The March of Bricks and Mortar

More on London squares. A couple of weeks ago I looked at the beginning of Rus in Urbe – the idea of the countryside  being  bought into the city and the way that it changed their layout and planting. What I didn’t say then was that in some ways the mixing of urban and rural wasn’t such a strange concept to Georgian Londoners.  Elements of the countryside were ever-present. As can be seen from contemporary images animals were still a frequent sight on the streets – and not just going to the markets or butchers. There were sheep in Cavendish Square and cows in St James Park where visitors could buy fresh milk direct from the dairymaids.

However by the end  of the 18thc  this was beginning to change and today’s post continues the story of London’s squares into the 19thc when the city expanded rapidly in what George Cruikshank satirised as the March of Bricks and Mortar. He could easily have added the march of shrubberies, iron railings, locks and keys.

 

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The Crystal Palace of Paris

Last week’s post looked at the background to the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition, and in particular at its parkland setting.  It was the first world fair to give horticulture a major role with one section of the park covering about 3ha [7.5 acres] set aside almost exclusively for it. This was known as the Jardin Reservé  which roughly translates as the Private Garden. At its centre was a large conservatory known as the Grande Serre or the Palais Cristal.

The Universal Exhibition had plenty of English visitors including William Robinson, writing for the Gardeners Chronicle and  the Rev TC Brehaut writing for the Journal of Horticulture. Both blew hot and cold over what they saw but Brehaut decided eventually that it was all “most skilfully and tastefully laid out, producing the finest landscape effects which undulating grounds, water, rock work, grottoes, trees and shrubs are capable of.”

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I had a lot of comments about the recent posts on the RHS gardens in Kensington which were used as the centrepiece for the 1862 International Exhibition.  The concept of a world expo was then comparatively novel. There had only been the Great Exhibition of 1851 and France’s attempt to outdo that with the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855. The Kensington show sparked Napoleon III’s interest in planning another, grander event. Napoleon’s aim for the exhibition was, apart from the glory of Napoleon,  the promotion of France as a world power, and Paris as the cultural capital of the world. 

The city  was in the middle of being transformed dramatically. Baron Haussmann was rebuilding and replanning  much of the old city, and incidentally creating an extensive and well-funded municipal park system. The Exposition universelle d’art et d’industrie was designed to complement his work and  showcase new modern France.

The Imperial  government commissioned   some of the best artistic, literary and scientific talent in France to promote the exhibition, including Victor Hugo.  In his introduction to the guide to Paris for 1867 Hugo asked : “What is a World’s Fair?  The world as neighbours. We talk a bit together. We come to compare ideals.  An apparent confrontation of products, in reality a confrontation of utopias.”  [remember that when you get to the end of the post]

Gardeners Chronicle covered the exhibition in considerable depth because as their correspondent in Paris, none other than William Robinson, wrote : “The world has seen some great shows of this kind, but this is the first instance in which horticulture has received the attention it deserves in connection with what purports to be an all embracing display of human work, art and taste.”

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Speculation and ‘the Rural Manner’

Last week I discussed the origins of London squares and looked at the earliest examples.   Today I’m going to look at what happened after the Great Fire of 1666  when the balance of the city’s population shifted to the suburbs and particularly to the western ones  where air pollution was less severe.   It coincided with the withering away of royal control over building licences  so that landowners became free to capitalise on their estates almost at whim.      This quickly led to a speculative building boom in which  landowners leased sites to speculative builders, usually for 99 years at a low ground rent,  who did the dirty work and took the risks.  The result was that the new squares and their adjacent terraced streets became the foundations for the shape of modern London.  

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Last week I discussed the origins of London squares and looked at the earliest examples.   Today I’m going to look at what happened after the Great Fire of 1666  when the balance of the city’s population shifted to the suburbs and particularly to the western ones  where air pollution was less severe.   It coincided with the withering away of royal control over building licences  so that landowners became free to capitalise on their estates almost at whim.      This quickly led to a speculative building boom in which  landowners leased sites to speculative builders, usually for 99 years at a low ground rent,  who did the dirty work and took the risks.  The result was that the new squares and their adjacent terraced streets became the foundations for the shape of modern London.  

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Before the Square

 

I’m often asked to talk about the history of London’s squares and I always wonder what causes this almost endless fascination.  Of course there’s no doubt that, as the London Gardens Trust says,  “squares are one of the defining features of London. Like other European cities, London has its grand civic spaces, but no other city has developed the garden square in quite the same way.”

They have survived changes in taste and style, war and reconstruction and all the vicissitudes of finance and management problems. I suspect that is largely due to their spatial integrity which has  largely remained intact despite  the street scene changing drastically over the past 400 years.  We have seen buildings refaced, redeveloped or replaced, trees, shrubs, paths, lighting, and railings have come and gone,  but despite everything the successful combination of architecture and horticulture has somehow survived.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to look at London squares and their history beginning today with  “where did the idea for a square come from?”

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