Bettys and the art of Christmas window displays

As a young lad growing up in Newcastle, there was one moment above all others that signalled the countdown to Christmas had begun – the unveiling of Fenwick’s Christmas window on Northumberland Street.

To this day, families still travel from far and wide just to marvel at the visual theatre and festive storytelling on display.

It’s said that Fenwick were inspired by the animations in the window displays of the grands magasins in Paris, though Macy’s in New York is widely recognised as having pioneered the tradition of the Christmas window back in the 1870s.

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It’s a tradition that grew throughout the last century when illustrious names such as Hamleys, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason followed

The 2019 Bettys display. - the festive window display has become hugely popular.

suit.

It isn’t known when Harrods started doing Christmas windows but one of the earliest was in 1931, featuring a tableau of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.

By this time Bettys was already picking up accolades. In December 1928, its tea rooms in Bradford won a gold medal for its window display during Bradford Shopping week.

The Swiss role in creation of Bettys distinctly Yorkshire tea roomsBettys has long been known for its sumptuous displays and in recent years has made its festive window ‘‘unveiling’’ in Harrogate an event in

Robyn Cox, Bettys visual merchandiser or head of beautiful with part of this years display, highlighting their centenary celebration

itself.

Previous Christmas windows have featured a winter wonderland, ice snowmen, a sleigh and reindeer, and last year’s centrepiece in the Harrogate and York cafés was the Bettys Express, with the other four branches, including Northallerton and Ilkley, creating their own miniature versions of the main piece.

Robyn Cox is Bettys’ visual merchandiser, or the more evocatively named ‘‘head of beautiful’’, and the man in charge of these displays.

This year Bettys has been celebrating its centenary which meant the pressure was on to create something particularly memorable to mark the occasion. “It’s been an important year for Bettys because you’re only a hundred once, so the challenge was to make the window the best we possibly could,” says Robyn.

The cafes tradition of decorated festive windows goes back to the 1920s.

Planning for the Christmas window started back in January, though as Robyn points out the festive season is never far away. “It’s always Christmas at Bettys… so in June we’re doing our Christmas photography and there are various checkpoints throughout the year to make sure we’re on track.”

The costumes and sets inside the Scarborough and Beverley units home to the biggest panto production company in the worldThe inspiration for this year’s design comes from the centenary illustration created by York-based artist Emily Sutton, depicting all six of Bettys’ locations. “We thought we’d try and recreate this illustration in an edible form,” explains Robyn.

Once the concept has been agreed, the bakery team is tasked with turning the idea into a visual masterpiece. It is an elegant and intricate design, so how did they find that? “They like a challenge,” Robyn says, with a smile.

“The main challenge is that all the branches

Bettys caf tea rooms in Bradford won a gold medal for its window display during Bradford Shopping week in December 1928.

have windows of different heights, widths and depths, and we needed something that fits in all of them.”

Following all the hard work the window was ‘‘unveiled’’ last month in Harrogate, which Robyn admits is the most nerve-racking part of the whole operation.

“You’ve got a vision in your head of how the window looks but until it’s in situ you can’t really relax.”

And installing it is time consuming. “There was a team of about ten of us who worked through the night. We started at six o’clock and finished at about a quarter past four in the morning.”

Crowds of people, young and old, turned up to watch it all unfold. “It’s become a bit of a tradition with lots of people coming back each year with their children, or grandchildren, and it marks the start of the festive season in Harrogate.”

And what has the response been like this year? “People seem wowed by the detail in it and they keep seeing different things when they come back for another look. I think it really shows a celebration of our craft and there’s an appreciation of all the work that’s gone into it.”

Christmas at the country house: Yorkshire's largest stately homes unveil their festive displaysRobyn has worked with Bettys since 2006. He joined on a marketing job placement and never left. He’s been involved with the window displays for the past decade. “They’ve become really important. Our founder, Frederick Belmont, did amazing window displays back in 1919 and won competitions for them, and we’re carrying on that tradition,” he says.

“We get inspiration from anything – it could be a piece of old packaging or a card.”

He’s even travelled to places in Europe to pick up ideas. “I have been to Switzerland and Copenhagen and for the stores there, it’s more than just a window, it makes the place a destination. There was one that had a giant advent calendar on the outside.”

At Bettys the challenge is coming up with something new each time that taps into its heritage. “The window is our chance to showcase what we do. We want to stop people in their tracks as they’re walking past.”

And why are we still fascinated by these Christmas window displays. After all, aren’t they just a clever bit of marketing? “There’s a sense of nostalgia about them. I think they evoke that festive tradition and a lot of memories for people. I remember seeing them from my own childhood. So it’s not just about looking in a window, it’s about creating an experience.”