The Survey of London
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    Oslers shop, Oxford Street

    By the Survey of London, on 11 December 2015

    Following on from the Survey’s two-volume project on South-East Marylebone, we are embarking on a linear volume on Oxford Street, London’s premier shopping street ever since the eighteenth century. Besides the present department stores and modern shops there were once many glamorous shops along the street, now lost and long forgotten, which the Oxford Street volume will bring back to life. One such was Oslers, retailers of glassware, formerly on the north side of Oxford Street near Newman Street.

    A colourful watercolour now in the Victoria and Albert Museum offers precious evidence for perhaps the most scintillating of Oxford Street’s Victorian shop interiors, the London showroom of F. & C. Osler, manufacturers and retailers of ornamental glass. It was designed by Owen Jones in 1859 and survived until 1928.

    Interior perspective of Oslers, Oxford Street, from a drawing by Owen Jones, 1859 (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

    Interior perspective of Oslers, Oxford Street, from a drawing by Owen Jones, 1859 (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London). If you are having difficulty viewing images, please click here.

    Oslers’ London shop was an outlet for the inventive products of a Birmingham firm started in 1807 by Thomas Osler and partners as Shakespear & Osler. Outstanding in craft among Midlands glass-makers of the Industrial Revolution, the company owed its early success to an improved method for making glass drops for chandeliers and other ornaments. In 1831 Osler handed over the business to his sons Follett and Clarkson Osler, who introduced new machinery for precision cutting of flint glass and diversified into vases, decanters and fancy articles of many kinds. By the early 1840s the brothers had developed an international market, notably in India, where they had a showroom in Calcutta. In 1845 they took a shop at 44 Oxford Street just west of Newman Street, advertising ‘glass chandeliers, table glass, etc. … made from rich and exclusive designs, a great variety of which are constantly on view’. [1] Next year a grand chandelier made by the Oslers for a mosque at Alexandria elicited a visit to their Birmingham works from Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, who ordered another, over 17 feet high. This was shown at Oxford Street and led to Prince Albert ordering a pair of candelabra for Osborne House as a birthday present for Queen Victoria.

    A glass bust of Queen Victoria shown by F. & C. Osler at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

    A glass bust of Queen Victoria shown by F. & C. Osler at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

    The high point came when Oslers were commissioned to create the monumental ‘crystal fountain’ at the centre of the Great Exhibition in 1851. This drew the firm into the circle of Owen Jones. When the Crystal Palace was subsequently reconstructed at Sydenham, Jones carried out striking experiments with glass and colour in the Alhambra Court there which earned him a run of glamorous commercial interiors in the West End. First came his Crystal Palace Bazaar further west on Oxford Street. It was followed by the rebuilding of Oslers, after the firm bought the neighbouring No. 45 and took a new lease of both properties in 1858. The new front was chaste, the Building News reported: ‘the moulded jambs and soffits of the windows are worked within the thickness of the walls, and the principal cornice of the elevation has a very simple projection compared with those of the Palladian type’. [2] Within the new shop, opened in July 1859, splendour prevailed. A three-arched vestibule paved with Minton tiles led to a showroom 106ft long and 24ft wide. Its walls were lined with 14 mirrors on each side and a crimson paper, and the whole was top-lit by a glass roof divided into three sections, a high semi-circle in the centre raised over lower quadrants. Heftily ornamented ribs divided this roof into 1,456 star-shaped panels of blue, amber, white and ruby glass, much like those in the roof of the Crystal Palace Bazaar. The room terminated in a ‘monster looking-glass’, 24ft 9in by 12ft. The goods were ranged on mahogany counters along the sides, and on central tables. The contractor for these works was John Willson, while for the decoration Jones employed his regular collaborators: Jackson & Graham for the fittings, Desachy for the mouldings and enrichments of the ribs (in his patent ‘staff’), and James Sheate for colouring and gilding.

    Oslers' crystal fountain at the Great Exhibition of 1851, from a print by John Absolon (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

    Oslers’ crystal fountain at the Great Exhibition of 1851, from a print by John Absolon (© Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

    In 1862 Jones added an extension at the back, probably towards Newman Street, which the Art Journal claimed surpassed the original gallery. Here perhaps were shown the glass ‘temples’ made to his design and shown in Oxford Street that year in conjunction with the International Exhibition, prompting the Illustrated London News to class Oslers among ‘the great sights of London’. [3] In its later years the firm failed to keep pace with changing taste and lost its avant garde status. The coloured glass was removed from the roof and plain tints substituted around 1900, on the grounds that the latter were more suitable for the metal and glass electric light fittings which by then were Oslers’ main product. In 1908–9 the architect George Hornblower made further extensions, inserting a sweeping double staircase at the back of the long room, leading to upstairs china showrooms, all in a staid Arts and Crafts style.

    In 1925 the firm amalgamated with Faraday & Son Ltd. to become Osler & Faraday Ltd, who rebuilt the premises to designs by Constantine & Vernon (builders, Bovis Ltd). The main frontage of the new building, Lanthorne House at 89–91 Newman Street, adopted a conventional neo-Georgian mode, while 100 Oxford Street (as the address of the firm had become after 1880) was in a more commercial style. Osler & Faraday ceased trading in 1965 and went into liquidation in 1976. The Newman Street frontage has been again rebuilt, but the Oxford Street front survives. The basement has long been home to the 100 Club.

    Sources

    1. Morning Chronicle, 28 June 1845
    2. Building News, 3 June 1859, p.510
    3. Illustrated London News, 12 July 1862, p.56