The nation of shopkeepers

As the UK high street fights for survival, local councils are turning to artists and designers to help bring vital reinvestment, writes James Pallister

Seventy years before Napoleon Bonaparte characterised the English as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, a man who became one of its most famous visual artists was returning back to mechanical reproduction after a period of painting. William Hogarth was an ambitious man, and after stints painting conversation and grand historical pieces, Hogarth had hit on publishing prints on “modern moral subjects” which, he wrote, might “entertain and improve the mind”.

Street life loomed large in these bawdy morality tales, from the Rake’s Progress to perhaps his most famous pair of engravings, Beer Street and Gin Lane from 1751, which contrasted the wholesome prosperity associated with the national drink with the ruin brought by the strong Dutch newcomer. In the 19th century, James Gillray was but one of Hogarth’s heirs who continued the lively relationship between city street and printing plate, famously selling his prints from the shop window of his publisher, Miss Hannah Humphries.

The productive relationship between commercial art and the high street rattled on apace. Rapid industrialisation increased both demand for and provision of consumer goods. Commercial artists could draw not only inspiration and means of distribution from the high street, but also a mass market. Artists versed in mechanical reproduction plied their trade across northern Europe’s rapidly expanding cities, helping retailers flog everything from soap to cigarette papers. And as every graphic design primer will tell you, the roots of the modern discipline were firmly in place by the late 19th century.

There was great work, too. Aubrey Beardsley created posters for theatre; the Beggarstaff Brothers for Rowntree’s cocoa; John Millais the Bubbles boy for Pears soap. Each competed for attention in newly bright streets, making what Roger Marx called in the preface to his first volume of poster reprints, Les Maitres de L’Affiche, “a museum created by chance, where the work of genius jostles the mediocre, the exquisite adjoins the vulgar, the witty is placed side by side with the absurd”.

The productive pairing has continued ever since, with visual artists helping to define the look of our town’s retail centres and, in turn, like Hogarth – by taking them as subjects and re-presenting them – helping shape our collective imagination of how they ought to be. And the high street is certainly a theme with strong symbolic power in Britain.

In an interview last year, Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas called the small high street shop one of “the cornerstones of family life”. Portas won her soubriquet from the BBC TV show of the same name in which, over three series, she helped to turn around ailing shops. In May this year she was invited to 10 Downing Street to see David Cameron – ever sensitive to a popular piece of PR – to advise him on how to deal with the current state of the UK high street and was then commissioned to undertake an independent review into its future.

Cameron’s intuition that this may be a popular cause was borne out in a distinctly Big Society-ish manner in the days after the riots. Impromptu clean-up mobs broke out in London and Liverpool, and one of the most memorable images of the riots was not of the looters, but of lines of people standing patiently on Clapham High Street, with brooms and brushes aloft, assembled for a post-riot tidy up.

Empty shops are a bad thing

Our passion for retail is even there in our phraseology. Margaret Thatcher, one of the UK’s most significant post-war leaders who brought massive change to the country is still remembered as “the grocer’s daughter from Grantham”; and as for Bonaparte’s characterisation of the English, it says something about the nation’s equanimity with the idea that we still happily trot out the phrase, that came – pejoratively and dismissively – from the leader of an old enemy who at the time was preparing for war with England.

In a remarkable way, the high street has similarities with another of those emotive touchstones that is somehow entwined with notions of nationality: that of landscape. Just as Stubbs, Sandby, Constable and Turner helped construct ideas of what the English pastoral means, so have illustrators and photographers – from LS Lowry’s Waiting for the Shops to Open and Eric Ravilious’s nostalgic book plates of pre-war shops; through to John Londei’s Shutting up Shop images from the 1980s and Richard Nicholson’s recent portraits taken in an East London barbershop.

But now the high street is in trouble. In many cities the result of our love affair with retail has exacerbated the problem, with years of retail-led regeneration leaving many places with more shops than their local economy can support. Between July 2008 and July 2009 the number of vacant shops doubled. Derby, Blackpool and Liverpool were three of the hardest hit places, each with over 20% of retail capacity vacant. According to Sarah Cordey, spokeswoman for the British Retail Consortium, “empty shops are a categorically a bad thing. There’s the danger of a spiral of vacancy if there are several empty shops on a high street, as the unpleasant environment scares shoppers away from the area.”

This was the situation that Karen Goldfinch and her colleagues at Whitley Bay Chamber of Commerce feared for their town. Faced with a number of vacant shops they came up with a novel solution – to put in place printed foam boards inside the shop window which gave the illusion of there being an occupied unit within. “It’s been very successful and a year on we’ve reduced vacancy rates on our high street,” says Goldfinch. “Some retailers have been here for years, through thick and thin, so reducing rates to encourage occupancy isn’t really an option as it’s perceived as unfair. This though is a good way of livening up otherwise dead shopfronts. Some people complained, thinking that we must be spending lots of money on it, but it costs about £2,500-3,000 to do each one, and they are reusable.”

They had to be particularly sensitive about what type of faux-shop to put in place, Goldfinch says, so the first became a delicatessen, something which the high street didn’t currently have. The company set up to provide the service, Neil Wilson and Paul Murphy’s Shopjacket, has since worked with several local councils including North Tyneside, Sedgemoor District, Harrow and West Dunbartonshire Council. It’s also set to expand into Belgium and Germany.

“The premise was not to hide a problem, but to encourage shopkeepers to think about design, to help bring top quality design to the suburban high street,” explains Wilson. He has since split from Shopjacket and his new company, Urban Render, will focus on larger building wraps, an area less associated with down at heel shops.

Jo Atkinson of Shopjacket says she is wary of accusations of filling up the high street with fake shops. “That’s not what we want to do. We’ll only do one or two per high street, normally in a cluster, and then ideally back them up with one-to-one retail merchandising workshops with existing retailers, as we did in Dumbarton. The aspiration is that you create a successful cluster which then spreads.”

Subverting the high street

The Potemkin-shopfront seems fairly bizarre, but it has a surprisingly long line of precedents, especially in the construction industry. In the US, large stickers on the boarded-up windows of vacant homes showing signs of habitation (pot plants, blinds) have been used to cut crime rates. And years after Christo and Jeanne-Claude began wrapping well known buildings in the name of art, conservationists in cities like Rome and Venice have sought to cover their landmarks during restoration. They soon got wise to the fact that one way of helping to fund the repairs, and keep residents happy, was to sell advertising space on these hoardings or, better still, print giant versions of what the pristine building would look like once the covers were off. Sometimes these covers cause controversy, as in the Bridge of Sighs in Venice; sometimes they just look tacky, as in the flat trompe l’oeil rendering of a Georgian crescent on a current site hoarding proudly on display on London’s Edgware Road.

David Knight, an architect and tutor from Kingston University’s School of Architecture design studio, this year took classic shopfronts from central London and imagined them exported into the busy high street of Peckham’s Rye Lane. Knight bemoans the neatness of these shopwraps. “They present a very safe version of the high street through ‘faking’ an idea of a healthy place where one does not really exist,” he says.

Also in Peckham, Chris Ratcliffe and Hannah Havana of illustration collective Garudio Studiage are the latest in a line of artists who’ve represented the high street to us. Their recent show at the Peckham Space gallery, aptly entitled Nation of Shopkeepers, celebrated the built fabric of Rye Lane. They had been asked to create an interactive exhibition and decided to survey and produce an enormous vector drawing of the entire street, stripped back of all its signage, upon which visitors could draw on what they wanted their high street shops to be like. The final drawing, in which 220 shops appear, took 12 weeks of getting up at five o’clock in the morning to photograph the shops before the buses started running. Ratcliffe reckons he and his assistant Anna Salmane spent about 500 hours sweating over Illustrator, drawing up the street.

“Through stripping back the usual activity you can see how amazing the built fabric is,” says Havana. “There’s 300 years of history there.” So what do they make of cases such as Whitley Bay, where prints are used to simulate activity? “It seems a shame that these vacant shopfronts weren’t used in a more creative way,” says Ratcliffe. “The trouble is that although there are loads of great things you can do with empty shops, they all take time, money, and someone to manage them.”

The Shopjacket solution is certainly a practical, low-cost one. Which brings us back to Englishness – and Hogarth. In his book, The Englishness of English Art, the art historian Nikolaus Pevsner argued that Hogarth’s move back to printing was done with a calculating expediency which, for him, was characteristically ‘English’. But as Hogarth and the tabloid press attest, we’re also keen on our smut and subversion. Knight wishes there was a bit more deviancy to the faux-fronts. “I propose that their tantalisingly real fakery be more provocative,” he says. “A combination of hardware store and architecture practice; a print-on demand bookshop, for example.”

Until then, we’ll have to stick with compromise. Sanitised they may be, one can imagine these pieces of bittersweet pragmatism proliferating. They give tired high streets a temporary facade of aspiration, operating somewhere between – to inject a little American glamour courtesy of TS Eliot – the “pain of living and the drug of dreams”. 

James Pallister is senior editor at the Architects’ Journal

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