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UMBRELLAS

JAMES SMITH & SONS

Bown's Bespoke - Umbrellas - James Smith & SonsA gentleman must have at least four umbrellas.  This rule of wardrobe I have determined myself, so let me explain.  An umbrella is not just an implement for keeping the rain off one’s Savile Row pinstripe.  Rather, it is a statement about one’s character and one’s attitude to life.  Are you content with the cheap and nasty (Heaven forfend!), or do you demand high standards, expert craftsmanship and a proper measure of dignity?  An umbrella can afford all these fine qualities – and impart something quintessentially English into the bargain.

Odd that the umbrella should have come to symbolise Englishness, for it was in use in China and India for thousands of years before its arrival in dear old Blighty in the 18th century.  Indeed, the first English gentleman to carry an umbrella – a fellow who rejoiced in the name of Jonas Hanway – was ridiculed as he walked the streets and positively hated by the sedan chair carriers (who feared the newfangled instrument would damage their trade).  Then it was a heavy cumbersome thing, with ribs made from cane and whale bone.  But Samuel Fox saved the day – inventing in the 1840s the light steel frame we know and use today.

But are not all long umbrellas (I will not dignify the miserable folding sort with even the most cursory consideration) much the same?  No, they are not.  If lightness is your absolute priority, the central stem can be made of steel like the ribs.  But it will not be strong and will bend or buckle if you lean upon it.  I much prefer the solid stick umbrella, which has its handle and stem made from one piece of wood.  This can be used as a walking stick and is therefore good for both the balance and the posture.  (And very handy for support when you have failed to resist that extra glass of Château Latour at lunch.)

The frame should have 8 ribs, although 10 are sometimes provided for extra stability in wind.  The normal measurement of the cover when rolled is 25 inches.  This I like for the umbrella I use when rain seems unlikely.  (In which case, the dreary will object, why carry the thing at all?  See opening paragraph above.)  For this size of cover allows a pleasing show of wood below the handle and above the terminating metal ferrule.  But if the clouds look menacing, a 26½ inch cover (again, measuring rolled) will provide much more protection – at the expense of a little elegance.  Thus the need for 2 umbrellas.  So why have I said that four are essential?

Look into your wardrobe again, and glance down.  There you will see your shoes – both black and brown.  The classic English umbrella has a black cover (usually nowadays made of nylon, which is light and hard-wearing).  But a black umbrella with brown shoes… banish such a sartorial solecism!  You will therefore need 2 further umbrellas (a 25 inch and a 26½ inch) with covers in a discreet colour.  Dark green is perfect.  I suppose one could use a green dust sheath to conceal the black in the dry, but come a rainy day and the problem would reveal itself once more.

Finally, two features which will make each umbrella truly yours – the bespoke element.  First, the length of the stick.  This should be cut to your exact requirement before the ferrule is added.  And second, the silver band (hallmarked, of course).  This is fitted on the lower part of the handle and should on no account be adorned with a maker’s name.  It must be plain, so that upon it can be engraved your initials – especially useful to the waiters in those restaurants in which the differentiation of customers’ belongings carries a low priority.   (Occasionally the band will be gold-plated, but to my mind this adds an unpleasant touch of vulgarity.)

Bown's Bespoke - Umbrellas - James Smith & SonsSo where can you go to find umbrellas which meet all these stringent requirements?

I know of only one place.  It was good enough for Prime Ministers like Gladstone and Bonar Law, so it is good enough for me.  And if a shop is still going strong after 170 years, it must be doing a decent job.  James Smith & Sons is still run by the direct descendants of the eponymous Mr Smith.  Hazelwood House on London’s New Oxford Street (equidistant from Tottenham Court Road and Holborn underground stations) has been home to this shrine to the umbrella since the 1850s.  Both the shop and the service from the helpful staff are redolent of an earlier, less hurried age.  Choose the wood you like (cherry, chestnut, ash, maple…) select the size of cover, be measured for the correct length and then wait for five minutes while the ferrule is fitted.  Expect to spend £250 - £280 per umbrella.  The engraving has to be done elsewhere (the assistant will recommend a nearby engraver).

Now you are equipped – not simply with a well-made, properly functioning umbrella, but with a statement to the world that you are English (or, at the very least, an enthusiastic Anglophile) and proud of it.  And having bought one, it won’t be long before you are back for the other three.


ADDRESSES

James Smith & Sons (Umbrellas) Ltd

Hazelwood House
53 New Oxford Street
London WC1A 1BL, England.
Telephone +44 (0)20 7836 4731

Francis Bown 2004
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