April 15, 2010

In Praise of the British Brolly…

…the pleasure of being gifted a marvelous umbrella.

“The rain it raineth every day.” Though Shakespeare’s weather report rang true on our trip, I found a silver lining in Northern California’s clouds. For England’s unpredictable climate has nurtured the umbrella maker’s art and the brolly is a national passion. If you were lucky, as I was, you would have received a gift of a British Brolly from a generous friend. And after forty! years of use, I still enjoy unfurling its generous canopy and relish its superb workmanship. No matter where I take the umbrella, it will “unfurl” an interesting conversation with observers.

In the thick of the Battle of Bayonne in 1813, a message came down the line from the commander, “Lord Wellington, does not approve the use of umbrellas during the enemy’s firing, and will not allow the gentlemen’s sons to make themselves ridiculous in the eyes of the army.”

The offending officers may have been trying to stay dry, but it is more likely they were motivated by vanity. Though umbrellas were received with suspicion when introduced into Britain in the preceding century (largely because they were popular with the French), they had already become highly fashionable and were soon to be ubiquitous. So they have remained, with ups and downs, ever since.

Today, practicality rules. The tightly furled brolly is still a distinguishing mark of the British businessman, and year-round the umbrella appears on every main street and byway, in all colors, sizes, and states of repair, or lurks telescoped in shopping bags “just in case.” The once unpopular “French parasol” has become as English as the queen has.

If your heart’s desire is to own a handmade British brolly, a visit to Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons Ltd. is in order. Established in 1750, this illustrious company-official purveyors to the queen-has a shop in London as well as a website (follow the link in the title). Just a Brigg's umbrella throw from The Ritz London, Swaine Adeney's sole store is located in St. James's.

No. 54 St. James's Street is the West End showroom. The shop smells strongly of leather, just as the old French bag-and umbrella shops once did. Inside you find leather goods, handmade luggage exclusive travel goods canes and walking sticks, and the most British of umbrellas in the world - the famous Brigg umbrella. Dozens of new umbrellas repose on trays in a long, four-tiered oak display case, their handles all curled neatly in the same direction. If you are lucky, you will have a friend that will treat you to one of those superbly made umbrellas, and perhaps, a beautiful walking stick. Then, you may look forward to …” it raineth every day.”