A new arrival above the theatre

I HAVE NEVER SMOKED. Therefore, when smoking was banned in cinemas, I was not upset by this ruling. The Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate was one of the last cinemas in London to enforce the ban. Smokers sat upstairs in the circle and non-smokers sat downstairs in the stalls. Despite the smoking, it was a delight seeing films at the Coronet because the cinema was housed in what was once a theatre that first opened in 1898. The original interior décor, though in need of some restoration had been preserved.

The theatre was designed by the theatre architect William George Robert Sprague (1863 – 1933), who also designed the Novello and Aldwych theatres in London. Audiences at the Coronet were able to see famous actors such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt on its stage. From 1923, the Coronet became used as a cinema, the screen being positioned in the theatre’s proscenium arch. In 2004, the Coronet was bought by Kensington Temple, who used it for prayer meetings. When not being used for religious purposes, films were screened there for public audiences as before.

In 2014, a fringe theatre group, The Print Room, which left its original premises in nearby Hereford Road, acquired the Coronet and began using it as a theatre once more. A new stage was constructed. It covers the area of the theatre where the stalls seats used to be. The audience sits in the steeply raked seats of the former circle seating area. Where the stalls used to be, has been converted to a quirkily decorated bar area. Because the bar is just beneath the stage, the bar is closed during performances to prevent noise from it being heard in the auditorium during a show. All of this has been done without changing what has been left of the place’s old internal décor.

The Coronet occupies a corner plot. Its exterior has neo-classical decorative features with pilasters, pediments etc. There is a dome high above the main entrance, which is located at the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Hillgate Street. For as long as I can remember (about 30 years), the lead-covered dome was unadorned.

The covid19 pandemic began closing London in about March 2020. The Print Room, like all other theatres in the country, closed. As it is close to shops that we use, we passed it regularly. During the summer, the theatre was covered with scaffolding whilst builders redecorated its exterior. By the end of summer, the scaffolding was removed.

Several weeks later, I could not believe my eyes. A statue had been placed on the top of the dome. The figure on the dome appears to be bound by ropes or cables and his or her face is covered by the sort of mask one might wear if one was a beekeeper. The figure is holding what looks like a large open book or an artist’s palette in its left hand, whilst pointing a pen or artist’s paintbrush into the distance with the right hand. Close examination of the sculpture reveals that at present the ropes are holding down a protective covering. I look forward to seeing what is being concealed.

I was curious about the sudden appearance of a statue on the dome. It turns out that when the Coronet was built, the dome did bear a statue (www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm). When it was taken down, I cannot discover, but it was more than 30 years ago. Planning to replace it began in September 2018 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Revision%20Content-2133806.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=2133806&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1). The planning document submitted by the Studio Indigo architectural practice reveals:

“Historical images and photos of the Coronet show that there was at some point a statue on top of the dome roof. The statue appeared to be of a life size human figure, the details of which were difficult to precise.

The proposals include for a life size bronze sculpture of the artist Gavin Turk as the famous English portrait artist [posing as] Sir Joshua Reynolds. The statue is based on the Alfred Drury sculpture which stands in the Anneberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy, and is a design by contemporary artist Gavin Turk. The new statue celebrates the notional idea of a theatrical/cultural building which had a figure calling the people into the venue.”

Looking at old pictures of the Coronet, it seems that the new sculpture will not resemble the original. If the sculpture that now perches on the dome is by Gavin Turk, a leading British sculptor, it will be in good company. Not far away, there is an abstract sculpture by Antony Gormley on the roof of Holland Park school.  

Noticing that a statue had arrived on the dome of the Coronet hit me dramatically. I was very pleased to see it as it will enhance a theatre which is already remarkable for the high quality of its productions. Furthermore, it is heartening that the only remaining elegant edifice on Notting Hill Gate’s main thoroughfare, mostly ruined architecturally in the 1960s and 1970s, is being well-maintained and tastefully improved.

Where seven streets meet

SEVEN ROADS MEET at a point in London called Seven Dials. A column with seven sundials attached to it stands in the middle of the circle where they meet. Long ago, on the 5th of October 1694, the writer and diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) noted that he went:

“…to see the building beginning near St. Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area; said to be built by Mr. Neale, introducer of the late lotteries, in imitation of those at Venice, now set up here, for himself twice, and now one for the State.”

The pillar with sundials facing in seven directions was erected in 1694 by Edward Pierce (1630-1695) and Thomas Neale (1641-1699). Pierce was a sculptor, architect, and stonemason. Neale was a Member of Parliament for 30 years; Master of the Mint; gambler; and entrepreneur. His achievements included:

“…development of Seven Dials, Shadwell (including brewing and Navy victualling), East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England. The extent of his interests – as a prominent Hampshire figure, as a member of the Royal Household, as a long-standing MP serving on dozens of Committees and as the promoter of an extraordinary plethora of projects” (www.sevendials.com/history/thomas-neale-1641-1699).

In July 1773, the column bearing the seven dials was removed because it was believed that there was a substantial amount of money hidden beneath it, so wrote Peter Cunningham in his Handbook of London (1850). None was found. Another theory suggests that the pillar was removed:

“… to rid the area of the undesirables who congregated around it. The remains of the column were later moved to the garden of the architect James Paine (Junior) at Sayes Court, Addlestone, but not re-erected.” (www.sevendials.com/resources/Seven_Dials_History_of_the_Area_by_Dr_John_Martin_Robinson.pdf)

It was not until 1989 that the demolished column was replaced. It was reconstructed according to Pierce’s original design that is lodged in the British Library. The new column was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on the 29th of June 1989.

The entrepreneur Thomas Neale would have approved of a venture that commenced in his Seven Dials district in 1976. That year, Nicholas Saunders (1938-1998) opened his Whole Food Warehouse in a disused warehouse in Neal’s Yard (formerly ‘Kings Head Court’), named in memory of Thomas Neale. In Saunder’s words:

“I decided to start a wholefood shop which I would like myself – one that was cheap, efficient and would not make customers feel bad because they could not recognise a mung bean. At that time wholefood shops were mostly of the hippy style – folksy looking with open sacks and used paper bags; nice meeting places for the in-groups but hopelessly inefficient, expensive and tending to make ordinary people feel like intruders.” (https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/).

His venture proved successful. Various other businesses including Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, Casanova & daughters, and Wild Food Café, opened nearby. Saunders wrote:

“The Yard has developed into a social scene. Even though the businesses are each independent, everyone who works in them, and many of the regular customers, identify with the place. In fact most of the workers are customers who had asked for a job. My old idea of a village community has manifested in the form of a community of small businesses, each one individual and free to go its own way. It is rather like a family, with me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.”

Although we made our last visit to Neal’s Yard in the middle of the covid19 pandemic, when the place was empty and closed, it is safe to say that the Yard continues to be a vibrant ‘social scene’ and its shops are still thriving despite the fact that shops supplying ‘whole foods’ have multiplied considerably since Neal’s Yard was established. Saunders is commemorated in the Yard by a wall mounted plaque.

Apart from selling food and remedies, Neal’s Yard was home to the film studio run by Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam between 1976 and 1987. It was here that they edited the Monty Python series of films.

One of the entrances to Neals Yard is an alleyway leading from Monmouth Street (formerly ‘Great St Andrew Street’), one of the seven streets leading to the Seven Dials. The street is home to one of London’s older still existing French restaurants, Mon Plaisir, which is close to Neals Yard and was founded long before Saunders established his venture. The brothers David and Jean Viala started the eatery in the 1940s.

My parents moved from South Africa and settled in London in the late 1940s, by which time Mon Plaisir was serving customers. I do not know when my parents first ate there, but during my childhood I remember it as being one of their favourite places at which to to eat out. Until 1972, when new management took over the restaurant, Mon Plaisir occupied one shopfront. Its characteristic quirky décor rich in everyday French posters and other ephemera remains substantially unchanged since the 1940s. As a child during the 1960s, I was taken there infrequently. I remember liking it. One thing that I recall was that the toilets were approached through a doorway at the end of the restaurant furthest away from the street. An artist’s palette was nailed above the doorway. It bore the words “Le Pipi Room”. On a visit made this century to the enlarged restaurant, I noted that the sign had disappeared. When life returns to ‘normal’ again, another meal at Mon Plaisir is on our ‘to do’ menu.

During my childhood, the Seven Dials did not make any impression on me. I knew about Mon Plaisir, but never ventured south the few yards to the Dials. With the opening of the Donmar Theatre on Earlham Street, another of the roads leading to the Dials, in 1977, which we have visited often, the Seven Dials entered my London radar.

Before ending this somewhat rambling piece, here is a true story about the theatre. Soon after it opened, an American friend, a keen theatregoer who was midway in age between my parents and me, invited me to join her at a performance at the Donmar. It was a play with a Chinese theme. We were seated in the front row, literally on the stage. My friend who had long legs, stretched them out onto the stage and the actors had to take care not to trip over them. Halfway through one of the acts, my friend began fumbling in her large bag and withdrew a thermos flask. She removed the lid, which served as a cup, and gave it to me to hold. Then, she filled the cup with hot soup, which she proceeded to drink whilst the drama unfolded in front of us. I often wonder what the actors, who were so near us, thought when they saw a member of the audience enjoying her picnic in front of them.

The Seven Dials and the streets radiating from the column are full of fascinating buildings, some old and others new and there are plenty of shops to explore apart from those pioneering wholefood shops in Neals Yard. If you can manage to get a ticket to the Donmar, and this is quite hard if you are not on their advance booking scheme, then it is often worth watching a performance there.

How well do you know Leicester Square

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.

A tunnel, a bridge, and a round building

IF THE RAILWAY authorities did not prevent people from wandering along the track as many people do in India (for example), taking a photograph of an amazing construction at the base of London’s Primrose Hill would be simple. But, wisely, they do not encourage people to risk their lives on tracks that carry high speed trains from London’s Euston station to places north of it. The remarkable edifice to which I am referring is the eastern entrance to the Primrose Hill Tunnels that originally carried lines of the London and Birmingham Railway (‘L&BR’) underground between Primrose Hill Road in the east and Finchley Road in the west. Short of trespassing on the tracks, the best place to see the entrance is through the railings on the north side of King Henrys Road a few feet east of Primrose Hill Road.

The Roundhouse

The Primrose Hill tunnels were the first railway tunnels dug in London and some of the first in the United Kingdom (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1329904). The tunnels had to be built strong enough to withstand the weight of houses that were to be built above them. The land beneath which the trains pass is part of the Eton Estate (owned by Eton College). When the railway was being laid in the early 19th century, the Estate raised objections initially, worrying that running a railway through a deep cutting would reduce the saleability of the land, the Chalcot Estate owned by Eton, through which it ran. However:

“The L&BR bought off any possible College obstruction by agreeing to put the line in a tunnel through the Chalcots Estate. From an engineering viewpoint this was unnecessary as the rails were never more than 50 ft below the ground surface, and side slopes of 1 on 2 were specified initially. A tunnel had the merit of using no land, the surface being preserved for building …” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

Digging the tunnels was not without danger. Workmen got killed. When this happened, their bodies were taken at first to be laid out in a local hostelry, The Chalk Farm Tavern. This place in Regents Park Road was rebuilt in 1853-54 and its new building is now home to Lemonia, a popular Greek restaurant. So, next time you are enjoying a plate of tzatziki or a souvlaki, just remember that years ago there was a mortuary for railway navvies near your table.

Today, there are two tunnels commencing at Primrose Hill Road. The northern one, nearest Adelaide Road, was the first to be built, in 1837. The southern one, nearest King Henrys Road, was built about 40 years later. Part of Eton College Estate’s requirements of the L&BR was:

“… the mouth of the Tunnel at the eastern end shall be made good and finished with a substantial and ornamental facing of brickwork or masonry to the satisfaction of the Provost and College…” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).

The portals at this end of the tunnel, which can just about be seen from King Henrys Road, are grand and impressive examples of neo-classical Italianate masonry. The northern portal, the first to be constructed, was designed by William H Budden, who was appointed as an office assistant to the L&BR in May 1834 (https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16826/1/Railway%20tunnels%20recovered%203.pdf). The newer southern portal is a replica of the earlier one.

The graffiti-covered iron railway bridge that is 530 yards east of the tunnel, quite close to the house on King Henrys Road once occupied by the Indian politician and lawyer Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), is easy to see, but far less attractive than the tunnels’ magnificent portals. Now a pedestrian and cycle bridge, it carries the northern section of Regents Park Road across the tracks. The present bridge, made of iron, was constructed in 1846 to replace an earlier one built in brick in 1839 (http://primrosehillhistory.org/?p=388). Until 1992, passengers could board and disembark from trains at a station at the northern end of the bridge. Opened in 1859, this station was named ‘Hampstead Road’, then ‘Chalk Farm’, and finally ‘Primrose Hill’.

Whereas the Primrose Hill Tunnel portals can only be glimpsed with great difficulty, the largely brick-built Roundhouse, a few yards south of Chalk Farm Underground Station, is impossible to miss. Located close to the railway tracks a few yards east of the Regents Park Road footbridge, this circular building was built as a railway locomotive shed in 1846-47. It was designed by Robert Benson Dockray (1811-1871), who had been an Assistant Engineer during the construction of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1835 (https://www.locallocalhistory.co.uk/ctown/p001/pages39-42.htm).  The building was made circular because in its centre there was a turntable for moving the locomotives that were stored on tracks radiating out from it.

In 1967, the then disused Roundhouse was converted into a huge theatre. From the 1970s onwards, I used to attend occasional performances there. Amongst these, I particularly recall a somewhat raunchy show put on by the Grande Magic Circus, a French company, and many years later, an incomprehensible performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream”, which was performed in a variety of Indian languages by a troupe of acrobatic gymnasts. In recent years, a sculpture by Antony Gormley has been placed on the roof of a modern annex of the Roundhouse.

Private functions are also held in the Roundhouse. On one occasion, we were invited to a bat-mitzvah held there. Drinks and canapés were served in the circular upper floor gallery that runs around the circular auditorium. I was extremely surprised when one of the other guests came up to me and after looking me up and down, said:

“You must be in the fashion business.”

For a moment I was flattered, then I wondered whether he had had one too many or was visually impaired.

In the shadow of the Hilton Hotel

BBC RADIO ONE began broadcasting on the 30th of September 1967. Before then, if you wanted to listen to popular music on the radio in the UK, you would have to tune your radio to pick up Radio Luxembourg, whose broadcasts from Luxembourg came over the airwaves loud and clear. Some of its presenters, for example Dave Cash, Noel Edmonds, and Kenny Everett, later hosted programmes on the new radio stations that began to broadcast after Radio One and various new commercial stations began transmitting. Unlike the BBC, Radio Luxembourg was commercial and broadcast advertisements relevant to British listeners. Several programmes were sponsored by two football pools companies, Littlewoods and Vernons. The station continued transmitting for UK audiences until December 1992.

I had not thought about Radio Luxembourg much until mid-September 2020 when we were walking along Hertford Street in a part of London’s Mayfair under the shadow of the tall Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. This short street runs east from Park Lane (just next to the Hilton) for about 630 feet and then makes a right angle turn and heads north through Shepherd Market and ends up at Curzon Street, which I have written about elsewhere (https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/20/). Next to the front door of number 38 Hertford Street, a tall narrow house built in the 18th century (or not much later), a commemorative plaque informs:

“This was the HQ of Radio Luxembourg, Broadcasting from the Grand Duchy 1933-1991”

This building was not only the headquarters of the extra-territorial radio station but also contained recording studios where seemingly ‘live’ programmes could be recorded for broadcasting later from Luxembourg. Listeners were not informed where programmes had been recorded and were left with the impression that everything was being produced in the Grand Duchy.

Number 10 Hertford Street is just across the road from the former Radio Luxembourg HQ. This elegant terraced building, whose front entrance is flanked by two metal lampstands complete with inverted cones for extinguishing flaming torches, was home to two famous people, as recorded by plaques affixed to the house.  One of its former occupants was General John Burgoyne (1722-1792), who lived and died here and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), who lived here from 1795-1802. Prior to these celebrated occupants, the house was occupied by John Montagu, 4th  Earl of Sandwich (1718-1792), who was famous for his musical parties (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol4/pp345-359) and for giving his name to a popular food item.

General Burgoyne was, according to Wikipedia:

“… a British army officer, dramatist and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1761 to 1792.”

His military achievements during the American War of Independence were dismal. His attempt to disrupt the American forces came to nought and ended with him surrendering his army of over 6000 men in October 1777 at Saratoga. His dramatic works were popular and included “The Maid of the Oaks” (1774) and “The Heiress” (1786). He assisted in the writing and production of “The Camp: A musical Entertainment” (1778), principally written by another occupant of Number 10 Hertford Street, Richard Sheridan. The General also worked on the libretti of several operas. Had he stuck to the stage, and kept away from the battlefield, Burgoyne might have been remembered as a dramatist rather than a failed military man. Politically, he began by supporting the Tories, but later switched to the Whigs. Near the end of his political career, he was involved in Parliament’s attempted impeachment of Warren Hastings at the end of the 18th century. Hastings, the first Governor General of Bengal had been accused of misconduct in Calcutta but was eventually acquitted.

Another occupant of number 10 was also involved in the theatre but to a greater extent than Burgoyne. Richard Sheridan, born in Dublin, was a playwright and poet as well as being the owner of the London Theatre Royal in Drury Lane.  He is best known for his still popular plays “School for Scandal” (1777) and “The Rivals” (1775).What I did not know until I began writing this was that Sheridan had been a Member of Parliament (a Whig supporter). In 1777 during a Parliamentary session, he had demanded the impeachment of Warren Hastings. His speech on the subject made on the 7th of February 1787 lasted five and three-quarters hours. His oration:

“… commanded the most profound attention and admiration of the House. His matchless oration united the most solid argument with the most persuasive eloquence. His sound reasoning giving additional  energy to truth, and his logical perspicuity, and unerring judgment, throwing a light upon, and pervading the obscurity, of the most involved and complicated subject.” (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/ecco/004858403.0001.000/1:3?rgn=div1;view=fulltext).

Clearly, Sheridan was eloquent both in life and creatively on the stage.

This home of playwrights was built between 1768 and 1770 by the builder Henry Holland the elder (1745-1806). On arrival at this address in 1769, Burgoyne commissioned his friend, the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792), to design and execute some of the interior decoration (http://collections.soane.org/SCHEME1106).  After the General’s death in 1792, Sheridan purchased it.

Moving on, we enter the short Down Street that leads south from Hertford Street to Piccadilly. Although the street slopes downwards to Piccadilly, I am not sure that this is the reason for its name. “The London Encyclopaedia” (edited by B Weinreb and C Hibbert) noted that it was was laid out in the 1720s by the bricklayer John Downes, who was involved in much building work in Westminster (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp77-83). Maybe, that is the origin of its name.

Two buildings caught my attention on Down Street. Nearer Hertford Street, on the corner of Brick and Down Streets, stands a Victorian gothic church, Christ Church Mayfair. Constructed in 1865, this protestant church was designed by F & H Francis (they were brothers) and enlarged in 1868. After a fire in 1906, it was rebuilt considerably. It was closed when we passed it, but I have read that it contains some art nouveau features.

South of the church on the west side of Down Street, there is a terracotta coloured tiled façade that looks like a typical Underground station, which is what it was between 1907 and 1932, when it was closed. This now disused station was ‘Down Street’ station on the Piccadilly Line. It lies between Hyde Park Corner and Green Park Stations, no more than about 500 yards from each of them. It was closed because it was never busy enough to keep open. Most of the inhabitants around it were and still are wealthy enough not to need or use public transport. During WW2, it was used as a bunker by Winston Churchill and his staff before the Cabinet War Rooms were ready for use.

By retracing our steps, we can return to Shepherds Market for refreshment, be it a drink or something more substantial. After passing the former Radio Luxembourg HQ and entering the section of Hertford Street that runs towards Curzon Street, you will come face to face with a pub (currently closed) called ‘Shepherds Tavern’. This hostelry was first built in 1735 as part of the development of the area by the developer and architect Edward Shepherd (died 1747). Its customers are said to have included the actress Elizabeth Taylor and Antony Armstrong Jones, who was once married to Princess Margaret.  The actress Wendy Richard (1943-2009) lived in the pub from 1948 to 1953, when her parents were its publicans.

As you enjoy a pint of beer or a glass of sherry or maybe a cortado or a ‘latte’ in Shepherds Market, you can marvel at how much history is packed into two short streets overshadowed by the 331 foot high, 28 storey Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, which first opened in 1963. And fully refreshed, you can resume exploring Mayfair sure in the knowledge that you will be treading in the steps of many now famous people who have haunted the area since it was laid out in the early 18th century.

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.

Maxim and Ivy: to Russia with love

MEIR HENOCH WALLACH-FINKELSTEIN (1876-1951) is better known as Maxim Maximovich Litvinov. A Bolshevik revolutionary, he became an important Soviet diplomat. In 1930, Stalin appointed him People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Earlier on, shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Maxim was sent to London as the Soviet government’s plenipotentiary representative in Great Britain. While in London, he met and married the writer Ivy (née Low; 1889-1977). I have recently discovered that their lives partially overlapped with mine, not temporally but geographically.

BLOG IVY 5

Ivy was living in London’s Hampstead when she and Maxim were courting. They had met in about 1918 at the home of Dr David Eder (1865-1936), a Zionist socialist and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Britain. David, whom Ivy regarded as a father figure, and his family lived in Golders Green (actually, in Hampstead Garden Suburb at 103 Hampstead Way, not far from our family home).  According to Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (in his book “The Exile: Ivy Litvinov”):

“Over tea in the Express Dairy in Heath Street where they often met, Ivy helped Maxim to improve his English – throughout her life she adored improving people’s English – and she did more: she guided him in reading English literature.”

Today, the building that used to house the Express Dairy in Heath Street is a branch of the Tesco supermarket empire. However, the building still bears the name ‘Express Dairy’ and the date 1889, the year that Ivy was born.

Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (1918-1997) was the son of one of Ivy’s closest friends, the writer and journalist Catherine Carswell (1879-1946). Ivy met Catherine, a close friend of the writer DH Lawrence who lived in Hampstead, after she had written a favourable review of Ivy’s novel “Growing Pains”, which was published in 1913. Catherine lived in Hampstead at Holly Mount. To be close to her friend, Ivy moved to Hampstead. John, who was born at Hollybush House in Holly Hill, met Ivy several times and has written a good account of her life. It reads well and is extremely informative not only about Ivy but also about her husband.

Ivy and Maxim moved to Russia with their two young children in about 1920 and lived there, with small occasional breaks, until the late 1950s. One of these breaks was when Maxim was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA between 1941 and 1943. Her stay in the USSR was also punctuated by short holidays abroad. Living in the USSR, Ivy continued her writing as well as teaching English. Long before he died, Maxim fell out of favour with Stalin and lived in fear of arrest and probable execution. However, he died of natural causes in 1951, just in time to miss Stalin’s last great, but unfulfilled, plan, the anti-Semitic ‘Doctors’ Plot’. On his deathbed, he said to Ivy:

“Englishwoman, go home”.

It was not until 1960 that Ivy did return to England.  But, in 1961, she returned to the USSR, where she remained a pensioned widow until July 1972, when she returned to the UK. She settled in Hove, where she lived the rest of her life. Until her dying day, Ivy wrote, published, and was actively involved with the literary world.

Long before her last visit to England, Ivy had made brief visits. In July 1930, Maxim was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Soon after his promotion Ivy accompanied him to Geneva. That same winter, the Litvinovs paid a visit to London. John Carswell, then twelve years old, recalled:

“She took me to a Christmas show of which even the name now escapes me; but what is still vivid is the tall, dominating, fur-coated figure sweeping me across the wintry promenade outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, to a torrent of commentary.”

Reading about Carswell’s memory of Ivy taking him to a Christmas show at the Hippodrome reminded me of seeing pantomimes at this same theatre when I was about John’s age or maybe a year or two less. until the mid-1960s, the Hippodrome (built as a 3000-seat music hall in 1913) was a very active repertory theatre, where many plays that would eventually end up in the West End were premiered. In addition to plays, operas and Christmas pantomimes were staged there. In the 1960s, it became a BBC television studio, and lately it has become a venue for Islamic meetings. Like Carswell, I cannot remember what shows I saw there as a child, but I do remember being impressed by the size and fittings (seats arranged in galleries, boxes, and the vast stage) of the Hippodrome. It was as least as impressive as the grandest of West End theatres.

I enjoyed reading Carswell’s biography not only because it provided some insight into what life was like in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule but also because it introduced me to the life of an intriguing woman writer whose love for Maxim led her to spend a large part of her life in the USSR. Another thing that appealed to me is that Carswell provided me with new aspects of the history of Hampstead, a part of London which I know well and where I grew up. It is with some reluctance that I will return this enjoyable biography to our local public library.

 

 

 

 

Shakespeare in the forest

BIG WOOD SEEMED large to me when I was a child. Although it does not live up to its name, it feels like a big wood once you enter it. Located in the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb (‘HGS’), this woodland and the much smaller nearby Little Wood are quite ancient. They were part of a forest that was at least 1000 years old, part of land given to Wealdhere, who became Bishop of London late in the 7th century. The woods and surrounding land remained church possessions until 1911, when they were leased to the HGS Trust by the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. According to the londongardenstrust.org website:
“When Hampstead Garden Suburb was being planned in 1907, its instigator, Dame Henrietta Barnett, was committed to providing green spaces within the housing, planting trees and preserving those that existed. When additional land was acquired to extend the Suburb in 1911, Big Wood was leased from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and preserved as woodland. In 1933 Finchley UDC took on the freehold.”

BIG 12

Stage and auditorium of Little Wood Theatre

There is a report that circus elephants used to be kept in a field that existed between Big and Little Woods before the construction of houses in this location (now Denman Drive North and South). Colin Gregory wrote (www.hgs.org.uk):

“Before leaving this story, we should pay our respects to one of the last occupiers of Park Farm: the circus proprietor Lord’ George Sanger … His descendants continued the circus in operation until the 1960s. It is said that when he owned Park Farm he allowed the circus animals to winter on his land. An elderly resident of Denman Drive – constructed in 1908 on what was once Westminster Abbey’s land – used to recall ‘elephants grazing’ in the field between Big Wood and Little Wood, before Denman Drive North and Denman Drive South – constructed in 1912 on what was once the Bishop’s land – were completed.”

We re-visited the woods recently on a hot sunny afternoon. We entered Big Wood from the end of Temple Fortune Hill. At this entrance to the tiny forest there is a wooden gate that was put up to commemorate the 29 residents of HGS who died during WW2.  I do not remember seeing this gate when I was a child in the 1960s. Often in those days, my friends and I used to play in the woods, which I recall as being dark and dingy.

Lopa and I walked leisurely from one end of Big Wood to the other along good paths in about five minutes. This made the wood seem far smaller than its name suggests. However, when we wandered off the main tarred paths onto the numerous dirt tracks, made uneven by semi-exposed roots, threading their way amongst the trees, tree stumps, broken branches, and clumps of stinging nettles, the wood seemed dense and dank despite the fine blue sky above the tree tops. Calls of hidden birds punctuated the silence.  On these small paths, we lost all sense of direction and managed to get lost within the tiny area of woodland.

We had asked some locals how we could reach Little Wood from Big Wood and they had told us to follow a certain path, which they pointed out. We set off along it, but it kept bifurcating every few yards and we were clueless as to which of the two branching paths was the one to follow to arrive at Little Wood. Eventually after going around in circles, we gave up and left Big Wood via Oakwood Road, which is appropriately named as many of the trees in the two woods are oaks. We entered Little Wood from Denman Drive North, the continuation of Denman Drive South. These differently named sections of the same stretch of road link the two woods and must pass close to the field where circus elephants once grazed.

Little Wood, whose history is the same as that of Big Wood, contains one of London’s lesser-known performance spaces, a small open-air theatre.  This was created in 1920 by the Play and Pageant Union, one of two drama groups that later merged to form the Garden Suburb Theatre. It was restored in 1997, and now looks like it would benefit from some more restoration. The stage is a clearing in the woods surrounded by trees and bushes. The audience sits on a circular stepped auditorium consisting of three layers of paving stones set in a curve around the stage.

The theatre in Little Wood occupies an important place in my memories of childhood. It was here when I was about ten years old, back in the early 1960s, that I first saw a performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. It must have been on a summer evening when I watched this with a sense of wonder that still lives with me. Apart from the odd logs, there were no other props. The actors and actresses appeared on, and disappeared from, the simple stage almost magically, popping through gaps between the trees and bushes surrounding the theatre.

I cannot begin to imagine what The Bard was thinking when he created The Dream, but I feel sure that he would have approved of its being acted out in on the sylvan stage in Little Wood. Furthermore, I think that he would have appreciated a play that contains six amateur actors in its plot being performed by a troupe of amateur actors such as we were watching that far-off evening. Since watching that play in Little Wood so many years ago, I have seen several other performances of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and only one has given me as much pleasure as that. It was a recent staging of the play directed by Nicholas Hytner at the relatively new Bridge Theatre near London’s Tower Bridge. In that recent show, as the theatre’s publicity said:

“The theatre becomes the forest – a dream world of flying fairies, contagious fogs and moonlight revels.”

And, the result at the Bridge was more than wonderful, although seeing the play in a real forest (Little Wood, in my case) is hard to beat.

Returning to the little theatre in Little Wood the other day, though it was out of use during the Covid-19 pandemic, it kindled many happy memories. Although I had not visited that theatre for many decades, it looked just as I remembered it.

Death of a theatre

ON SATURDAY THE 17th MAY 2020, an act of cultural barbarism was performed in Tirana, the capital of Albania. The National Theatre of Albania in the heart of the city was demolished. It is unclear who ordered this demolition of a much-loved cultural monument located in a part of the city where property prices are high. The theatre was built in 1939 during the period that the Italians, under Mussolini, were ruling Albania. It was originally a cinema designed by the architect Giulio Berte, but later its screen was replaced by a stage.

TIR 4 BLOG

In 2016, my wife and I visited Tirana and attended a dramatic performance at the National Theatre. I have described this in my book “Rediscovering Albania”:

“…we visited the National Theatre, a building that dates back to before Communist times. A Pirandello play (Play without a Script) was to be performed in Albanian that evening. The charming ladies clustered around the ticket desk assured us that we would enjoy it because it was going to be full of song and dance. We bought a couple of tickets … The rectangular auditorium of the National Theatre was delightfully old-fashioned, with many drapes and an upper gallery that extended around three sides of it. Everything was red including the plush upholstery of the comfortable seats. Although we did not understand a word of it, the Pirandello play was acted beautifully. The expressive acting was so good that we were able to get a rough idea of what was going on. Some years earlier in London, Lopa and I once attended a performance of Gogol’s Government Inspector acted by a Hungarian troupe entirely in Hungarian, and on another occasion a play from Kosovo in Albanian, during the course of which one of the actors threw a fake chicken at me! On both of those occasions and also in Tirana, great acting compensated for our inability to understand the words. If the actions of actors move me more than their words, I feel this is a sign of truly skilful acting. As the great Constantin Stanislavski said: “The language of the body is the key that can unlock the soul”. This is exactly what the actors in Tirana achieved. The audience was appreciative, and, unlike at the opera, hardly anyone used their mobile ‘phones during the show.”

That has now disappeared. So, has also the unusually attractive appearance of Tirana as it was when I first visited it in 1984 during the dictatorship of the faithful follower of Joseph Stalin, Enver Hoxha. In those repressive times, Tirana was a quiet city with only one high-rise building, the 12-storey Hotel Tirana. Of course, back in 1984, times were tough for the average Albanian citizen. They remained quite difficult during the decade following the ending of Communist rule in 1991. Even now, many Albanians prefer to increase their prosperity by seeking work abroad.

When we visited Tirana in 2016, I found it to be a far busier place than it was in 1984. The traffic was busy – a sign that motoring, an option not available to most Albanians during the dictatorship, had become popular and also affordable. Some of the charm of pre-1991 Tirana remained, but many picturesque old buildings, examples of traditional Turkish and Balkan vernacular architecture, had disappeared (or were about to). In their place, there were many high-rise buildings of little or no architectural merit. I suspect that whoever ordered the demolition of Tirana’s historic, much-loved National Theatre has in mind to construct yet another aesthetically unpleasing edifice.

If as Shakespeare said, “All the world is a stage”, then the demolition of this theatre in Tirana is yet another tragedy enacted on that stage.

Seven streams

Seven

At first, I was daunted at the prospect of watching a seven hour drama at London’s National Theatre. Then, remembering that I had endured an eleven hour bus journey in Gujarat and several long intercontinental flights, I decided that sitting comfortably at the theatre for seven hours including intervals would not be too bad, and I was right.

The play we watched, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, by Canadian playwright Robert Lepage (born 1957 in Quebec,), is divided into seven acts or installments. I found five of those installments to be highly enjoyable. The other two were less good in my humble opinion.

The River Ota runs through the Japanese city of Hiroshima, unfortunately famous for being the first civilian target of an atomic bomb in 1945. One of the main characters in the play by Lepage is a woman who was blinded, as a small child, by the atomic bomb blast’s flash. Each of the seven acts of the drama is linked to her or to characters connected with her directly or indirectly. Therefore, although the play’s plot is quite complicated, there is an easily discernible thread that runs through it.

At times the drama is witty and humorous and at others tragic. However, throughout the performance, the subject matter is both sensitive and moving. The ingeniously crafted play touches on all kinds of important historical events that affected Japan and the Japanese between 1945 and the late 1990s when the play was written. It also makes reference to Theresienstadt, one of the Nazi concentration camps. At first, I was not sure of the relevance of this scene set in the camp, but afterwards it dawned on me. It was an important background to one of the characters, who plays a major role in the latter parts of the play.

Another of the play’s myriad of topics reflects the playwright’s origin, Quebec. There are some very entertaining scenes in which the characters speak in Canadian French (with its particular accent) such as would be heard in Quebec. At times, Lepage makes use of the play to poke fun at cultural rivalry between the Canadian French and the French in France. He also makes reference to Canada’s objection to French nuclear tests that were being carried out in the Pacific between 1966 and 1996. And, nuclear tests relate directly to the main theme of the play, the atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima.

Without going into detail about the very complicated plot, let me say that this play was highly fascinating, well acted by members of Lepage’s theatre ensemble Ex Machina, and the sets were superb. Sadly, this long play is only being given a short run at the National Theatre. Its final performance, viral microbes permitting, will be on the 22nd March 2020.

As for my initial fears about sitting for seven hours in the theatre, these were unrealised. The time shot past, so intriguing was the play. Lepage’s play was for me as exciting as at least two other epic length dramas I have enjoyed: “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, and “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard.