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20th Century Pub pubs

The Champion, Fitzrovia: a Victorian fantasy

Until we started studying pubs it had never occurred to us that The Champion was anything other than a wonderfully preserved Victorian survivor.

Leaded windows, glinting mirrors, polished wood and ornate details that give a thousand layers to every shadow – it’s one of those places that makes you suspect that, at any given moment, a hansom cab might be passing in the street outside.

In fact, it’s a product of the 1950s and the flowering of art and design that followed the Festival of Britain.

The Festival, which took place in 1951, was intended to reignite British pride and optimism. Its various guiding creative hands concocted a unique style that overlaid elements of the Victorian (especially typography) onto economical, prefabricated modernism.

Having survived the war, The Champion looked a bit sad in the early 1950s. An earlier inter-war makeover had brought it in line with prevailing ideas of cleanliness and simplicity – wipe clean, plain.

Plain pub interior.

The Champion before its 1954 refurbishment.

In 1954, Barclay Perkins commissioned architects and designers Sylvia and John Reid to bring it up to date by taking it back to the newly fashionable 19th century.

These days, the Reids are best known for their Scandinavian-style S-Range furniture, now manufactured by their son, Dominic, which indicates where their hearts lay: they were modernists, not nostalgists.

Accordingly, they told the brewery that they didn’t intend to create a straightforward pastiche or reconstruction of a Victorian pub. Instead, their plan was to identify what made pubs feel pubby and then achieve the same atmosphere with modern materials and craft.

The Champion sign. Pub interior with new Victorian style.

There were even rumours, says fellow pub designer Ben Davis in The Traditional English Pub, 1981, that the Reids got the final say in choosing the couple who were to run the pub, keen to ensure that they were the right type.

“It can – indeed it should – be in the best of taste, but it must be larger than life, an exaggeration of the interiors its customers know…”

In his book English Inns, from 1963, Denzil Batchelor compares The Champion to The Sherlock Holmes, one of the first theme pubs, and seems unconvinced:

The Champion… is an example of a Victorian pub as beautifully reconstructed as the arena of a chariot-race in a billion dollar film. THe beer-mugs are authentic as the handles of the beer-engines. To visit it to pay a Chinese respect for your grandfather’s memory… [But for] all their merits you could hardly call The Champion or The Sherlock Holmes unselfconscious.

Generally speaking, though, people seemed to like it, not least as an antidote to the unabashed, stark modernism of many post-war pubs.

Alan Reeve-Jones says, in his snarky 1962 guidebook London Pubs, that “The work was carried out with such skill that it takes an expert eye to see where the old left off and the new began looking like the old.”

Official photographs of the newly refurbished Champion, without drinkers in the way of the detail, do indeed reveal a blend of old and new.

Pub window.

Etched windows evoke the Victorian era while at the same time employing the kind of lettering very much in fashion after the Festival of Britain. Gill Sans was out, a relic of the 1930s; modern adaptations of the kind of bold typefaces seen on Victorian posters were in.

Ornate bar.

More of the same can be seen over the bar, advertising mild ale, best bitter, DBA and lager  – a nice snapshot of the move towards ‘premium’ beer styles in the 1950s.

There’s lots, in fact, that would become standard in pub makeovers in the decades that followed. Leather seating, barrels as decoration, and vintage mirrors doing a lot of heavy lifting.

The funny thing is that The Champion today isn’t the Reids version – it’s a later refurb that does exactly what they wouldn’t. Pure Victorian pastiche. The modern arts-and-crafts they commissioned have gone, from the painted sign on the exterior to the modern-retro window designs.

A useful reminder, at least, that much of what evokes The Olden Days in British pubs is rarely more than 30 years old.

Images, details and quotes from A Monthly Bulletin for January 1955.

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