Russian in Russell Square

RUSSELL SQUARE IN London’s Bloomsbury was laid out in 1804 following the demolition of Bedford House. Russell was the surname of the Dukes and Earls of Bedford. Its garden is a pleasant place to relax and contains fountains as well as a lovely café where Italian food is available. The garden was redesigned in 200-2001 by Camden Council, but retains features of the layout of the original garden created by Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) in about 1801.  Visitors to the square cannot but help noticing a huge, flamboyant hotel facing its eastern side. This is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel, which was known as the ‘Russell Hotel’ until 2018.

The hotel faced with terracotta coloured stone, which bears the date 1898 on its exuberant façade, was opened in 1900. It was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll (1850-1929), who designed the dining room on the ill-fated liner, ‘The Titanic’. His design for the building was inspired by the Château de Madrid near Paris (France). The hotel is a remarkably eye-catching building covered with decorative features. A terrace framed by arches and slender pillars runs around the first floor of the edifice. This terrace is decorated by a series of roundish three-dimensional bas-relief coats-of-arms that are best seen with either binoculars or through the zoom lens of a camera. These have caught my eye on many occasions as some of them contain crests that include the mythical/heraldic double-headed eagle, a ‘creature’ that interests me greatly.

The coats-of-arms are of countries that existed in 1898. The double-headed eagle crests contain images of St George slaying a dragon. This suggests to me that these crests represent Imperial Russia rather than Austria-Hungary.  I was able to identify some of the other crests, such as those of the Kingdom of Italy, Portugal, USA, and France. Some of the others represent countries that I am not able to identify.

In 1994, the hotel hosted a meeting that led to the formation of the Russell Group of research universities. More recently, in late 2011, I attended a reunion dinner of alumni of the now defunct University College Hospital Dental School. It was the thirtieth anniversary of my class’s graduation. My memories of the hotel’s interior were of somewhat gloomy but impressive public rooms with much dark marble or similar stonework. The food served at the costly (overpriced) reunion dinner was unremarkable. What struck me was how much some of my fellow students, who were younger than me, had aged. What did not stroke me until some years after that evening was that the exterior of the building which I had entered was studded with double-headed eagles.

Unlike flags that can be easily removed or changed according to what happens to countries, the bas-relief crests on the hotel cannot be changed so easily without damaging the buildings structure. So the Kimpton Fitzroy, once the Russell, bears a curious history of nations some of which have changed considerably since 1898. What amuses me is that the Russian double-headed eagle, which gave way to the hammer and sickle in 1917, survived the Russian Revolution and is now Russia’s symbol once more. It is lucky that the hotel’s management did not attempt to remove it.

1 thought on “Russian in Russell Square

  1. Although I live in London I once stayed here as the organisation I was working for had its Christmas dinner here and subsidised the cost of an overnight stay for staff who didn’t fancy the journey home late at night. It was rather good, if I remember rightly 🙂

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