Accidental death of an architect

ELEGANT BELGRAVE SQUARE is but a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner. Many of its neo-classical buildings are home to diplomatic missions and their staff. As with many London squares, the centre of Belgrave Square contains a private garden. That at Belgrave Square is adorned with sculptures, mostly statues of eminent people. At each of its four corners, there is one. The people depicted at these four positions are Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460); Christopher Columbus (1451-1506); Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the liberator of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama; and José San Martin (1778-1850), liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Almost facing San Martin on the north east corner of the square is a statue of Sir Robert Grosvenor, First Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845), upon whose estate Belgrave Square was built.

Elias George Basevi

On the eastern side of the square, close to the statue of Simon Bolivar and within the garden, there is a sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta (1921-1981), which was completed after his death by Mark Holloway. It is called “Homage to Leonardo. The Vitruvian Man”.

Interesting as all the above-mentioned are, the sculpture that intrigued me most is a bust of Elias George Basevi (1794-1845), who is described on his plinth as ‘architect’. I guessed that he was likely to have been involved in the design of Belgrave Square, and I was right. According to a plaque on the base of Grosvenor’s statue, he designed the neo-classical terraces surrounding the square for the Haldimand Syndicate, which was under the control of the brothers George (1781-1851) and William (1784-1862) Haldimand, of Swiss origin, sons of a banker born in Switzerland and an English mother. In 1825, William, a Member of Parliament:

“… negotiated successfully with the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, Seth Smith and William Cubitt for a 99-year lease on Belgrave Square, where he had 49 houses built: 16 to be owned by George Haldimand, 14 by himself, eight by Prevost, four by Smith and three by Cubitt…” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/haldimand-william-1784-1862)

The Haldimands were related to Frederick Haldimand (1718-1791), who became Governor of Quebec in 1777. Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who was involved in creating the square, was a major Victorian property developer.

As for Basevi, at first, I thought that his surname sounded Italian. His family might have come from that country as its origins were Sephardic Jewish. The Basevi surname is particularly associated with Sephardic Jews in Verona (https://judaism_enc.enacademic.com/2089/BASEVI). His father, Joshua, usually known as ‘George’, was a London City merchant (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2616-basevi-george-joshua). Elias George’s aunt, George’s sister Maria (née Basevi), was married to Isaac D’Israeli, whose son was Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), who was Prime Minister between 1874 and 1880. In 1810, Elias became a pupil of the great architect John Soane (1753-1837), who specialised in creating in the neo-classical style. According to the Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’) (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/1615), from which I have gleaned much information about Elias, he:

“… also studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where Soane had recently been appointed professor of architecture. In 1815 he visited Paris with his brother, and on completion of his architectural training in 1816 he embarked on a three-year study tour of Italy and Greece, staying the longest in Rome and Athens, but also travelling extensively elsewhere in Italy and even visiting Constantinople.”

Regarding Belgrave Square, the DNB relates:

“Basevi designed and handled the construction of the terraced houses making up the four sides of the square (1825–40), though not the four detached villas at the corners. He treated the stuccoed terraces of eleven or twelve houses on each side as single palatial façades, giving each a central columnar portico and end pavilions in a similar manner to John Nash’s terraces in Regent’s Park … The financial success of this speculative development during an economically depressed period was due in large part to Basevi’s precise and scholarly attention to detail, not just in the design of the individual houses but also in the paving, street furniture, and composition of the square as a whole.”

Elias Basevi’s other projects included, to give just a few examples, St Thomas, Stockport, Cheshire (1822–5); work at several country houses; a building at Balliol College Oxford; Beechwood House and The Elms in Highgate; and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, whose construction was completed after his death. Beechwood House was built for the architect’s brother Nathaniel, a barrister, in 1840, who was married to a niece of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850).

Noticing Basevi’s buildings in Highgate, I looked at John Lloyd’s “History, Topography, and Antiquities of Highgate”, published in 1888, and discovered more about Basevi. He wrote that the Basevi family had been prominent in the Anglo-Jewish community. One member of the family, Napthali, the grandfather of Benjamin Disraeli’s mother, was an early President of The Jewish Board of Deputies, which was involved in the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews. The Basevis moved away from the Jewish faith as did their kinsmen the Disraelis.

Elias Basevi married Frances Agneta Biscoe. They produced eight children, one of whom was given the name James Palladio Basevi (1832-1871), who became an officer in the Royal Engineers.

On a personal note, I attended Highgate School between 1965 and 1970. Some years later, I acquired a copy of the “Highgate School Register 1833-1988”. Today, I looked up ‘Basevi’ in the index of pupils and discovered that in March 1840, James Palladio Basevi joined the school. This son of the architect joined the school two years after the Reverend John Bradley Dyne (1809-1898) had become headmaster. Dyne was to raise the school’s reputation considerably.  Other Basevi family members attended the school were William Augustus Basevi (joined January 1841), George Henry Basevi (joined January 1842) Frederick Biscoe Basevi (joined April 1844), Charles Edward Basevi (joined June 1844). All of these fellows were sons of the architect of Belgrave Square. Why they went to Highgate School is a bit of a mystery. Part of the reason might have been that their uncle, Nathaniel, had his home at Beechwood, a short walk from the school. however, their father, the architect lived in central London. The historian Alan Palmer, who used to teach at the school, wrote that out of the 43 graduates of Dyne’s first ten years, only 16 came from homes near the school. His reputation as a headmaster was already excellent by the time that the first of the architect’s sons entered the school, which attracted boarders.

Elias, who became a Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society, ended his life in a frightening way. The DNB relates his tragic ending:

“He died on 16 October 1845, aged fifty-one, after falling through an opening in the floor of the old bell chamber of the west tower of Ely Cathedral while inspecting repairs. His remains were buried in Bishop Alcock’s chapel at the east end of the cathedral.”

The bust of Elias George Basevi is smaller than the other commemorative sculpture placed in and around Belgrave Square and easy to miss if you are walking around the square. I only noticed it because I was watching two people walking with their dogs within the square’s private garden. Had I not seen the bust, I might have never explored the life of this man whose family had connections with Highgate, where I attended secondary school.

Organs and archaeology

THE EYES OF MOST VISITORS to Kensington Gore are attracted to the spectacular Royal Albert Hall and, opposite it, the monument to Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort. Immediately to the west of the Royal Albert Hall, there stands the comparatively less impressive twentieth century building housing the Royal College of Art (‘RCA’), designed by H T Cadbury Brown and opened in 1962. Next to this geometric structure of concrete and glass and on its south side, there is an edifice whose appearance is a dramatic contrast to it. The walls of the RCA’s southern neighbour are covered with figurative illustrations, created in the ‘sgraffito’ technique.  Bands of ‘putti’ carrying musical instruments, scrolls of paper, or singing, appear to be scurrying across the walls of the building. Maybe this is not surprising because once this place housed The Royal College of Organists (‘RCO’).

Founded in 1864 by the organist Richard Limpus (1824-1875) to promote advanced organ playing, it received its Royal Charter in 1893. The building next to the present RCA and facing the Royal Albert Hall was designed by Lieutenant Henry Hardy Cole (1843-1916) of the Royal Engineers, and the ‘sgraffiti’ decorating it was created by Francis Wallaston Moody (1824-1886).

Lieutenant Cole was a son of Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882), a civil servant who had an extremely important role in organising the Great Exhibition of 1851. His building, erected 1874-75, was originally constructed to house The National Training School for Music. It was paid for by Sir Henry Cole’s friend, music lover, and a fellow member of the Society of the Arts, the developer Charles James Freake (1818-1884), who lived in Cromwell Road (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/sir-c-j-freake).

The architect, Lieutenant Cole had little practical architectural experience as is revealed in “The Survey of London Vol.38” (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol38/pp217-219):

“Lieutenant Cole had returned in 1871 from India, where he had been Superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, North-West Provinces, and his previous architectural work seems to have been confined mainly to publications on ancient Indian architecture and archaeology, and the preparation of casts for the Indian section of the South Kensington Museum, which he catalogued.”

Consequently:

“He was not left to design the school on his own. It was evolved in consultation with his father and was subjected to criticism by members of the Science and Art Department. A committee of management was appointed in July 1873 …”

Moody was a protégé of Sir Henry and a teacher at the National Art Training School, a forerunner of the RCA.

Between 1883 and 1896, the building was used by the newly founded Royal College of Music, which moved into its new premises south of the Royal Albert Hall in about 1896. The large variety of musical instruments that have been depicted on the building’s walls reflect the place’s first occupants.  Between 1896 and 1903, it stood empty. Then it was leased to the RCO for 100 years at a ‘peppercorn’ rent. When it was learnt that after expiry of the lease the rent would be increased considerably, the RCO moved into new accommodation in 1991. Currently, at least in 2018, it is owned by an entrepreneur, Robert Tchenguiz.

The Lieutenant, who designed the RCO building, became the Curator of Ancient Monuments in India. His “First Report Of The Curator Of Ancient Monuments In India” was published in 1882 in Simla. This contains some of his views on dealing with archaeological items and sites. For example, he wrote:

“Experience has shown that the keenest investigators have not always had the greatest respect for the maintenance of monuments. Archaeological research has for its object the elucidation of history, and to an enthusiast the temptation to carry off a proof of an unravelled mystery is undoubtedly great. If there were no such things as photographs, casts, and other means of reproducing archaeological evidence, the removal of original stone records might perhaps be justified …”,

and, regarding the now controversial British possession of some famous sculptures in the British Museum:

“Sometimes, indeed, the removal of ancient remains is necessary for safe custody; and in the case of a foreign country, we are not responsible for the preservation in situ of important buildings. We are not answerable for keeping Grecian marbles in Greece; neither were we concerned for the rights of Egypt when Cleopatra’s Needle left Alexandria for the Thames embankment.”

However, regarding India, the Lieutenant wrote:

“In the case, however, of India—a country which is a British possession—the arguments are different. We are, I submit, responsible for Indian monuments, and that they are preserved in situ, when possible. Moreover, as Mr. Eergusson remarks, Indian sculpture is so essentially a part of the architecture with which it is bound, that it is impossible to appreciate it properly without being able to realise correctly the position for which it was originally designed …”

In order to satisfy the needs of museums in Europe, the lieutenant suggested that perfect replicas of artefacts can be made as is well demonstrated by the superb life-like plaster casts that can be seen in the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, which were opened in 1873 and established by Sir Henry Cole and the art collector John Charles Robinson (1824-1913). In general, Sir Henry’s son was against moving historical remains from British possessions. To make his point, he wrote:

“The removal, for instance, of Stonehenge to London would, I imagine, provoke considerable excitement in England, and be condemned by a majority in the scientific and artistic world.”

I am not sure that Lieutenant Cole’s views were shared by the American sculptor and collector of antiques George Grey Barnard (1863-1938), who bought and whole cloisters and other architectural items in France and then had them shipped to New York City. There, they were reassembled and displayed in the superb Cloisters Museum at the northern tip of Manhattan.

Looking at the outside of the former RCO building, I could not detect anything that reflected its architect’s experiences in India except, if I stretch my imagination, for the upper storey windows that faintly recall the projecting windows that can be found on ‘havelis’, for example, in Gujarat and Rajasthan. But maybe I am letting my imagination run a little wild.

History at the end of a narrow alley

A WIDE FOOTPATH runs south from Piccadilly along the eastern edge of Green Park. We have walked along this many times, but it was not until a few days ago that we noticed a small alleyway leading east from the footpath about 190 yards south of Piccadilly. This unmarked footway, which is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, passes under a building and emerges opposite the Stafford Hotel on St James Place, a short cul-de-sac with a dogleg, which leads off St James Street. St James Place, whose construction began in 1694, is an attractive short street lined with many fine buildings, some of which I propose to describe. What made this lovely quiet road interesting for me was that several fascinating people have been associated with it. I will begin with a relatively recent inhabitant.

Number 9 was home to Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), who circumnavigated the world single-handedly in 1966/67. He lived here from 1944 to 1972. He sailed in his boat named Gypsy Moth IV. In 1929, Sir Francis attempted another exploit, to fly from New Zealand to Australia in his ‘plane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. He made the first ever flight from New Zealand to Australia. He was also the first person to land a ‘plane on both Norfolk and Lord Howe islands. If you want to see his historic boat, then you need to get down to Greenwich, where it is on display close to the much larger Cutty Sark.

There is another building in St James Place, which associated with water transport. The elegant number 20, an 18th century building, has been the London Club House of the Royal Ocean Racing Club since 1942. The Club was founded in 1925. Between 1822 and 1857, the building housed the servants who worked in number 21, which was demolished during WW2 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp511-541#h3-0019).

Not far from Chichester’s house is number 4. This is the house from which the short-lived Polish born pianist and composer, Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), departed to give his last public performance at the Guildhall on the 16th of November 1848 (www.chopin-society.org.uk/articles/chopin-britain.htm). It was held:

“… in aid of a Polish charity, came at the end of a difficult six-month British sojourn, which had included concerts in Manchester (one of the largest audiences he ever faced), Glasgow and Edinburgh… Finally back in London, the composer-pianist spent three weeks preparing for what turned out to be his final recital by sitting wrapped in his coat in front of the fire at St James’s Place, attended by London’s leading homeopath and the Royal Physician, a specialist in tuberculosis. A week after the concert, he was on his way home to Parisian exile and death the following year.” (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/frederic-chopin-st-james-s-place).

Before discussing the most curious inhabitant of St James Place, I will discuss one of its famous residents, the writer and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who founded “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. According to Peter Cunningham in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850), Addison was living in St James Place by 1710. I am sure that we did not see any memorial celebrating this on any of the buildings in the street. Cunningham wrote, quoting from another source:

“Addison’s chief companions before he married Lady Warwick (in 1716) were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James Place …”

His companions listed above were probably sympathetic to Addison’s Whig politics.  However, Cunningham gives no indication of Addison’s address. He frequented the St James Coffee House in nearby St James Street, as he recorded in issue number 104 of his “Spectator”:

“That I might begin as near the fountain head as possible I first of all called in at St. James’s, where I found the whole outwardroom in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of Theorists who sate in the inner Room, within the steam of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish Monarchy disposed of; and all the line of Bourbons provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471#h3-0014)

The coffee house was at number 87 St James Street. It was demolished to make way for a new building, erected 1904/05.

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James%27s_Place)  lists many other notable residents of St James Place, including Oscar Wilde and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, but omits one very interesting person, William Huskisson (1770-1830), whose residence at number 28 is commemorated by a plaque. This records him as having been a ‘statesman’. He was that as well as a financier and several times a Member of Parliament. He lived in Paris between 1783 and 1792 and witnessed the French Revolution. Although he had an active political life, what makes him remarkable was the manner of his death.

Against the better judgement of his physician, Huskisson attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 15th of September 1830. Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) related the story in a letter written to a Miss Ord on the 19th of September 1830:

“Jack Calcraft has been at the opening of the Liverpool railroad, and was an eye-witness of Huskisson’s horrible death. About nine or ten of the passengers in the Duke’s car had got out to look about them whilst the car stopt. Calcraft was one, Huskisson another, Esterhazy, Billy Holmes, Birch and others. When the other locomotive was seen coming up to pass them, there was a general shout from those within the Duke’s car to those without it, to get in. Both Holmes and Birch were unable to get up in time, but they stuck fast to its sides, and the other engine did not touch them. Esterhazy, being light, was pulled in by force. Huskisson was feeble in his legs, and appears to have lost his head, as he did his life. Calcraft tells me that Huskisson’s long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint that Taylor is so afraid of, and that made some severe surgical operation necessary, the effect of which had been, according to what he told Calcraft, to paralyse, as it were, one leg and thigh. This, no doubt, must have increased, if it did not create, his danger and [caused him to] lose his life.”

(quoted from “The Creevey papers; a selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, M.P., born 1768 – died 1838. Edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell”)

Thus, Huskisson achieved the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first widely reported casualties in a railway accident. The ‘Duke’ mentioned above was the Duke of Wellington and the engine that caused Huskisson’s death was the “Rocket”, a pioneering locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. I wonder why his demise was not noted on the commemorative plaque.

Huskisson’s former home has a superb front door flanked by iron lampstands each with its own conical torch flame snuffer. St James Place has plenty of fine 18th century buildings as well as some newer ones. These include the Stafford and Dukes Hotels, which are late 19th and early 20th century in appearance. Number 26 St James Place, a mid-twentieth century building, bears a Civic Trust Award. It is a block of flats built 1959/60 to the designs of the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), who also designed the National Theatre on the South Bank. It replaced an 18th century house that was destroyed by bombing in WW2. Although not unpleasing, it stands in stark contrast to the far more elegant older buildings near it.  

Even greater contrast to its surroundings is the building on the northern corner of St James Place and St James Street. This avant-garde metal-clad structure, the Target Building, designed by Rodney Gordon (1933-2008) and completed in 1984, is opposite William Evans gun shop and houses the Stern Pisarro art gallery on its ground floor. One of the galleries owners, Lélia Pissarro, is a great-granddaughter of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The gallery specialises in Impressionist art amongst other things. While on the subject of art galleries, it would be easy to walk past number 6 St James Place without noticing a small plate on its front door that says ‘Agnews Est 1817’. Between 1877 and 2013, this gallery, which deals in the highest quality works of fine art (e,g. Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez) was on Old Bond Street. Then, it relocated to number 6.

St James Place is only 180 yards in length, but as can be seen from the small selection of buildings I have chosen to describe, it is choc-full of historical associations. I am pleased that we discovered the tiny alley that led from Green Park to this fascinating cul-de-sac. And, finally, if you find that you are getting tired of staying at the Ritz Hotel, you would do well to book into one of the two hotels discreetly located in St James Place.

[PS I have not dealt with Spencer House because I hope to write about it in the future]

Then and now: Holland House in London before and after the 2nd World War

HOLLAND HOUSE in Holland Park (west London) was built in the early 17th century (about 1604) in the Jacobean style. It was designed by the architect John Thorpe (dates uncertain: c1555-c1655), who is thought to be the creator of Audley End House in Essex. In 1939, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) attended a debutante ball at Holland House. Little did they know that this was to be the last great ball to be held at the house. After the German Luftwaffe began devastating London, Holland House was hit by twenty-two incendiary bombs during a ten-hour raid on the night of the 27th of September 1940. Much of the old house was destroyed apart from the east wing. Fortunately, the library and its valuable contents remained undamaged. A video (www.britishpathe.com/video/holland-house-damaged) made by Pathé News shows the house shortly after it was bombed.

The house remained as a ruin until 1952 when its then owner, Giles Fox-Strangways, 6th Earl of Ilchester (1874-1959), a Member of the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England from 1939–1959, sold the remains of the house and its extensive grounds (now Holland Park) to the London County Council. Eventually in 1986, what was left of the building was transferred to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In normal, non covid19, summers, the now well-preserved remains of the house become the home of a temporary theatre where opera is performed. For many years, but no longer, the relatively intact part of the house was used as a youth hostel by the YHA.

Recently, I have acquired a facsimile edition of “History and Antiquities of Kensington” by Thomas Faulkner, which was published originally in 1820. I have also my own copy of an original edition of Volume 5 of “Old and New London” by Edward Walford, published in 1878. Both books were published when Holland House was still intact, and both contain engravings showing how the house looked both outside and inside.  Faulkner’s book contains a lengthy detailed listing of all the artworks and books that the house contained. These items included several paintings by artists as famous as Teniers, Canaletto, Joshua Reynolds, and Hogarth, to name but a few. Luckily, most of the art treasures in the house were removed for safety before the outbreak of WW2.  The illustrations, some of which I have reproduced, demonstrate how great a tragedy it was that Holland House no longer remains intact.

The illustrations to this article can be viewed at: https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/60/  

A Russian cathedral and a Palladian villa

IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.

During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:

“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”

Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.

Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.

The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features.  The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.

There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.

It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.

The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.

A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:

“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”

This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.

The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.

My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries.  We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.

We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.

A village by the River Thames

FOR MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS between the mid-1970s and about 2003, I made occasional journeys between Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire and Eton in Berkshire. On each of these, I passed signs indicating roads to Datchet, yet it was only in November 2020 that we decided to take a look at this village near the River Thames and opposite Windsor.

Writing in 1876 in his “Handbook to the Environs of London”, James Thorne commented that Datchet in Buckinghamshire:

“… is a quiet genteel place of abode, dull and uncharacteristic in appearance; as such places usually are; but the neighbourhood is beautiful and interesting.”

While today Datchet continues to appear genteel, it is not as dull as Thorne made out. Much that Thorne might have seen had he visited it when researching his book can be seen today. For example, the Church of St Mary, which was built in 1860 on the site of an older one, which was demolished in 1857, is attractive despite having been completely rebuilt in Victorian Gothic style.

The church stands beside The Royal Stag pub. Although the front part of the pub facing the village green was added in the 18th century, the rear part that faces the churchyard dates back to 1500 or before (https://datchethistory.org.uk/streetshouses/the-north-greens/the-royal-stag/). Over the centuries, the older parts of this building have undergone modifications, but externally it looks quite old. The pub was visited by the astronomer William Herschel (1738-1822) and his family and is mentioned in “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome.

The pub faces a green in the middle of which there is a memorial to those of Datchet, who fell in both World Wars. A plaque on the memorial relates that the men who fell in WW1 were fighting the combined forces of “Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria”. As far as I can recall, this is the first WW1 memorial I have seen that mentions Bulgaria.

Facing both the pub and the church across the green, there is a long half-timbered building with four gables. Thorne describes it as having five gables, but we could only see four. Between two of the gables, there is an area of roof tiling on which a sculpture of a cat appears to be chasing a sculpture of a rat. This building now divided into dwellings is collectively known as ‘Manor House’. Although much modified, this building might have been constructed in the late 16th century. The mock Tudor facing, which we see today, was added in about 1870.

A building named ‘The Old Manor House’ next to the building just described was rebuilt in 1955 on the site of a building constructed first in the 17th century. A row of brick cottages stands on the other side of the gabled building. These attractive old structures are, like their neighbour, timber-framed. They might be older than their larger neighbour. Their brick frontage was added either in the 17th or 18th century.

Another old cottage faces the London Road, which runs along the side of the churchyard. This is ‘Church Cottage’, which was built in about 1500 and has undergone little change since then. It is probably the oldest building still standing in Datchet. James Cottages, neighbouring Church Cottage, are far younger, having been built in 1853 to commemorate James Pearce, who had died in 1851.

I could describe some of the other old buildings that make Datchet a lovely place to linger for a while, but I hope I have written enough to intrigue you. Before concluding, I will tell you a bit about the village’s name, which is strange to my way of thinking. The excellent village website (https://datchethistory.org.uk) provides much interesting information about Datchet and reveals the following about the name. Current thinking links Datchet (‘Decetia’ in Latin) to the French town of Decize, a point in central France where the River Loire could be crossed with ease in Gallic and Roman times. The website observes:

“… Decize and Datchet have more in common than an unusual name; both were originally established on islands of high ground in the low-lying land of a major river route; the remains of Decize’s ancient fort is shown on the map as ‘oppidum’. Settlement sites like this are common, but it may still be significant that these two share such a distinctive name which is not found anywhere else.”

Although we spent less than an hour in Datchet, that was sufficient time to discover that far from being “dull and uncharacteristic in appearance” as claimed by the 19th century writer James Thorne, it is quite attractive even if not in the same league as villages such as Lavenham in Suffolk and Stow-on-the Wold or Bourton in the Cotswolds.

At home with Adam

IN CASE YOU ARE WONDERING, this piece is not all about me, Adam Robert Yamey. My father, a well-known economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’, in honour of the famous Scottish economist and author of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was against this. My ‘Robert’ might have been chosen because my mother had a brother called Robert, but maybe they chose the name because they knew about a more celebrated Robert, the Scottish  architect and Adam Smith’s contemporary, Robert Adam (1728-1792). Lately, we have visited two buildings whose appearances owe much to Adam the architect. One is Osterley House, west of London, and the other Kenwood House in north London.

Ceiling of Etruscan Room at Osterley

According to a mine of information, “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne (published in 1876), the manor of ‘Osterlee’ belonged to John de Osterlee in the reign of Edward I (lived 1239-1307). Through the years it moved through the hands of men such as John Somerseth (died 1454), Henry Marquis of Exeter (1498-1538), Edward Seymour (Protector Somerset 1500-1552), Augustin Thaier, and then Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579).

Gresham was, according to Thorne, was “… the prince of merchants”. An able financier, he worked on behalf of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, and was also the founder of the Royal Exchange in London. In 1857, the economist Henry Dunning Macleod, used Thomas’s surname to name a law of economics, namely ‘bad money drives out good’.  By 1577, Gresham enclosed Osterley Park and constructed a magnificent mansion. Although there are no surviving images of this building, its architectural style can be imagined by looking at the Tudor stable block (c1560) that stands next to the present Osterley House.

After Gresham’s death, the building began to decline even while his widow, Anne (née Ferneley), continued to dwell in it. After her death in 1596 at the age of 75, Osterley House and its grounds were owned by a series of people until about 1713, when the banker Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) bought the property.

Sir Francis left the place to his sons Robert (1674-1721), Francis (1684-1740), and Samuel (1693- 1752). It was the latter’s son, the third Francis Child (1735-1763), who engaged the fashionable architect Robert Adam to make improvements to Osterley House. His was employed in the 1760s to modernise Gresham’s house. The most obvious of Adam’s works can be seen before you enter the house, the neo-classical portico supported by two rows of six Ionic columns that evokes memories of the Propylaeum of the Parthenon in Athens, which Adam might well have known about after his Grand Tour of Europe undertaken between 1755 and 1757, which, incidentally, included a visit to the ruins at Split (now in Croatia). The portico joins two wings of the building that Child inherited.

In addition to the magnificent portico that contrasts with the Tudor brickwork of the rest of the building,  Adam redesigned the entire interior of the building, creating a series of beautifully decorated rooms, most of which have eye-catching ornate ceilings. One room, which does not have a decorated ceiling is the Long Gallery which was used to house some of the large collection of paintings that used to hang in the Child’s London home, which they sold in 1767. Most of these artworks were removed from the house when Lord Jersey gifted the house to the National Trust in 1949, and then lost in a fire. They have been replaced by other fine paintings. Many of the chairs and sofas and other furnishings in the Long Gallery (and other rooms) were designed by Robert Adam, who took great interest in every detail of what he created. The absence of ceiling decorations, it was explained to us, was intentional; the ceiling was left unadorned so that viewers of the paintings were not distracted by decorative features above them. In the other rooms, the ceilings rival other aspects for the viewer’s attention.  From the grand entrance hall onwards, the visitor is faced with a series of rooms that compete for his or her admiration. Amongst these marvels of interior decoration, I was particularly impressed by the Drawing Room that drew inspiration from the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2009), the Tapestry Room, and the delicately decorated Etruscan Dressing Room. I have singled out these rooms, but the others are also magnificent. Adam’s creations make a visit to Osterley Park a breath-takingly exciting visual experience.

As the crow flies, Kenwood House is ten miles northeast of Osterley House, or about 15 miles by road. Osterley House was completely remodelled by Robert Adam. Beneath his modifications, its structure is basically the Tudor mansion that the Child family purchased. The situation is different at Kenwood.

In 1755, the lawyer and politician William Murray (1705-1793), who was to become First Earl of Mansfield, bought Kenwood House. In 1764, he commissioned Robert Adam to remodel the house, giving him freedom to do it however he wished. Adam did the following (as quoted in www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood/history-stories-kenwood/history/):

“… addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico … modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’ … designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.”

So, he added to the existing building rather than working within its original ‘footprint’. The ‘pièce de résistance’ of Adam’s work at Kenwood is without doubt the Library. It must be seen to be believed. Reluctantly, because I was really impressed by his creations at Osterley, this library exceeds the splendour of all the rooms at Osterley.  The South façade of Kenwood is also a successful modification of the building, more effective aesthetically than the portico added to the north side of the house.

Seeing Adam’s Library at Kenwood House is just one of the good reasons to visit the place. The other attractions include the wonderful gardens and the collection of masterpieces of British and European painters that are on display. Including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bols, Turner, Guardi, Reynolds, and many more celebrated artists, the paintings are part of the collection of the Irish businessman and philanthropist, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), which he left to the nation following his death.

Those enamoured by the works of Robert Adam must visit the two houses already described, which are open to the public. There is another place in London, Home House in Portman Square, once the home of Sir Anthony Blunt and the Courtauld Institute and now a private members’ club (Home House Club), whose Adam interiors, which I have seen, are also spectacular examples of his creative powers. If you are not fortunate enough to know a member of this club, you will have to satisfy yourself by visiting Kenwood and Osterley Houses, but you will not be disappointed.

Near the shops: a chapel in Kensington

HIGH STREET KENSINGTON is not amongst my favourite London thoroughfares, but streets leading off it take one to places of considerable interest. One of these, Allen Street, offers a view of a building that outshines many of its close neighbours. But, before we reach this short side street, here are a few words about High Street Ken.

Even before the covid19 pandemic, High Street Kensington has been declining in importance as a centre of retailing activity. The retailing boom that made the street into a rival of, for example Oxford and Regents Streets, began in the mid-1860s. Prior to that:

“…most trading and manufacturing activity around Kensington High Street was on a small and local scale. An exception must be made of the Catholic candle-making business owned successively by the Wheble, Kendall, Tucker and Smith families from about 1765 until 1908. Its founder was James Wheble (1729–1801), scion of a prominent recusant family in Winchester. By 1766 at the latest Wheble was based in Kensington, and within a few years occupied miscellaneous properties on the present Barkers site, both in the High Street and on the west side of Young Street, where a warehouse was rated in his name from 1772 onwards.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp77-98).

This mention of candle making interested me because my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) established a factory making candles in King Williams Town in South Africa in the 1880s.

From the late 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Ken was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture. They are located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s.

In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have all conspired to make High Street Ken less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, has become slightly dreary.

Various short streets lead off the south side of the high street. One of them, Young Street, leads to Kensington Square, which is well worth visiting to explore its exciting range of houses dating back to the 18th century and earlier (see https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/). Another road, Allan Street, west of the station, leads south from the high street. This street was a quiet cul-de-sac until 1852 when it was extended southwards. After that date, many more buildings were erected along it including the extensive Wynnstay Gardens, luxurious mansion flats, which was constructed between 1883 and 1885 on a site previously owned by Thomas Newland Allen (1811-1899), who was born at Chalfont St Giles (https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/chalfont-st-giles-buckinghamshire). A monument to Captain Cook, the explorer, stands on the estate where Allen was born.

Wynnstay Gardens is not a particularly attractive set of buildings. However, south of it and on the other side of Allen Street, there is a lovely neo-classical building just south of Adam and Eve Mews, which runs along its northern boundary. For many years, I had noticed it from a distance when wandering along High Street Ken, but it was only yesterday that I decided to take a closer look at this church.

Currently called the ‘Kensington United Reformed Church’, it was originally named ‘The Kensington Chapel’. Built in 1854-55 and designed by Andrew Trimen (1810-1868), it replaced the Hornton Street Chapel (north of the High Street), which was built 1794-95 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp386-394#h2-0005). Trimen was a prolific architect and also published a book in 1849, “Church and Chapel Architecture with an account of the Hebrew Church. 1,000 authenticated mouldings”, which was (https://manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk/architects/andrew-trimen):

“… the first major publication to consider non-conformist architecture.”

The church, clad in ochre coloured Bath stone, and its impressive pillared portico,  is an elegant addition to an otherwise undistinguished street.  Its corner stone recalls that the church replaced the one in Hornton Street and that it was laid by the Reverend John Stoughton on the 26th of June 1854. If you walk along Adam and Eve Mews, you will notice a pair of doors at the east end of the north wall of the church. Above them are the words ‘Lecture Hall’. According to a plan of the original building, this led into a ‘schoolroom’ (built 1856) attached to the east of the church. This was used to accommodate ‘British’ and ‘Sunday’ schools.

John Stoughton officiated first at the Hornton Street Chapel, starting in 1843, and then in the new building in Allen Street until he retired in 1875. His congregation was far from uninteresting as this quote from John Stoughton’s book “Congregationalism in the Court Suburb” (published in 1883) reveals:

“It may be mentioned that Kensington, on many accounts, has long been a favourite place of residence for artists and literary men, and a few of these became some occasional, others regular hearers [i.e. members of the congregation]  … Curious characters at different periods, it may be added would come into the vestry to have a little chat; a gentleman during the Crimean War gravely proposed to the preacher of peace a clever scheme for blowing up Sebastopol; and at another time one of clerical appearance repeated, with extraordinary rapidity, long passages out of the Greek Testament.”

Stoughton was such a popular preacher that by 1871, none of the 1000 sitting places in the chapel would be left unoccupied.

The chapel was damaged by bombing in 1940 and only repaired in 1952-53. Today, the building stands in all its glory and hosts regular religious services for its Congregationalist congregation (it is an autonomous protestant church, which governs its own affairs), but parts of it are now used for non-ecclesiastical purposes. Next time you wander along High Street Ken, make the short detour to see what I consider one of the finer buildings in the area alongside the unusual looking Armenian Church in nearby Iverna Gardens.

Ham and Highgate

LAUDERDALE IS A NAME, which until a few days ago I used to associate solely with Highgate in north London. Lauderdale House sits on Highgate Hill close to Waterlow Park. What you see of it today is a highly restored 18th century building that dates to 1760. Prior to that date, a finer looking timber framed house built in 1582 stood on the site. Built for the goldsmith Richard Martin (died 1617), who was Mayor of London in 1589, it was one of the finest country houses in Highgate. The present version, although acceptable aesthetically, is unremarkable. In 1645, the house became the property of John Maitland, 1st Duke of Lauderdale (1616-1682), a Scot.

Originally a supporter of Oliver Cromwell’s regime, he later became a supporter of King Charles II in 1660 soon before his restoration to the throne. During the reign of Charles II, Lauderdale held several of the highest offices in the land including Secretary of State and Lord High Commissioner. He was also involved in the Company of Royal Adventurers of England trading with Africa (founded 1663), which dealt much in slaves and gold.  

Lauderdale was first married to Lady Anne Home (1612-1671), a Scottish aristocrat. A year after Anne died, Lauderdale married Elizabeth Murray, Countess of Dysart (1626-1698), who had been an active and important supporter of Charles II during and after his exile. Evelyn Pritchard in her book “Ham House and its owners through five centuries 1610-2006” reports that it was rumoured that she had been having an affair with Lauderdale while she was still married to her first husband, Sir Lionel Tollemache (1624-1669). Lauderdale’s second marriage brings us across London from Highgate to the River Thames at Ham near Richmond.

Elizabeth Murray was the first born of the four daughters of William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart (c 1600-1655) and his wife Catharine (née Bruce). Being the eldest, Elizabeth inherited her father’s title and the home he owned at Ham, Ham House.  Her father, William, acquired Ham House in 1626. During the Civil War, Elizabeth Dysart maintained good relations with both Oliver Cromwell and the exiled King Charles II and thus preserved her ownership of Ham House, where she and Tollemache produced eleven children.

The house that William took over had been built between 1608 and 1610 by Sir Thomas Vavasour (1560-1620), a naval captain who had fought the Spanish at sea in the late 16th century. He had been awarded his knighthood at sea in 1597. The basic structure of Ham House, an ‘H plan’ typical of the Jacobean style, has survived although over the years newer parts have been added to it particularly at the rear. Seen from the front, Ham House has retained its original attractive Jacobean appearance. The rear of the house (the south facing garden side) has lost two of the original arms of the ‘H’ because the space between them was filled with an extension created by the Lauderdales in the 1670s. Thus, the north (front) façade is Jacobean, the southern one is in the later baroque style with sash windows, which make it look much newer than it is actually.

Because of the restrictions caused by the covid19 pandemic we were only allowed to view the ground floor rooms. However, this was sufficient to see what a splendidly decorated and furnished place the Lauderdales created. Every room we saw from the grand Great Hall and the fine carved wooden staircase to the smallest closets is a wonder to behold. A couple of rooms had beautiful ceilings with paintings, one by the German Franz Cleyn (c1582-1658) born in Rostock (Germany) and died in London, and another by the Italian Antonio Verrio (c1636-1707), born in Lecce (Italy) and died at Hampton Court.

Ham House has wonderful gardens, which we explored briefly before walking back to Richmond via the water meadows that flank the Thames. For me, the highlight of the grounds of Ham House was the geometrically perfect, formal garden to the east of the house. This was originally ‘the Cherry Garden’ where cherries are known to have been grown in 1653, when it was leased to one Samuel Purnell. The National Trust website (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ham-house-and-garden/features/the-garden-at-ham-house) informs us that:

“… the garden re-creates what historically ‘might have been’, following work in the 1970s to reinstate 17th century character previously lost.”

A statue of Bacchus, the only original piece of garden sculpture to have survived at Ham, stands in the heart of this perfectly manicured example of man’s influence on nature.

The National Trust received Ham House from Sir Lyonel Tollemache (born 1931) and his son Cecil Lyonel Newcomen Tollemache in 1948. The 9th Earl of Dysart (1859-1935), a descendant of William Murray, inherited Ham House in 1884 but died childless in 1935. The Dysart title passed on to his niece Wynefrede (1889-1973) whilst Ham House was passed on to his second cousin Sir Lyonel.

We left Ham House, thoroughly intrigued, and satisfied by what we had seen and hope to return a few more times. From now on, when the name ‘Lauderdale, springs to mind, I will not automatically think of my old ‘stomping ground’, Highgate, but also Ham will spring to mind. There is a local north London newspaper “The Ham and High” that covers what happens in Hampstead and neighbouring Highgate. Now. that paper’s name has assumed a new meaning for me having learned of Lauderdale’s connection with both Ham and HIGHgate.

The story of a bookshop

THE BIOGRAPHY OF STANLEY Spencer, which I ordered online, was too large to fit through the letter flap on our front door. So, as is usual in such situations, the postman left a red and white postcard informing me that I could collect my oversized parcel from the local post office. Until October 2019, undelivered packages could be collected from a busy post office in Queensway. Since then, and throughout the 2020 ‘lockdown’, post can be collected from a new and much improved centre on nearby Westbourne Grove.

Much of the architecture on the stretch of Westbourne Grove between Chepstow Road and Queensway is unremarkable. An exception is number 26, which houses the Al Saqi bookstore. This elegant establishment specialises in selling (and publishing) books about the Middle East and North Africa. In 1978, two friends, André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub, left war-torn Lebanon to settle in London. They founded the Al Saqi book shop because:

“They yearned to recreate something of the heady intellectual freedom of pre-war Beirut, and to supply a then-untapped market for English and Arabic books on the Middle East and North Africa.” (https://saqibooks.com/about/history/).

They began publishing as ‘Al Saqi’ in 1983 and have been selling books, including some banned in certain countries, for well over thirty years.

Interesting as the bookshop might well be, its premises catch the eye and intrigue the passer-by. As the “Arab Weekly” wrote in December 2015 (https://thearabweekly.com/al-saqi-not-your-average-london-bookstore), the shop is;

“Not your average London Bookstore … London – Al-Saqi bookshop is housed in a conspicuous building in London’s Bayswater district. With colonnades and arches topped by 11 staring busts, its architecture recalls ruins that are found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.”

It was the shop’s exuberant and unusual façade that has often caught my attention.

It was not Al Saqi who designed the façade of the building housing it. After he had spoken with a customer in Arabic, I asked a learned looking man, who was working in the shop, about the history of the building in which it is housed. He had no idea.

The architectural historian and his co-author Bridget Cherry mention the building in “The Buildings of England, London 3: North West”. They wrote that the highlights of Westbourne Grove include:

“… No. 26 built as an ‘Athenaeum’, 1861, by A Billing, stuccoed with columns and a good deal of sculpture (musical angels, busts of Milton, Shakespeare, etc.)”

A Billing was Arthur Billing (1824-1896), whose career included construction of, and restoration of, many churches in London and south-east England. Most dictionaries define an Athenaeum as an institution for the promotion of literary or scientific learning. a library or reading room.

Another source (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1066120) describes Saqi’s home as having once been a “… Theatre … built as a Shakespearean theatre”, but does not refer to it as an Athenaeum.  Just as I was beginning to despair of discovering whether number 26 was originally an Athenaeum or a theatre, or both, I stumbled across an informative website (https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/). It describes the building as having been originally named ‘Westbourne Hall’ and quotes an article published in an issue of “The Building News” dated 31st of May 1861.

From the article, we learn that the newly built Westbourne Hall was attached to the Bayswater Athenaeum, which was on nearby Havelock Terrace (which, strangely, does not appear on a detailed map published in the late 1860s). From the detailed description of the façade of Westbourne Hall, it is certain that the premises of the bookshop are in the former Westbourne Hall, not the Athenaeum. The gaslit auditorium, equipped with lights installed by Mr G Reed, “the eminent gasfitter of Westbourne Grove”, had raked seats with “carved ends”. There was a gallery above the entrance end of the hall. The hall was equipped with what was then a “new patented system” of heating and cooling designed to keep the audience comfortable. The article added:

“When the new reading rooms, refreshment and committee rooms, and other offices are completed, the business of the Athenaeum will be removed into them, and look out upon Westbourne-Grove.”

So, it appears that The Athenaeum moved into Westbourne Hall. The article also gives an idea of the place’s original intention. It was to provide a place where the “respectable population” of the area could hear worthy events such as Shakespeare being read by:

“… a silver voiced popular preacher …Lectures on the Holy Land, Revelations, and Negro Slavery, an evening with amatory Thomas Moore …”

Another issue of “The Building News” (see  https://archiseek.com/2013/vestbourne-athenom-westbourne-grove-b-wswater/) gives a very full description of the building’s remarkable exuberant façade.

The subsequent history of the Westbourne Hall is found on an informative website (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp221-226). Here, slightly edited by me, is what is written:

“Westbourne hall in Westbourne Grove could hold 400 people for lectures and entertainments in 1860, when its lessee opened adjoining premises in Havelock Terrace as Bayswater Athenaeum and Literary Institution.  An ornate four-storeyed building with a hall for 1,000, designed by A. Billing, was built on the site of the first hall in 1861 and licensed for music alone by T. E. Whibley in 1863.  The Athenaeum, although welcomed for its educational value, had become the Athenaeum divan by 1865 and may have closed soon afterwards.  Westbourne hall continued to be used for concerts, plays, and public meetings until 1875 or later …”

A playbill preserved in the National Archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/6497ee39-a6e5-4a92-9acc-551fda7680ed) gives a flavour of what was on offer at Westbourne Hall:

“Wednesday July 1st 1868.

‘Benefit and last appearance of Miss Lydia Howard, the Baby Actress, when she will sustain her characters of Katherine! in “The Taming of the Shrew”, Falstaff! in “King Henry the Fourth”, Prince Arthur! in “King John” and Matilda Mowbray! Hector Mowbray!! Foppington Mowbray!!! Cobbleton Mowbray!!!! in The Four Mowbrays’. Also appearing: Miss Hazelwood and Mr J S Fitzpatrick Paddington”

That must have been a memorable evening. According to Anne Varty in her book “Children and Theatre in Victorian Britain”, Lydia, who was not yet five years old, ‘retired’ from the stage in 1869. Child actors and actresses were popular in Victorian times. As for the other ‘stars’ of that evening in Westbourne Grove, I have not yet found anything about them. “The Four Mowbrays” was a one-act farce by John Poole (c 1786-1872), first performed in the late 1820s.

So, there you have it more or less: the story behind the building where books on Middle Eastern and North African subjects are on sale. It is appropriate that this former Athenaeum/ theatre is still being used for cultural purposes. I am curious to know whether there is anything remaining of the Westbourne Hall’s former auditorium. Part of the building is now used by the HBA (Hirsch Bedner Associates) Gallery. A photograph of this organization’s premises looks like the space being used might well have been part of the auditorium (see https://foursquare.com/v/hba-the-gallery/5151a5e1e4b0cbcf6b5f4568). So, all is not lost.