Bristling with her­itage

Pick up an heir­loom brush and ban­ish bad-hair days for­ever, urges Flora Watkins

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Heir­loom brushes will ban­ish bad­hair days, says Flora Watkins

IN coun­try houses through­out the land, you’re al­most cer­tain to find three things in the nursery: a dap­pled-grey rock­ing horse, a wooden Noah’s ark and a Ma­son Pear­son child’s hair­brush in pink or blue, with baby-soft bris­tles.

Go down a floor and, in the master bed­room, there will be a set of sil­ver­backed brushes laid out on the dress­ing ta­ble, en­graved with the ini­tials of the cur­rent chate­laine or per­haps those of a much-loved grand­mother. En­ter the bath­room and there, along­side the shav­ing soap and ra­zor, you’ll find a pair of gen­tle­man’s mil­i­tary brushes.

Ne­fer­titi may well have had a brush with which to ca­ress her crown­ing glory—ex­am­ples have been ex­ca­vated from the tombs of An­cient Egyp­tians—but the hair­brush as we know it was cer­tainly in use by the reign of Ge­orge III and, when Wil­liam Kent founded the brush manufacturer G. B. Kent & Sons in Lon­don in 1777, it quickly re­ceived a Royal War­rant.

Nine reigns and nine suc­ces­sive Royal War­rants later, much about Kent Brushes, as the com­pany is now known, re­mains the same. Its brushes are still man­u­fac­tured in Eng­land and many con­tinue to be hand­made, us­ing nat­u­ral boar bris­tle and wood. Cre­ative di­rec­tor Ben Cosby can’t com­ment on what the com­pany pro­vides to The Queen, but he does dis­close that the ‘Kent NB1 nail­brush is the brush of choice for all the gar­den­ers who work at The Prince of Wales’s High­grove es­tate’. Qual­ity and con­ti­nu­ity are the hall­marks of an­other hair­brush maker that re­mains a house­hold name. Ma­son Pear­son was an en­ter­pris­ing en­gi­neer who started out in the wool in­dus­try in Yorkshire, de­sign­ing looms, be­fore mov­ing into brushes in the East End of Lon­don. In 1885, he patented a brush-bor­ing ma­chine to speed up the man­u­fac­tur­ing process and, in the same year, in­vented the fa­mous rub­ber­cush­ion hair­brush. ‘We still use it now,’ says his great-grand­son, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Michael Pear­son (a fifth-gen­er­a­tion

Pear­son—a nephew—is also in­volved with the com­pany). With 40 years’ ser­vice to the firm, he’s well placed to at­test to the af­fec­tion peo­ple have for the com­pany's prod­ucts. ‘We some­times re­ceive brushes [for re­pairs] and en­quiries ad­dressed to just “Ma­son Pear­son, Lon­don, Eng­land”—the text that ap­pears on the han­dles and boxes.’ Ev­ery brush is ac­com­pa­nied by an anec­dote. ‘Some peo­ple call it the “puffy brush”. I’ve heard that girls at board­ing schools even used to use our wares in the dor­mi­to­ries as water pis­tols!’

In Birm­ing­ham, Broad­way Sil­ver­smiths cre­ates ex­quis­ite sil­ver brushes and mir­rors—along with cuff­links, can­dle­sticks and table­ware—that are sold in Fort­num & Ma­son and Map­pin & Webb. They’re the sort that one imag­ines Lizzie and Jane Ben­net used to brush out each other’s hair as they sat up late af­ter the Nether­field Ball, dis­sect­ing the night’s events.

Many of the de­signs that the com­pany pro­duces to­day are made with pat­terns cre­ated by the founder, Ben­jamin Broad­way, in 1900. ‘They’re made with such pre­ci­sion and qual­ity that you can’t bet­ter them,’ says his great-great grand­son Chris­tian Broad­way. ‘You can’t get the de­tail with hy­draulic presses —we use drop-stamps, which are han­d­op­er­ated.’ The brushes come in ‘car­cass’ form from Kent, then the sil­ver is put onto them. ‘We’ve looked at buy­ing from China and In­dia, but the qual­ity is aw­ful,’ he adds.

At Kent Brushes, which has been owned by the Cosby fam­ily since 1932, when the last of the Kent broth­ers died, it’s in­con­ceiv­able that its range of prod­ucts would be made any­where but Eng­land. ‘If we were to out­source ev­ery­thing, we would very quickly lose our iden­tity,’ says Mr Cosby, the third gen­er­a­tion to be in­volved with the busi­ness. ‘We’d be­come just an­other brand, with no real crafts­man­ship or soul.’

These com­pa­nies use of­ten labour-in­ten­sive, handfin­ished pro­cesses that would make a pri­vate-eq­uity firm weep. Mr Broad­way has even been known to re­fur­bish brush sets that are par­tic­u­larly rare or sen­ti­men­tal at no charge (the usual cost is about £300). It’s par­tic­u­larly cheer­ing,

‘It took Mr Pear­son two years to work in his favourite brush’

then, to learn that all re­port brisk busi­ness, helped partly by a back­lash against to­day’s throw­away so­ci­ety and partly by an up­surge of in­ter­est in men’s groom­ing.

Their prod­ucts are sold around the world and are avail­able on Park Av­enue as well as Park Lane. ‘Peo­ple are buy­ing qual­ity, as op­posed to the cheap, nasty stuff that falls apart in a cou­ple of years,’ af­firms Mr Broad­way. These brushes are the sort with which Nanny urged young ladies to do ‘100 strokes ev­ery night’—al­though this is no longer rec­om­mended as, for most peo­ple, it could dam­age the hair (see box).

Mr Pear­son re­ports that it took him two years to work in his own favourite brush: ‘The bris­tle is quite stiff and the way to soften it is to get the oil from your own hair into it.’ This faith­ful ser­vant is now ‘about 25 years old’.

If your heir­loom brush is start­ing to feel its age, Kent Brushes pro­vides a re-bristling ser­vice and Ma­son Pear­son can re­place the rub­ber pad. How­ever, all this tra­di­tion doesn’t mean the com­pa­nies are wedded to the past. In fact, the pop­u­lar Ma­son Pear­son child’s brush wasn’t in­vented un­til 1981, at the re­quest of some for­mer neigh­bours of Mr Pear­son’s, who wanted some­thing for their in­fant son. The re­sult has one, rather than two, lengths of bris­tle and is de­signed to go over, rather than through, the hair.

‘We’re in­no­vat­ing all the time,’ con­firms Mr Pear­son, ‘try­ing new ny­lons, new rub­bers.’ Ny­lon, he adds, might be prefer­able to nat­u­ral bris­tle, de­pend­ing on your hair type—there is a brush-se­lec­tor tool on the Ma­son Pear­son web­site, which will pre­scribe the right one for your hair type, hand size and per­sonal pref­er­ences.

Tra­di­tional men’s brushes—the mil­i­tary style, with­out han­dles, that used to come in pairs—are sell­ing par­tic­u­larly well (think of mat­inée idols brush­ing their hair back in two wings over the ears). The turnover of Broad­way Sil­ver­smiths’ en­graved mil­i­tary brush has tripled in the past 18 months and Kent Brushes has also seen in­creased in­ter­est in its men’s groom­ing prod­ucts.

‘Kent hadn’t made a beard-spe­cific brush in nearly 50 years,’ di­vulges Mr Cosby. ‘When it be­came clear that beards were very much back, I sat down, sketched out my in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a brush for to­day’s gen­tle­man and put it to market. It was an in­stant suc­cess.’

One of these com­pa­nies’ brushes is at once a touch­stone with the past and an heir­loom in the mak­ing, solid and fa­mil­iar in the hand, light on the hair and dec­o­ra­tive on the dress­ing ta­ble. ‘You’ve seen her brushes, haven’t you?’ says Mrs Dan­vers to the name­less sec­ond wife in Re­becca. ‘I used to brush her hair for her ev­ery evening. It came down be­low the waist when she was first mar­ried. Mr de Win­ter used to brush it for her then. “Harder, Max, harder,” she would say, laugh­ing up at him.’ Some­how, one can’t imag­ine Maxim do­ing so with a piece of coloured plas­tic.

Ma­son Pear­son’s fa­mous rub­ber­cush­ion hair­brush is still made by hand, just as it was when the com­pany was founded in 1885

Above: Broad­way Sil­ver­smiths’ in­tri­cate brushes. Right: A Kent Brushes crafts­man hand-shap­ing one of its prod­ucts

Above left: The bris­tles at Kent Brushes are in­serted by hand and each em­ployee can pro­duce 6–8 brushes per day. Above right: Hand-spray­ing the lac­quer onto the wood

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