A totally modern pub, unapologetically of the 1930s, designed to look like an Art Deco racing aeroplane? No wonder it keeps going viral.
We first encountered The Comet, a big inter-war hotel on the Barnet bypass at Hatfield, when we began researching 20th Century Pub. Basil Oliver mentions it in his essential 1947 book The Renaissance of the English Public House and we found further information in this 2015 post by retro-vintage blogger Mark Amies.
Although we only had space for an overview of the ‘improved public house’ movement of the inter-war years, and a brief mention for The Comet, we actually gathered a fairly substantial amount of research material, and have collected more since.
Here, for example, is the opening of an article from the journal of the Royal Institue of British Architects (RIBA) from January 1937, about a month after The Comet opened:
This new hotel is of interest for the following principal reasons:
1. It represents a new type of hotel, namely, one that caters for the best class of traveller, yet is situated not in a large centre of population, but on an arterial road in rural surroundings. There is, however, an aerodrome, an aircraft factory and some house property nearby, the occupants of which will provide some local trade. Mainly, however, it will depend on visitors from London and travellers on the Great North Road.
2. The architect was given complete freedom not only in the general plan and design in all details. Such items as the lettered notices, the menu cards, most of the furniture and many of the textiles were designed by the architect. The ensemble, which is remarkably well carried out, has therefore unusual unity.
3. The plan is both simple and efficient. Its main element is the grouping of the public rooms round the service and kitchen. Yet so well is this done that the feeling of segregation of different classes of trade, commonly experienced in inns and public-houses having this plan, is absent. Each public room is a separate unit.
4. The general exterior form is novel, yet expresses the structure and plan exactly.
Another contemporary publication, Building, gave the pub a splash feature, too, in its March 1937 number:
This new refreshment house is… something much more than a mere ‘pub’ ; it is a residential hotel with a cuisine of surpassing excellence. The needs of the local inhabitant and the long-distance traveller are provided for in a manner which is at once complete and imaginative; he can eat, drink, and sleep on the premises when the occasion arises. Whether he is a teetotaller or a confirmed patron of the brewer’s art, he will find efficient service and delightful amenities provided for his comfort.
Photographs from the time convey a sense of the sheer beauty of the building. We’re not architectural critics but even we can see the perfection in its proportions and the quality of the build, commissioned by Benskin’s of Watford.
The architect, E.B. Musman, has been described by David Gutzke as ‘the premier architect of interwar pubs’. Musman took pubs seriously and thought about them deeply, as evidenced by a long article he wrote for the Architects’ Journal in 1938. The Comet might be the best of the pubs he designed. It is certainly the most fun.
For starters, there was the sign. When you see pictures of this pub shared by architecture and retro geeks on Twitter, as you will most weeks, the sign is usually the star, no pun intended.
It took the form of a carved free standing pillar on which were mounted sculptures of both a de Havilland DH-88 Comet racer plane and a literal comet, or shooting star. The piece was sculpted by war artist Eric Kennington to a design by Musman himself.
The de Havilland aircraft factory was near the pub and the Comet was the firm’s most famous plane, having been flown by Flight Lieutenant Charles William Anderson Scott and Tom Campbell Black in their winning run during the 1934 London to Melbourne Air Race.
At a glance, the DH-88 looks a bit like a Supermarine Spitfire and both were indeed examples of streamlined, aerodynamic 1930s design – as was the pub.
The shape of the pub ‘fortuitously resembles the shape of an aeroplane’, says the 1937 RIBA article, while the piece in Building says it was a deliberate choice and part of the commission.
The resemblance to an aircraft, albeit a chunky one, is striking, and it’s hard to imagine Musman doing this unconsciously. Having said that, an earlier Musman pub, The Nag’s Head at Bishop’s Stortford, has a similar plan, rather than being shaped like, say, a horse, so maybe it was simply a form to which he was drawn.
The aviation theme was carried through into the interior. The restaurant had a mirror with a sandblasted design of five aeroplanes in flight and above was a ventilation outlet designed to look like a propeller. It also held the combination clock and radio speaker.
Elsewhere in the pub, though, things seem to have gone off track, with paintings by Cosmo Clark depicting (a) the signs of the zodiac in the lounge and (b) hunting scenes in the public bar.
While we’re naming the artists and craftsman, there were also wood carvings throughout by Gertrude Hermes.
You can tell you’re looking at a pub that’s been properly designed when it has a designated typeface. In this case, all the lettering in the pub was in Gill Sans – sometimes called the unofficial font of Britain, and a near relative of the London Transport typeface, Johnston. No form of lettering evokes the period from the 1930s through to the 1950s more completely. (Just don’t look up Eric Gill’s biography if you want to keep enjoying the beauty of the typeface.)
As a rare example of completely uncompromised, all-in, no-expense-spared pub design, The Comet gained quite a bit of attention, even after the war when this type of large pub was becoming unfashionable. Architectural critic Nikolaus Pevsner gave the pub a nod in his 1953 The Buildings of Hertfordshire, describing it as ‘one of the first inns in England to be built in the style of the [twentieth century] without borrowings from the past’.
By 1960 when the Workers Education Association published its booklet Hatfield and its People, Part Three: pubs and publicans, there was apparently still plenty of local pride in The Comet, which was one of two pubs depicted on the cover.
The problem with grand unified designs is that they require a lot of upkeep. When the specially designed clock breaks down, do you spend a fortune getting it fixed, or pick up a cheaper generic replacement? When the artful Art Deco chairs get tatty, do you get them reupholstered or simply buy a set of up-to-date replacements?
A note in the Stage for 26 November 1964 mentions ‘the newly reopened and magnificently redecorated Comet Hotel at Hatfield [where] there is at present no regular cabaret, although the Stan Bramwell Trio are on resident Saturday night dinner-dance duty’.
At some point, the Gill Sans disappeared, as did Eric Kennington’s sculpted aeroplane, replaced by a replica of the Comet. When Mark Amies visited in 2015, this is what he found:
The Comet has survived reasonably well as it approaches its 80th birthday. The only visual differences being the removal of the rather nice glass tower on the top, and the addition of a large hotel extension to the rear.
In recent years, after an attempt to turn it into student flats, The Comet has been relaunched as a high-end hotel with some nods to mid-century style but with most of the finer details of Musman’s design lost. What’s back, however, is that glass tower on the roof. Perhaps they’ll get around to reinstating Gill Sans with the next refurb.
Main illustration adapted from New Sights of London by Hugh Casson, 1938.