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:

At Liberty in London

BEFORE WE MARRIED in 1993, many of our kind friends wanted to give us wedding presents. A large proportion of them wanted to choose gifts from a ‘wedding list’. For those who are unfamiliar with this kind of list, let me explain. A ‘wedding list’ is a list of items, usually available from a shop chosen by the bride and groom, from which those wishing to give wedding presents can choose. As the items are bought, the shop removes them from the list so that the likelihood of duplicate purchases is reduced.

We were a little reluctant at first, but people insisted that it would be helpful if we compiled a wedding list. We chose to have our list at a shop that we both enjoy visiting: Liberty on Great Marlborough Street, very close to Regent Street.

Above an entrance to Liberty shop

From the outside, Liberty looks like an extremely well-preserved example of Tudor architecture, too good to be true. It is not because it was completed in 1924.

Liberty was founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843-1917), son of a draper. In 1875, he opened his own shop on Regent Street. According to the Liberty website (www.libertylondon.com), he wanted:

“… a London emporium laden with luxuries and fabrics from distant lands, his dream was to metaphorically dock a ship in the city streets. To this day, a voyage of discovery awaits on the good ship Liberty, with history hidden amongst six floors of cutting-edge design, unexpected edits and beautiful wares from the world’s greatest craftspeople. In 1875, Arthur borrowed £2,000 from his future father-in-law and took a building on Regent Street, London with just three dedicated staff and plenty of ambition.”

By the time that Liberty opened his shop, the British public was fascinated by Japan and other parts of Asia. In 1885, he brought 42 villagers from India and set up a temporary ‘living village’ of artisans in the shop.

The website added:

“Liberty’s collection of ornaments, fabric and objets d’art from around the world proved irresistible to a society intoxicated at the time by Japan and the East and Liberty effected social change in interior design and dress, so much so that the Art Nouveau period in Italy is called ‘Liberty Style’.”

Liberty died before his new shop was completed. Designed by Edwin T Hall and his son Edwin S Hall, it was built in the Tudor Revival style that achieved great popularity in the 1920s.  Not only is the shop’s exterior in the Tudor Revival style, but also its interior. A great dela of wood was used in the construction as the shop’s website revealed:

“… the builders Messrs Higgs & Hill were given a lump sum of £198,000 to construct it, which they did from the timbers of two ancient ‘three-decker’ battle ships. Records show more than 24,000 cubic feet of ships timbers were used including their decks now being the shop flooring: The HMS Impregnable – built from 3040 100-year-old oaks from the New Forest – and the HMS Hindustan, which measured the length and height of our Liberty building.”

Even if you do not wish to purchase anything from our long out-of-date wedding list, a visit to Liberty is rewarding not only to see the wonderful range of beautiful products on sale but also to narvel at the building and its many finely crafted decorative features.

Art deco in Kensington

FROM THE LATE 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Kensington 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 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 conspired together to make High Street Kensington 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, both gone, has become slightly dreary.

Barkers building

Barker’s former shop, a lovely art deco edifice, which opened in 1933, was designed by Bernard George (1894-1964). Between 1928 and 1962, he was the chief architect for Barker’s of Kensington in-house design group.  It is worth examining this building closely to enjoy is many attractive details.