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.