Flowers and a Duke open the gates…

Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, Marquis of Westminster (1825-1899) (later 1st Duke of Westminster. from Vanity Fair 1870

Over the past few months we’ve examined the story of the London square, and the last post revealed the beginning of both a slow decline in status and tentative attempts to open them to the public.   Today’s post is going to look at these  attempts and show how, gradually through the second half of the 19thc, the squares became part of the movement to increase the amount of publicly accessible  green space in the capital.

It was achieved by a mix of charitable institutions, religious and secular bodies petitioning the owners and trustees of private squares, especially those whose gardens were unkempt or under-utilised to allow limited access to them. But these reformers could not achieve their aims alone.   They had considerable help from a public-spirited  Duke who also happened to be the wealthiest man in Britain.

Once the momentum developed, legislation followed that  allowed  local authorities to acquire other important open spaces such as commons, burial grounds as well as squares for recreational use.

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A Tale of Two Cities

We saw last week that although new squares continued to be built in the middle of the 19thc the design was sometimes adapted and modified, and there was sometimes criticism of both the layout itself and increasingly of the planting.

Nevertheless most squares, as Todd Longstaffe-Gowan points out,  “somehow miraculously maintained a degree of social pre-eminence regardless of the vicissitudes of fashion.”  London squares were generally still seen as   prestigious places to live, “bestowing social rank, dignity and precedence upon their inhabitants.” That meant they continued to attract the aspirant classes [sometimes known as “gentility-mongers”] and more squares were built in the later years of the century.

Yet at the same time there were  huge and growing differences  between them and some had even ceased to be residential. The social commentator Henry Mayhew, as part of  his studies of poverty and crime, tried to categorise the city’s squares in 1862.  Some were “imposing”, others “stately and gorgeous” while another group were  “intensely quiet ..and as still and desolate as cloisters.”  But it’s clear that the whole concept of the square as a social construct was changing as he dismissed a large number of others as “pretentious parvenu-like suburban squares” and wrote off more as “obsolete or used up old squares.”    What was happening and why?

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Fair and Square

Over the last couple of months I’ve done a series of posts about the history of the London square.  We looked at the origins of the square as an architectural form  in the 17thc, then  the development of planting in the squares with Thomas Fairchild who suggested bringing the countryside into the city, and most recently at the march of bricks which saw the square spreading into the growing suburbs of the city and the rise of developers like Thomas Cubitt.  Today’s post is going to look at how its popularity continued to spread through the Victorian city but also how its form was adapted and even began to attract criticism.

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The Wizard Earl & his miniature conundrum

This painting has intrigued me since I first saw it, and I’ve included it in lectures on both Elizabethan gardens and art history, for reasons that I hope will soon become apparent.  The sitter [or rather the recliner] is Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and the artist Nicholas Hilliard.  The painting showing Henry in an unusual  garden setting is now in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam having been sold by the family in 1937.

Of the two, Hilliard is, of course, the far better known. He was the most famous artist of his day in England and well known for his championing of the miniatureasan art form, although this picture is a little larger. But the Earl was equally distinguished in his day and lived a very intriguing, and often dangerous, life.  

Before you read on take a close look at the picture and see if anything strikes you as in any way unusual or odd.  If it’s doesn’t look again because I suspect it might be  the most cryptic of all Elizabethan paintings.

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Movers and Shakers

Last week’s post ended with the image printed in 1828 of  Sir Henry Stuart’s balance-men being catapulted through the air while trying to move a tree, but over the following twenty years or so  gardeners, foresters and landscapers invented a whole range of variations, adaptations of Sir Henry’s machine and new techniques to avoid such arial acrobatics and move large trees safely.

Six of them were captured by Charles McIntosh in his mini-encyclopaedia The Book of the Garden published in 1852 in a section about “The transplantation of trees of great age and size “, but there were plenty more that he missed.

Since then horsepower has been replaced by petrol power, and  the technology of  mechanics and hydraulics have improved immensely meaning that  modern machines can perform wonders that the Victorian inventors would not easily credit.  Around 50/60 years ago things took another step further forward with the invention of the power spade so that nowadays moving large trees, if done properly, can successfully transform landscapes in a matter of hours.

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