IT WAS EERIE walking in Leicester Square today in early February 2021 at midday because we were almost alone. Normally, the square is full of people milling about and joining circles of folk watching street entertainers perform, sometimes with great skill. Apart from us, I saw no more than ten other people in this usually crowded popular focal point for Londoners and tourists alike. There was a sense of peace and calm that one customarily associates with spots deep in the countryside. I doubt that this square has been like this for many years, maybe since it was first laid out between 1630 and 1671, when it was then known as ‘Leicester Fields’.
At the north-east corner of the Square was Leicester House, which was named after Robert Sydney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595-1677), and was built in about 1635. It was home to members of some royal personages including, briefly, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596-1662) whose life ended in the house, and later the huge natural history collection of Sir Ashton Lever (1729-1788), the last lessee of the house before it was demolished in 1791.
During the 18th century, the houses surrounding Leicester Square were occupied by several people, whom we still remember today. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) lived on the east side of the square on a site that was later occupied by the Sablonière Hotel, now demolished. The hotel’s plot is now the site of a twentieth century building housing the offices of several radio stations including LBC and Classic FM and a branch of TGI Friday. The famous surgeon and scientist John Hunter (1728-1793) lived in the house next to Hogarth’s from 1785 until his death. He kept his collection of specimens there as well as giving lessons in anatomy and dissection in rooms he added to the rear of his home. Hunter was buried in the nearby church of St Martin in the Fields. Across the square on its west side, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) lived and worked from 1761 until his death. His studio was an octagonal room. According to John Timbs, writing in 1867:
“… the sticks of his brushes were 18 inches long; he held his palettes by handle …”
In addition to his residence and studio, Reynolds built a gallery for his works. The row of houses that included that of Reynolds has long since been demolished. When I first knew Leicester Square, the east side of the square was occupied by a large office building, Fanum House, that housed the Automobile Association. Its appearance has been modified and is known as ‘Communications House’.
Other artists, who lived in the square, include Hans Huyssing (1678-1753/53), a Swedish painter; Jacques Christophe Le Blon (1667-1741); Michael Dahl (1659-1743), a fashionable Swedish portrait painter; and William Martin (1753-c1836), an English painter. Apart from artists, other notable people, several military and medical celebrities, lived around the square.
The square has a garden, in the centre of which there is a statue of William Shakespeare. This is a copy of an original made in 1741 by the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers the Younger (1691-1781) who spent most of his working life in London. It was placed in the square in 1874 when the financier and member of Parliament Albert Grant (1831-1899), who was born ‘Abraham Gottheimer’, bought the garden and opened it to the public. During the 18th century, there was another statue in the square: a metal equestrian sculpture of King George I, sculpted by C Buchard.
The large Odeon Cinema on the west side of the square has a black tiled façade. It was built in the art-deco style in 1937, designed by Harry Weedon (1887-1970), who designed many other cinemas in the 1930s. It was built on the site of the big Alhambra Theatre, which opened as a music hall in 1858 and survived until its demolition in 1936. Today, there is a bar next to the Odeon. It bears the name ‘Lost Alhambra’.
The Empire Theatre, now a casino and a cinema, is on the north side of the square. With its neo-classical façade, it was built in 1884 as a variety theatre. Its architects were Thomas Verity (1837-1891 and Thomas Lamb (1871-1942). This stands roughly on the western side of the land occupied by the former Leicester House. To the east of this plot, there stands another cinema, a fine example of the art-deco style, the Vue Cinema, which was built in 1938 and opened as the ‘Warner Theatre’. Its architects were Thomas Somerford (1881-1948) and EA Stone. The façade includes two bas-relief sculptures, one representing the spirit of sight and the other of sound, which were created by Edward Bainbridge Copnall (1903-1973), who was born in Cape Town in South Africa.
The Swiss Centre that used to stand at the northwest corner of the square was demolished a few years ago and was replaced by a newer building. The Centre contained a couple of expensive but good restaurants where Swiss specialities were served. The steak tartare and cheese fondue, which were served at the Centre, were particularly good. A clock with a carillon adorned with the crests of the Swiss Cantons is all that remains of that fine Swiss establishment.
At the south side of the square, facing the cheap theatre tickets booth, stands the Hampshire Hotel, currently devoid of guests. Before it became a hotel, this building housed the former Royal Dental Hospital. Opened in 1858 in Soho Square (number 22), it moved to the premises in Leicester Square in 1874 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royaldental.html). In those days, the once fashionable Square had become a run-down part of London. In 1983, The Royal Dental Hospital was merged with Guys Hospital Dental School. When this happened, a dental friend of mine, who worked at Guys, suggested to me that the merged hospital should be renamed as ‘Roys’. In 1985, the Leicester Square hospital was closed. Soon after this, the former hospital was reconditioned to become a hotel.
Being the centre of London’s theatre and entertainment district, it is appropriate that recently the square has been adorned with life-size sculptures of famous entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson (with whom you can share a bench), Laurel & Hardy, Mary Poppins, and other familiar actors. I cannot decide whether these frozen figures enhance the square, but as they are fairly discreetly positioned, they do add something to a place that has been home to well-known people since the beginning of the 18th century.
Had Leicester Square not been as empty as it was today, I would not have spent so long there to take photographs. I realised that this square, through which I have always preferred to hurry, has some interesting architecture and such a lovely statue. Although I enjoyed Leicester Square without the crowds, I look forward to healthier times when people can mix there, freely and happily.