Nipper the dog, the gramophone and the revived record store HMV
The recent news that the music retailer HMV is to return to Dublin hit me like a breaker landing on nostalgia’s sandy shore. Those hours spent rifling through the vinyl, choosing a cassette, seeking out a favourite artist on CD — so much more gratifying than scrolling through an online inventory.
Of course, HMV was by no means the only record store in town, but it’s the one with a history that is inseparable from the evolution of the industry that brought the sounds of the concert hall into our homes.
Back at the tail end of the 19th century a German-American, Emile Berliner, had developed the technology that produced gramophone records. He was involved in the setting up of the Gramophone Company in London in 1898.
Around the same time, an English artist by the name of Francis Barraud was in the process of commemorating his late lamented pet in a painting. This placed the dog — a fox terrier/Jack Russell cross called Nipper — in front of an old-style phonograph, cocking its head in curiosity at the sound of… His Master’s Voice.
Barraud had trouble getting a buyer for the painting, but then he happened by the offices of the Gramophone Company and one of the staff saw the possibilities.
So His Master’s Voice became a brand and the image of Nipper in front of a gramophone — a revision of the image that brought the technology up to date — was on its way to becoming iconic.
In the summer of 1921, the Gramophone Company brought its wares to a former menswear shop at 363 Oxford Street in the heart of London’s West End. There was only one name they could put above the door — His Master’s Voice.
The composer Edward Elgar did the honours, observing at the official opening that “what musicians want is more listeners”. The gramophone, he was sure, would bring them to a whole new public.
HMV kept its place at the forefront of music retailing, introducing listening booths to give customers the opportunity to hear what they were about to buy before parting with their hard-earned cash.
The Oxford Street shop closed in 2019 when the company went into administration, but it will return to Number 363 later this year. As for Nipper, as well as living on as a world-famous logo, he is commemorated in a plaque inside a bank in Kingston upon Thames that was built above the spot where he was buried in 1895, and nearby there’s a side street that bears his name — Nipper Alley.
George Hamilton presents ‘The Hamilton Scores’ on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday