A walk in the West End

The largest gallery in the Wallace Collection

BRAVING THE INCLEMENT weather, we walked from Kensington to the Wallace Collection in London’s West End. After walking along the north side of Hyde Park, we crossed Bayswater Road (actually ‘Hyde Park Place’) and walked along the short Albion Street. The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), who was born in India (Calcutta) and the author of “Vanity Fair” lived at number 18. His home was close to the still extant Tyburn Convent (located near the famous spot where criminals were hanged). He wrote of the area where he lived (‘Tyburnia’):

“The elegant, the prosperous, the polite Tyburnia, the most respectable district of the habitable globe.” (www.stjohns-hydepark.com/moreaboutus/2016/4/21/history-of-st-johns)

From Albion Street, we turned right to walk east along Connaught Street, named after George III’s nephew and son-in-law Prince William Frederick, Earl of Connaught (d. 1834), and laid out in the King’s reign (1760-1820). Archery Close leads off the street to a cobbled mews. It is so named because it was next to the former cemetery (now a housing estate called ‘St George’s Fields’) of St George’s Church in Hannover Square, which used to be used as a practice ground for archers. A few yards east of the close, we reach Connaught Square.

The square, whose brick-built elegant terraced houses surround a private garden, began to be developed in 1821. Near to the north east corner of the square, number 14 was home to the Italian ballet dancer Marie Taglioni, Comtesse de Voisins (1804 –1884), who was born the daughter of an Italian choreographer, Filippo Taglioni and his Swedish wife the ballerina Sophie Karsten, in Stockholm. In England, Marie taught social dancing to society ladies and children. The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has also owned a house in this pleasant square.

Number 1 Connaught Street, which is on the corner of Edgware Road is now a branch of the Maroush Lebanese Restaurant chain. It is housed in an attractive building whose facades are topped with balustrades. On a map surveyed in the 1930s, which also shows St Georges Fields still as a disused cemetery, marks this building as a bank (Westminster Bank).  After traversing the busy Edgware Road, formerly the Roman Watling Street, the continuation of Connaught Street becomes Upper Berkeley Street, named after Henry William Berkeley (1709-1761), who was part of the Portman family who developed the area.

Number 33 Upper Berkeley Street has a distinctive neo-Byzantine frontage and looks like the entrance to a religious building. It is an entrance to the West London Synagogue whose main entrance is nearby on Seymour Street. This synagogue was established on its present site in 1870. Its congregation is allied to Reform Judaism. Its architects were Messrs Davis and Emmanuel (https://archiseek.com/2013/the-new-west-london-synagogue/). Rabbis, who have served at this synagogue have included a Holocaust survivor, Hugo Gryn, and Julia Neuburger.

Number 20 Upper Berkely Street was home to the first British woman to qualify as a medical practitioner, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917). She lived (and practised briefly) at number 20 from 1860 to 1874. She established her practice around the corner at 69 Seymour Place, which opened as the ‘St Mary’s Dispensary for Women and Children’. Nearby at number 24 (‘Henry’s Townhouse’), we reach the house where the banker and clergyman, Henry Thomas Austen (1771-1850), brother of the novelist Jane Austen, lived between 1800 and 1804 (http://jasna.org/persuasions/printed/number20/caplan.pdf).

After passing Great Cumberland Place and Wallenberg Place (created in the 1780s and badly damaged during WW2), an elegant crescent on the east side of the road, we pass Montagu Street that leads north to Montagu Square where my father’s colleague and co-author, the Hungarian born Peter Bauer (1915-2002), used to live.  Further east, Upper Berkeley reaches the northwest corner of Portman Square.

Opposite this corner is Home House, once the home of the Courtauld Institute (for history of art), now the home of a private club. It was built in 1773-76 for Elizabeth, Countess of Home (c1703-1784), a Jamaican born English slave-owner, and designed mainly by Robert Adam, who also created its beautifully decorated interiors and a fantastic helical staircase. A block of flats called ‘Fifteen’ with art deco front doors is next door to Home House and opposite an entrance to the square’s private gardens. This gate, normally locked, happened to be open. So, we snuck into the garden to take a brief look. As we emerged, and slammed shut the gate, a man emerging from Fifteen, noticed us and told us that it was good that we had closed the gate, because he said:

“It’s good to keep the riff-raff out of our square.”

I replied:

“We are the riff-raff.”

He laughed and we began conversing. He lives in Fifteen, which was built in the 1930s, and told us that its interior is decorated like the original ‘Queen Mary’ liner, in art deco style. He confirmed my memory that the store front that houses Air Algerie  and the National Bank of Kuwait on the east side of the square used to be part of the shop front of the Daniel Neal children’s clothing store, which closed in 1977. My late mother always pointed it out when we drove past it in the 1960s, but I cannot recall ever having entered it.

Continuing east from the square along Fitzhardinge Street, we pass Seymour Mews. A plaque on the corner of these two roads commemorates the site of the birthplace of Captain Thomas Riversdale Cloyes-Fergusson who was awarded a Victoria Cross medal posthumously after dying, aged 21, at the Battle of Paschendaele on the 31st of July 1917 during WW1. His medal is currently on display at Ightham Mote in Kent, the former home of his parents. Incidentally, the well-preserved Tudor Ightham Mote house is a lovely place to visit.

Walking another 200 feet eastwards brings us to our destination Manchester Square. Before describing its main attraction, let us look at number 14, now called ‘Milner House’. This was the home of Alfred Milner (1854-1925), who was an important colonial official in southern Africa. He was Governor of the Cape Colony from 1897 to 1901, a period that included the 2nd Anglo-Boer War. Then, he was successively Administrator of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (1901-1902), Governor of the Transvaal and Orange River Colony (1902-1905), and then Secretary of State for the Colonies (1919-1921). Milner was in no little way responsible for the outbreak of the conflict between the British and the Boers that began in 1899, one of whose aims was to establish an unbroken British corridor that ran from Cairo to The Cape. Another of its aims was to have the gold mines of the Rand and other parts of the Transvaal under British rule.

One of Milner’s neighbours on the square was Sir Richard Wallace (1818-1890), who, unlike his neighbour Milner, did much good for mankind. He was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess of Hertford and educated in Paris, where he also worked. In 1870, when his father died, Richard inherited his collection of European art. Wallace added greatly to the collection, often purchasing fine works of art. During the Siege of Paris (September 1870-January 1871), Wallace, who was living in the city, performed many acts of charity including contributing much money to the needy of Paris and organising two ambulances. In 1872, he paid for the erection of fifty public drinking fountains, which are now known as ‘Wallace Fountains’ and can be found all over Paris. One of these distinctive fountains stands outside the entrance to Hertford House, his London home on Manchester Square where his art collection is now housed in what is called ‘The Wallace Collection’.

From the outside, Hertford House is imposing rather than attractive. It was built between 1776 and 1778 for the 4th Duke of Manchester. In 1797, the 2nd Marquess of Hertford acquired the building and modified it considerably. Richard Wallace and his wife, Julie Amélie Charlotte (daughter of Bernard Castelnau, a French officer), lived there whenever they were in London from 1870 onwards. The Wallace Collection contains over 5500 works of art collected by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Richard Wallace. These include more than 6 paintings by Rembrandt, and others by great names including Vermeer, Bols, Poussin, Frans Hals, Canaletto, Velasquez, Boucher, Watteau, Fragonard, Lawrence, Hobbema, Cuyp, Maes, and many others equally well-known.  Richard’s widow bequeathed it to the nation in 1897.

I first visited the Wallace Collection with my father when I was less than ten years old. I remember being extremely bored by the huge numbers of Paintings on display but fascinated by the large collection of weapons and armour that occupies several rooms. Now, many years later, I am thrilled by the wealth of paintings that can be enjoyed in the beautifully decorated rooms of the house. The splendour of the interior décor of the rooms contrasts greatly with the exterior of the building that gives no hint of the treasures within.  Along with the collection of artworks at Kenwood House in Highgate, the Wallace Collection is one of the finest (formerly) private art collections open to the public in London.

After seeing the collection and having coffee in Hertford House’s vast covered internal courtyard, we retraced our steps by walking back to Kensington. We felt satisfied that we had had a good walk along streets and through parkland after having enjoyed an enriching artistic experience at the Wallace Collection.

So long Soho

SOHO BAR ITALIA

IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.

My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.

In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.

We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.

After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.

Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago. 

Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.

Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho.  Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.

One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.

My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!