon’s antiquarian bookshop… started in 1927.’ Above the CAC rooms the two upper floors were a flat and photographic studio occupied by Methven Brownlee. According to Suzanne, Douglas Cleverdon rented the flat (presumably after Brownlee left) and Eric Gill was a frequent guest (the reference is to Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography of Eric Gill).

So the destroyed building on the corner of Park St and Charlotte St had four components. The first was a shop on the ground floor numbered 71 Park St. The Clifton Arts Club meeting rooms on the first floor and a two floor flat above were accessed from the main door to the side in Charlotte St and numbered 17/18. Behind the main building prewar maps show the rear yard/outbuilding area back to Hill St built over and this must be Cleverdon’s shop also numbered 18 Charlotte St. It may have been Methven Brownlee’s studio. The neighbouring building at 69 Park St has a small yard and a two storey stable/outbuilding at the rear. Judging from the photo of the bookshop the same was true for 71/17/18 – the maps showing that the yard area had been built over long before.

The photo of Cleverdon’s shop shows a two storey building with an internal floor level cutting into the slope. Given that it must be part of the buildings to the rear of 71 Park St it must be level with the first floor and at the point where that cuts into the slope. Bearing in mind the floor level and the slope of the pavement, the only viable location for the photograph of Cleverdon’s windows and sign is right at the top of the slope where Vincenzo’s front door is now. The collage below is a photoshop job and very approximate but I am reasonably happy with it. Maybe we should campaign for a blue plaque?

References:

Clarke, S., 1993. Clifton Arts Club. A History 1906 – 1993. Clifton Arts Club.

Anon., 1958. ‘Eric Gill.’ The Monotype Recorder, 41. 3.

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3 Responses to Modernism in Bristol: Charlotte St and Gill Sans.

  1. Pingback: Bristol home of Gill Sans typeface | Ken Stradling Collection Blog

  2. Fascinating article. Your blog what a find! I enjoyed seeing your slabbed trawlers.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Celebrity Signwriters, Past & Present | Better Letters

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