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Here comes the sun...

It’s June, and summertime starts right here! To be precise, summer starts on Thursday the 20th June, the day of the Summer Solstice, when the sun’s light is at its strongest. So when better to take a look at a sunny sight that’s close to our hearts here at NESM? The iconic logo of the old Sun Fire Office.


You will see this sunny face staring out from cabinets in our Fiery Blaze to Fire Brigades exhibition, telling the story of the Great Fire of London and its aftermath. The logo first appeared in the years following the Great Fire, and was designed as an emblem for one of several firefighting companies set up after the disaster.


Illustration from 'Harmonia Macrocosmica' (1660), one of many

possible inspirations for the Sun Fire Office logo.


Before the Great Fire, there had been no professional firefighters at all. Instead, community volunteers had responded to fires. After the events of 1666, however, entrepreneurs began to set up privately-run ‘insurance’ fire brigades. Such companies were not quite like the public service Fire & Rescue teams we know today (you actually had to pay insurance fees to be guaranteed the services of these old brigades) but they were still a huge step forward in the story of firefighting. It was a businessman named Charles Povey who founded the “Exchange House Fire Office”  in 1708, and who chose the famous sunny logo for it. The emblem was so successful that the company was renamed the “Sun Fire Office” two years later in 1710.  


If you visit NESM’s exhibition, you can see the sun logo displayed on several of the office’s historic artefacts. The symbol appears on an 18th Century fire mark (a plaque that once would have been fixed to the exterior of any building insured by the Sun Fire Office) and printed on several policy receipts. These items were all issued by the Sun Office in the decades after the Great Fire.


But why exactly did Povey choose the image of the sun for his company’s logo in the first place? Obviously, the sun has associations with fire. But historians of firefighting and of graphic design, have suggested that there may be more to the choice than that.


The astronomer firefighter


It’s a little-known fact that Charles Povey (1652-1743) one of the pioneers of organised firefighting, was also a keen astronomer.  Researchers believe that Povey’s fascination with all things celestial- particularly with the sun- was behind his choice of logo for the company. Four years before founding his fire office, Povey had written a tract entitled “The Opinions of ancient Philosophers about the Substance and Nature of the Sun". He wrote several other tracts on the movement of the heavenly bodies too.  


His astronomical interest no doubt coloured his thinking. However, graphic designers have also noted how effective the sun design is as a logo. Design historian Miranda Clow investigated Povey’s logo in her 2020 PhD “The Design of Trust”. In it she noted that other historians had ascribed “Povey’s choice to his interest in astronomy, but [that] it was also an impactful graphic… that gave [his company a] vivid graphic identity”.  


The sun emblem was repeated on the company’s paperwork (using woodcut engravings), on its fire marks, and on the armbands that the firemen wore as part of their uniform. All this helped create what we now call a ‘corporate identity’, and fostered a reputation which customers felt they could trust.


When it came to the policy receipts given to customers, the engraving of the sun at the top “made [it] both special and particular to the company” and “bestowed it with a character”. The receipts were like works of art, implying the company was both sophisticated and dependable.  


The face of the sun


The image of the sun with a human face did not originate with the Sun Fire Office. Povey likely saw similar illustrations in the astronomical books he read as a stargazer. Possibly in a star atlas like Harmonia Macrocosmica (published six years before the Great Fire of London) Povey saw the visual effectiveness of the symbol.


Since ancient times, similar images had appeared in representations of sun gods, giving the sun a human character. The Egyptians had their cult of the ‘day star’. Solar divinities like the Greek Helios and Apollo were often depicted with sunrays emanating from their faces. In masonic symbolism, the sun represented the imperishable spirit and was visualised with a human face, while natural philosophers long identified the sun with the metal gold, and the element fire. There was a strange alchemy in the symbol that made it perfect for a firefighting organisation.


The sun personified: Helios, the ancient Greek sun god


Who knows if Charles Povey had magical inclinations? In the 18th Century there was still little distinction between the scientific astronomer and the more mystical astrologer. Povey’s story is not well known. He was a writer and businessman who left many interesting clues behind as to the origins of his iconic company logo, but we may never know the full truth.


There are, of course, many other fire marks on show at NESM- featuring everything from phoenixes to Greek goddesses- each with their own particular story. We’ll be putting these stories online too as our research continues. But for now, as summer begins… enjoy the sun!


Further Reading:


Miranda Clow, The Design of Trust, Past and Present: A dialogue between ‘design for trust’ in contemporary design practice and the fire insurance industry in England 1680–1914, (PhD thesis,  Royal College of Art, 2020).


Peter Dickson, The Sun Insurance Office, 1710-1960: the History of Two and a Half Centuries of British Insurance, (Oxford University Press, 1960).


Miranda Aldhouse-Green, The Sun-Gods of Ancient Europe, (Batsford, 1990).

 

 

 

 

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