Day 27 (part 2) – Leicester Square – National Portrait Gallery

So this is the second leg of the jaunt round the epicentre of West End Theatreland; picking up where we left off in Leicester Square then heading round its southern end for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery.

Day 27 Route pt2

We finished the last post at the Queen’s House and turning the corner there we enter into Leicester Place which definitely punches above its weight in terms of points of interest. First up is the church of Notre Dame de France which serves the French-speaking Catholic communities of London. The parish has been in existence since the 1860’s but the original church building was severely damaged during the WW2 bombings of 1940. Although it reopened a year later after extensive repairs a full reconstruction was ultimately required and in 1953 Maurice Schumann, French Foreign Secretary, laid the foundation stone of the new building, which was brought from the Cathedral of Chartres. The architect was Hector Corfiato of Beaux Arts de Paris.

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The most famous aspect of the church are the murals created by the artist, filmmaker and all-round renaissance man Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) during a week’s visit to London in November 1959. The murals depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and are divided into three panels portraying the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. In front of the murals is an altar decorated with a mosaic of the nativity by the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1863-1969), best known for his giant works in the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral and the Bank of England. This mosaic was created in 1955 but was then covered over in 1960 by a painted wooden panel of Cocteau’s a decision which unsurprisingly outraged Anrep. When the mosaic was rediscovered in 2003 in was decided to move the Cocteau panel to elsewhere in the church. The tapestry which hangs above the main altar is the work of the Benedictine Monk (and friend of Cocteau’s) Dom Robert (Guy de Chaunac-Lanzac 1907-1997). The theme of the tapestry is Paradise on earth with a reference to the Creation and to Wisdom. The New Eve, title given to Mary by the Church, is walking towards us as pure as a new bride.

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As you can see in the photograph above, part of the building which houses the church is given over to the Leicester Square Theatre. The LST is one of the top comedy venues in the capital, specialising in one-man stand up shows (I’ve seen Stewart Lee here a couple of times) or sketch group performances.

Next building along is the Prince Charles Cinema which these days is the only remaining repertory cinema in central London. Just lately I’ve spent quite a few afternoons there watching just-off new releases for a measly £4 (for members). The cinema started life as a small basement theatre in the early sixties then after a few years had a brief and equally unsuccessful stint as a music hall. Following rebuilding it opened as a cinema in 1969 eventually falling prey to the winds of change in the seventies and resorting to playing porn flicks. Its current incarnation began in 1991 and has enjoyed great success with a repertory mix of cult classics, arthouse second runs and themed programming.

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Staying with cinemas, next up when we return to Leicester Square and turn left towards the north east corner is the Vue West End. Currently a nine-screen complex this started life as the Warner Theatre, built in 1938 to the design of architects Thomas Somerford and E.A Stone. First presentation on opening was Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. The frontage was faced with reconstructed marble with a large relief panel by sculptor Bainbridge Copnall in each corner depicting spirits of sight and sound. When the cinema was redeveloped in the 1990’s this frontage was just about all that was retained of the original building.

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This brings us on to the Hippodrome which looms large over this corner of the square. The London Hippodrome was designed for the theatre impresario Edward Moss by architect Frank Matcham and opened its doors to the public 15 days into the start of the twentieth century. At the outset it specialised in a mixed programme of variety and circus performers including (as the name suggests) a number of equestrian acts. In 1958 the interior was completely remodelled and the venue was reborn as the Talk of the Town nightclub showcasing stars from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland at one end of the spectrum to Val Doonican and The Seekers at the other. The T.o.t.T lasted until 1982 when after a brief closure and another renovation Peter Stringfellow opened a new nightclub and restaurant, reinstating the original name. He in turn sold out to a company called European Leisure who cashed in during the height of club culture in the late eighties and nineties by making the Hippodrome one of the highest profile (and also naffest) destinations in London. When that boom was over the Hippodrome had a few years in the noughties riding the burlesque wave before, following a £40m investment, it converted to a casino in 2012.

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Here’s a copy of a contemporary press report covering the impending opening night of the theatre in 1900 – Hippodrome2.

Head out of the square through Bear Street (which is really just a passage) and turn right on Charing Cross Road past Hunts Court which has a claim as one of the least inviting alleyways in London.

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Turn right again up Irving Street, which is lined with tourist-trapping restaurants, and arrive back at the east side of the square which is home to the daddy of all West End cinemas, the Odeon Leicester Square. This iconic black monolith with its polished granite façade and 37m high tower was built in 1937 to the design of Harry Weedon and Andrew Mather. Weedon was the architect that Oscar Deutsch charged with overseeing the building programme for his  new chain of Art Deco Odeon Cinemas in the thirties. (Side note – it is apocryphally believed that the Odeon name is an acronym for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation but it almost certainly comes from the term Nickelodeon coined in the US in the early years of the century and itself derived from Ancient Greek). The cinema took seven months to build at a cost of £232,755 and had 2,116 seats and the film shown on the opening night was The Prisoner of Zenda. The grand interior was desecrated in a cack-handed 1967 modernisation but at least some of the original styling was restored in the Eighties.

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Leicester Square was originally laid out in 1670 and named after (the then) nearby Leicester House built in 1631-35 by Robert Sidney 2nd Earl of Leicester. Its renown as a hub of popular entertainment began in the 19th century and was enhanced by the building of the imposing Alhambra Theatre in 1854 (it was demolished in 1936 to make way for the Odeon). In the latter part of the 20th century the square came to be a byword for seediness and urban menace. During the 1979 winter of discontent it effectively became a temporary rubbish dump, earning the nickname Fester Square. Eventually Westminster Council woke up to the fact that having this running sore in the heart of tourist London was something of an embarrassment and in 2010 a major redevelopment was undertaken and completed 2 years later to coincide with the London Olympics. The improvements included 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) of granite paving and a water feature surrounding the Shakespeare statue. The Shakespeare statue itself was erected during a previous renovation of the square in 1874.  It was sculpted by Giovanni Fontana after an 18thC. original by Peter Scheemakers which stands in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

In the background of the bottom right photo above you can see the empty space where the Odeon West End cinema used to stand. This site is currently being developed as a new cinema and “guess what” complex.

Exit the square’s south west corner via Panton Street where you will find the Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre). This one opened in 1881, again designed by Thomas Verity, and atypically still has most of its auditorium in the original form. The change of name occurred in 2011 three years after the death of the playwright. Current production is the Kinks’ musical “Sunny Afternoon”.

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Comedy is still represented in the area in the form of The Comedy Pub and The Comedy Store which both inhabit Oxendon Street; the former was previously the rather classier Piccadilly’s No.7 Piano Bar (as the frontage still reflects).

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After a quick up and down of Oxendon Street we continue along Panton Street to Haymarket then turn south and head east again along Orange Street. The passageway that is the northern section of St Martins Street is closed off due to the new development so we have to skirt round Longs Court to get to no.35 which is now the Westminster Reference Library. However the building which formerly stood on this site was the home of Sir Isaac Newton from 1711 until his death in 1727. He had a small observatory built at the top of the house and a laboratory in the basement. Later residents of the house were the Burney family including Fanny Burney (later known as Madame D’Arblay) (1752 – 1840) the novelist and diarist. That building was demolished in 1913.

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The library holds over 15,000 books covering the performing arts and a wide range of film, theatre, dance, radio & TV publications, some (such as The Stage and Era) going back to the 19th century. It also houses The Sherlock Holmes Collection (which contains a far greater wealth of material than the tawdry museum on Baker Street which we ignored in our very first post). The library was also bequeathed the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s collection of books on dance which is kept in a separate section that was opened by Dame Alicia Markova in 1957.

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Back on Orange Street is the Orange Street Congregational Church founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Given the current furore concerning migrants from Syria and North Africa I thought the passage (included in the slideshow above)  which I discovered in one of the books on Isaac Newton’s house that I looked at in the library had a timely poignancy.

Reaching the end of Orange Street we turn right on Charing Cross Road past the statue of the stage actor Henry Irving (1838 – 1905) (who gives his name to the aforementioned street of course) to get to the National Portrait Gallery.

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The NPG was the brainchild of three men, Philip Henry Stanhope, Thomas Babington Macauley and Thomas Carlyle, whose efforts are commemorated in three busts above the main entrance to the gallery. Although the idea for a national gallery dedicated to portraits of famous Britons was first mooted in 1846 it was another ten years before it was actually founded. And then it wasn’t until 1896 that it established a permanent residence on the current site, funded by a donation from the philanthropist, William Henry Alexander. Both the architect, Ewan Christian, and the gallery’s first director, George Scharf, died shortly before the building was completed.

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There are over 200,000 works in all in the NPG’s collection though only a fraction of these are on display at any one time. On the second and first floors the portraits of the great and famous are displayed more or less chronologically from the Tudor period up to the 20th century. The ground floor is devoted to special exhibitions and contemporary works.

The following slideshow presents the individual portraits of all the British monarchs from Henry VIII through to William IV (excluding a couple of Georges) but starts with a compendium set of portraits depicting all the rulers from William the Conqueror to Mary Tudor which was probably created between 1590 and 1620 (after the last of them had died).

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And since we were just looking round where his old gaff used to be here’s Sir Isaac Newton (bottom) with his contemporary, the philosopher John Locke.

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Finally, for this time, here are the so-called Medieval Stairs with their busts on the main protagonists in the Wars of the Roses, for the Houses of York and Lancaster respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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