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Under Every Black Cloud

In a Country Where Rain is the Rule, Umbrellas are Works of Art
Harry Rosenholtz
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96

In England, there are two opinions regarding the umbrella. One is that the umbrella is an indispensable fashion accessory that completes a gentleman's town attire. The other is that an umbrella should never fall victim to the vagaries of fashion, but rather it should be a statement of one's taste. Both positions are held as firmly as one would hold, well, an umbrella.

It may have been by chance that umbrellas came to England in the first place, but it is there that they have been produced and perfected to a standard unlike any other in the world.

The umbrella probably was first used in China, although it has been around for thousands of years in Egypt, as well as India and other Asian countries, primarily as protection from the sun. It frequently had ceremonial and religious significance.

Its introduction into Europe was relatively recent. A late-eighteenth century Englishman named Jonas Hannaway is credited with being the first gentleman to carry an umbrella in England. Of course, he came under considerable ridicule and antagonism, particularly from sedan-chair carriers who saw it as a threat to their trade. (They were right.) Its use was gradually adopted, and in time England developed a very special relationship with the umbrella.

The most venerable manufacturer of fine English umbrellas is the firm of Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons, a company that started as whip makers. Around 1750 Captain John Ross left the army of George II and founded a business making carriage driving whips at Piccadilly, close to the Royal Palace. James Swaine, a virtuoso craftsman, later bought the business from Ross. The excellence of his workmanship was such that King George III presented Swaine with the Royal Appointment of Whip Maker.

In 1816, James took his son, Edward, into partnership. By 1835, the firm of "James Swaine" had moved to 185 Piccadilly (just last June the firm relocated to 10 Old Bond Street). After his father retired in 1845, Edward made his son-in-law, James Adeney, a partner. Known as Swaine & Adeney, the firm enhanced its reputation winning prize medals at the London Exhibition of 1851. It soon began to produce other articles such as attaché cases, luggage and fine handcrafted leather goods.

A year after Swaine opened his Piccadilly shop, Thomas Brigg established the Brigg Umbrella Co. at 23 St. James Street in London. Brigg also manufactured walking sticks and hunting crops and later patented the "Perfect" shooting stick and the "Brigson" telescopic shooting stick--the kind of concealed weaponry with which we would all become acquainted through James Bond. In fact, until it was recently outlawed, an umbrella with a working shotgun was produced by the Brigg company. The problem was that the shotgun would fire only while the umbrella was opened, which made for rather inaccurate aim, especially on a windy day.

Brigg Umbrella opened a Paris shop in 1899 that became so successful that it led to the establishment of agencies throughout Europe and in Buenos Aires. In 1908, Brigg's international reputation was crowned when it captured the Grand Prix, the highest award at the Franco-British Exhibition.

Brigg lost its Paris shop during the German occupation of France in the Second World War. Fortunately, a formal alliance with Swaine & Adeney was completed in 1943, and the new firm of Swaine Adeney Brigg & Sons moved to consolidate manufacturing facilities and to market its products under one umbrella--so to speak.

In the small English village of Great Chesterford, Essex, Brigg converted an old schoolhouse into the firm's manufacturing plant, which is still in use today. To walk through those doors is like being transported back in time, when everything was done by hand. Craftsmen perform specialized tasks: bending the wooden handles, applying the lacquer to the shafts or cutting and sewing the fabric for the hood. While time alone does not confer greatness on a product, one suspects it is why Brigg has the confidence to offer the same guarantee one would expect from Rolls-Royce--that the umbrella will last a lifetime.


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