Henri Guerbois: Department Store in King Street, 1921

By Philippa Lewis

Henri Guerbois (1885–unknown), elevation of corner-site, Barker’s department store, 1921. Pen, ink and watercolour, 675 × 975 mm. DMC 2715.

Extracted from Stories from Architecture: Behind the Lines at Drawing Matter by Philippa Lewis, published by MIT Press © 2021. Preorder the book here.

The drawings around which Stories from Architecture are written are all part of the Drawing Matter collection. Some of the texts were first published as ‘Behind the Lines’.

Having peered at the rather unappetising corned beef salad that Cook had left for her on a tray, Mrs. Sydney Skinner thought better of lunching at home and set off for Kensington High Street. She would make one of her periodic inspection tours of Barker’s, where her husband was chairman. He was always interested in her views on the store and encouraged her observations.

‘How lucky I am’, she thought. ‘A department store is every woman’s dream, somewhere to wander unhindered in light, warmth, and comfort. Even if you’re not buying anything, you can just enjoy trying on beautiful clothes, feeling the furs and silks, gazing at jewelry, picking out a new dinner service. There is the luxury of choice. You might have a marcel wave, buy a novel, drink a cup of tea, or go to the powder room – all of it under one roof. A perfect escape from the humdrum activities of running a house and raising a family’.

She was so proud of Sydney. Not many women’s husbands were as successful. He’d started as a shop assistant thirty-two years ago and now, here he was, chairman. She loved his ambition. Before the war he had persuaded old John Barker to buy Ponting Brothers, the drapers further along the High Street. To cap that, last year Barker’s had acquired the other local competition, Derry & Toms. Sydney had explained that he intended Barker’s to supply high-class lines, while Pontings and Derry & Toms would cater for the middle-class multitude. Business, he revealed to her, was finally picking up. There had been a terrible period during the war when he had worked all hours and often lain awake all night, sleepless with worry. Wages had been cut and departments shut. A sentimental man, he was so affected when they sold one hundred of their delivery horses to the War Office that he had resorted to a sleeping draft.

Now all that was in the past. It was a new decade and, thanks in part to her husband, Kensington High Street was, she believed, almost the finest shopping street in London. She chose to ignore Knightsbridge and the existence of Harrods. Checking the tilt of her hat, Mrs. Skinner sailed into Barker’s through the main entrance. Here, she had to concede that, even with its new lifts and grand staircase, the store lacked the drama and excitement of Selfridges in Oxford Street. There were no art exhibitions, charity auctions, or thé dansants, no Palm Court, cookery demonstrations, or fashion shows. It was all a bit prim and worthy, like Kensington itself. The girl in the glove department was a little surly, and Mrs. Skinner was unable to find either the new Chanel No 5 perfume that she had read about or Sydney’s favorite anchovy paste – irritations she planned to relay to him that evening. The store was something of a rabbit warren, she thought, as she wound her way through narrow aisles of merchandise, the accumulated legacy of the shop’s acquisitions, rebuilding, and alterations since 1870. She thought she remembered Sydney telling her that by 1894 Barker’s had acquired sixteen different shops on the High Street and more in the streets behind. He was always recounting the firm’s history, though she tended not to pay too much attention. Walking through the bicycle department, she suddenly realised she felt extremely hungry and sped to the restaurant, where she sustained herself with a poached egg on toast followed by an ice.

Mrs. Skinner wouldn’t normally have bothered Sydney in his office but she’d just remembered that they’d run out of sherry. She decided to pop in and arrange with his secretary to have a case sent round to their home. To her surprise – it was lunchtime, after all – she found Sydney there.

‘Mildred, what an unexpected pleasure! But perfect timing, do let me introduce you to Monsieur Henri Guerbois. Monsieur, my wife’. She noticed that Sydney was looking unusually animated.

‘Enchanté, Madame.

She noted with approval the cut of Henri Guerbois’ suit. He had also – she couldn’t help but notice – decidedly ‘artistic hands’.

Sydney rapidly steered Mildred over to the table where there was a drawing.

‘This is the new building that Monsieur Guerbois has designed for us. Isn’t it superb? Do you remember how exciting it was to visit all those great stores in Paris – Galeries Lafayette, La Samaritaine, Au Bon Marché? I agree that Kensington High Street is hardly a grand boulevard, but with this we will give Paris a run for its money. It’s most fortuitous that Monsieur Guerbois is a French architect because I believe that only the French comprehend exactly how a department store should be. You remember Leon Cabuche, the architect who oversees all our building schemes – you met him and his wife Mabel at the Christmas party. Monsieur Guerbois is a cousin of Leon’s and has come to work in London for a while’.

Henri Guerbois looked at the couple expectantly, and a touch nervously, as Sydney continued, his words tumbling out enthusiastically.

‘This building will really draw people in. It looks palatial and luxurious. A department store must be a magnet for crowds. It must buzz like a hive of happy, excited bees. Here we have three distinctive grand entrances – impossible to miss – and crucially one on the corner, highly visible. Do you remember how all the grand magasins in Paris had this feature? We will also have entrances on both King Street and the High Street to lure people in. The world will flow into Barker’s. Once inside, they must want to stay—browsing leads to buying, as we have learnt. We will take a leaf out of Gordon Selfridge’s book and begin to advertise in earnest, maybe even take full pages in the newspapers. The Americans understand advertising just as the French understand luxury’.

She smiled in agreement.

‘Yes, it is delightful, brilliant. My goodness, it has eleven plate-glass shop windows. You must employ new people to dress the windows, Sydney, people with special art training. And you must buy the new lifelike mannequins. Also, the windows must be lit at night; Selfridges have always done that right from the beginning. Bringing the shutters down is so Victorian. Striking window displays are a draw by day, and at night they can be almost as good as a theater. Does the building take up a whole block? Will Ball Street no longer exist? Is it to extend right down to Kensington Square? I think it really does look rather French, especially the roofline. Are the attics to be workrooms or are they dormitories for the shop assistants? I love the big B as decoration and the flagpoles. Congratulations, Monsieur Guerbois, Mr. Selfridge will be quaking in his boots’.

When Mrs. Skinner asked her husband when building might begin, Sydney replied with a nonchalant wave of the hand, saying it would surely all be wrapped up in a matter of months. It was just a matter of sorting out some leases with the Crown and finding out how the council’s proposals to widen Kensington High Street might affect things. The building would be ready for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley – exhibitions were always excellent for trade.

Later, as she walked out into the High Street, Mrs. Skinner began to envisage a dazzling opening night for the new building. Inevitably this led to thoughts of what she might wear. She certainly wouldn’t find anything suitable among Barker’s new ready-to-wear lines. Maybe a trip to Paris was in order. Patou? Lanvin? There was talk of Sydney getting a knighthood, and were she to become Lady Skinner she would certainly have to dress the part.

Notes

To date the only reference found for Henri Guerbois (1885–?) is a record of his participation in the Mixed Architecture competition at the 1924 Paris Olympics. (He didn’t win.) It is possible that he got the job for Barker’s through the in-house architect, Leon Cabuche, whose father was a French émigré living in London.

In 1870 John Barker, in partnership with James Whitehead, opened a drapery business at 91–93 Kensington High Street. It expanded rapidly, acquiring smaller businesses and becoming a department store. At its height there were sixty-four departments selling everything from clothes to groceries and bicycles. Barker died in 1914 and was replaced as chairman by Sydney Skinner, who was knighted in 1922.

Barker’s acquired two other local department stores – Pontings in 1907, and Derry & Toms in 1920 – and ran them as separate (less high-end) operations. Following the acquisition of Derry & Toms, plans were laid to rebuild both stores, so solving longstanding problems over space. This would have been the point at which Henri Guerbois produced his design. However, as construction was delayed by complicated property negotiations and the decision to widen a severely congested Kensington High Street, Guerbois’ design began to look distinctly old-fashioned. Bernard George, by then Barker’s in-house architect, designed the current Kensington High Street façade. Construction began in 1935; with a break for the war it was finished in 1958. King Street is now Derry Street. Thanks to Catriona Perry at the House of Fraser Archive at Glasgow University for identifying the site for me.

See:
Survey of London, vol. 42, Kensington Square to Earl’s Court, ed. Hermione Hobhouse (London, 1986)
Lindy Woodhead, Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge (London, 2007)