Walter and the woodlice at Whiteleys

Painted by Walter Sickert

AT THE TATE Britain, I visited the exhibition of paintings and drawings by the artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942). Amongst these, I was interested to see one which depicts a stretch of the platform at what is now Bayswater Underground station. In Sickert’s time, this station was called ‘Queens Road (Bayswater)’. Painted in 1914-15, this station was the closest one to his then home in Kildare Gardens (off Westbourne Grove). In the painting there is a man seated on a bench beneath an advertisement for Whiteleys. This was a department store, whose history I have described in my book “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”*. Here is a shortened extract:

“Queensway was the home of a large department store called Whiteleys. Created in nearby Westbourne Grove by William Whiteley (1831-1907) in 1863, it moved into its large home on Queensway in 1911. After going through various transformations over the years, eventually becoming a shopping mall with restaurants and a cinema, it closed in 2018 … Since 2018, developers have removed the building’s innards whilst preserving its outer walls. The aim is to create a new shopping area along with a hotel and residential units. The final product might be interesting as its architects are from the team led by Norman Foster.”

Between 1968 and 1970, I was at north London’s Highgate School studying in preparation for my A-Levels (examinations to gain admission to university). One of my subjects was biology. I decided to enter the school’s Bodkin Prize biology essay competition. For some long-forgotten reason, I chose as my essay topic the life of woodlice.  Seeing the above-mentioned painting by Sickert, reminded me of this essay. Being a keen researcher, even in my late teens, I discovered that there was a detailed book on my chosen subject, and this was available for perusal in a science library (the National Reference Library for Science and Invention), which was part of what has now become known as The British Library. In the late 1960s, when I required the book, the library’s collection was housed in a part of what had been the former Whiteleys department store on Queensway. It was a peculiar place: the bookshelves and readers’ desks were arranged on several layers of curved galleries surrounding a circular open space on the ground floor. Above the circular space, there was a spectacular, circular, large diameter, glazed skylight. The book I consulted was in French, and I spent a whole day laboriously translating it and making notes for use later. ‘cloporte’ is the French for ‘woodlouse’, just in case you are wondering. I believe that one visit was sufficient for me to collect what information I needed.

In December 1967, there was a debate about the state of the British Museum Library (now British Library) in the House of Lords. During a long speech, Viscount Eccles (1904-1999) mentioned the library where I had read about woodlice:

“Learned societies and famous men in the arts and the sciences have been shocked by the substance and the manner of the Government’s decision concerning the Library … An example of how the Act works can be seen in what has happened to the National Reference Library for Science and Invention. For years the former Trustees were frustrated by the delays and niggardliness of previous Governments in finding accommodation for this growing section of scientific material, not to mention the disgraceful shilly-shallying over the Patent Office Library. The position grew so desperate that the Trustees decided to gather together part of the material in temporary premises in Bayswater—admittedly very unsatisfactory…” (https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1967/dec/13/british-museum-library)

I visited the library a year or so after that speech. As for my essay, I won 2nd prize: 15 shillings (75pence) to spend on books, which was reasonably generous at that time. 2nd prize might impress you for a moment until I reveal that I was one of only two entrants. The 1st prize was won by my classmate Timothy Clarke. His older brother, Charles Clarke, not only became Head of School but later served as British Home Secretary between 2004 and 2006.

Returning to Whiteleys, I began visiting it regularly after 1993, when I began living nearby. Then, as described already, it had become a shopping mall. The galleries, which had once served as a library, were lined with shops and eateries, as well as a cinema. But that is all in the past, and what was once Whiteleys is now a building site.  I doubt that Sickert would have been pleased if he were able to see it today.

* My book is available from Amazon:

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