Today’s walk starts out with a quick tour around the National Gallery then meanders up St Martin’s Lane to explore the streets in between Leicester Square and Covent Garden before heading east along the Strand and then wending its way back west through the streets adjacent to the north bank of the river. (There’s so much of note crammed into this part of town though that I’ve split this into two posts again).
The National Gallery has its origins in the 1824 purchase for £57,000 of the banker, John Julius Angerstein’s, collection of 38 paintings to form the core of a new national art collection. In 1831 the King’s Mews on the north side of Trafalgar Square was chosen as the site for a permanent building to house this collection. The original architect was William Wilkins and construction was completed in 1838. The building wasn’t exactly garlanded with praise however and thirty years later another architect, E.M Barry, was asked to submit designs for a reconstruction. In the end this just resulted in an extension which included the now iconic dome. In 1907 five new galleries were built at the rear and a further extension on the north side was completed in 1975. 1991 saw the opening of the Sainsbury Wing on the west side; sponsored by the eponymous supermarket magnates and the inspiration for the Prince of Wales’ notorious “monstrous carbuncle” rant against modern architecture.
Probably the most famous work in the collection (and certainly the one which prompts the most selfies) is Van Gogh’s Sunflowers though personally I prefer his Crabs (so to speak).
The following slideshow features a selection of the 3o paintings which the Gallery itself classes as highlights of the collection including Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus”, Cezanne’s Les Grandes Beigneuses (immortalised as “the big bathers” in the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch, still priceless after nearly fifty years – the sketch that is) and Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire subject of a recent episode of Melvyn Bragg’s excellent In Our Time programme on Radio 4 and due to appear on the new plastic £20 note when it arrives..
Just about the only one of these artists I wasn’t previously familiar with is Paolo Uccello (1397 – 1475) who has instantly become my early renaissance artist of preference – partly because his work seems to eschew that era’s ubiquitous depictions of the Madonna and child. His rendering of Saint George and the Dragon is one of my three top picks from the works currently on show.
Leaving the Gallery we head east along the north side of Trafalgar Square towards St Martin-in-the-Fields Church, running the gauntlet of two Yodas and one Imperial Stormtrooper.
St Martin’s originated on this site in the late Norman era. That first church was built over in 1542 at the instigation of Henry VIII. His church was demolished in turn in 1721 and replaced by the current building designed by James Gibbs. In the 20th century St Martin’s has been at the forefront of the fight against homelessness as well as championing other social and humanitarian causes. It is also renowned for its programme of music concerts which dates back to the age of Handel and Mozart. This includes at least a couple of free (donation suggested) lunchtime recitals every week. Below you can see Russian pianist, Anna Schreider, limbering up for her performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons which I popped back to listen in full ( a somewhat chastening experience for someone struggling to learn to play the wretched instrument).
A little way further up St Martin’s Place is a monument to Edith Cavell (1865 – 1915) the British nurse executed by a German firing squad during WW1 after aiding the escape of 200 Allied soldiers from occupied Belgium. The charge was treason even though Edith was not a German national and had also helped German soldiers escape fire – bastards !
Surprised to see Count Arthur Strong paying his respects.
We continue up Charing Cross Road towards Leicester Square tube and then cut through Cecil Court. The fact that this prime location is still lined with independent vintage book and music shops implies that there is some kind of special arrangement going on with the rents – and long may that continue. At the turn of the 20th century Cecil Court earned the soubriquet Flicker Alley due to the number of businesses associated with the embryonic British Fil Industry that found a home here.
Emerge on to St Martin’s Lane and turn left to arrive at one of the three theatres on the street, the Noel Coward Theatre. This one opened in 1903 and was designed by W.G.R Sprague for Sir Charles Wyndham; the same combination responsible for the Wyndham’s Theatre on Charing Cross Road which was completed four years earlier. It was originally (somewhat unimaginatively) known as the New Theatre, then in 1973 became the Albery Theatre and finally in 2006 was renamed in honour of the eponymous actor, playwright, director and flamboyant wit.
On the other side of St Martin’s Court is the Grade II Listed Salisbury pub named after the three-time 19th century Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury. The pub is notable for its art nouveau interiors and was used in the 1961 film Victim starring Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Sims; the first British feature to mention the word “homosexual”.
A few steps further south another branch of Browns Restaurants occupies what used to be the Westminster County Courts and across the road what was once the Green Man & French Horn pub is now a French restaurant of the same name.
Then on the west side it’s the second of those three theatres, the Duke of York’s. This was the first one built on St Martin’s Lane, in 1892, and was originally named the Trafalgar Square Theatre. The change of name, in honour of the future King George V, came just three years later along with a rather hasty re-opening. Between 1980 and 1992 the theatre was owned by Capital Radio before becoming part of the ATG estate.
Opposite is the imposing London Coliseum (though not quite as imposing as the one in Rome), home of the English National Opera Company. The Coliseum opened in 1904 as the London Coliseum Theatre of Varieties having been designed by Frank Matcham for the impresario Oswald Stoll who intended it to be the “largest and finest music hall” of the age. Large it certainly was; its 2,359 seats mean it is still the largest theatre in London. At the time of construction it was the only theatre in Europe with lifts to its upper levels. In 1908 it apparently hosted a cricket match between Middlesex and Surrey (I’m still trying to get my head round that one). Then from 1931 onward it transitioned from a variety to a playhouse theatre and post WW2 housed successful runs of the likes of Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. In 1968 the Sadlers Wells Opera Company moved in and then in 1974 changed its name to ENO. In recent times, despite many acclaimed productions, ENO has been struggling financially, mainly due to the pressures of trying to fill such a large auditorium. It’s probably also fair to say that it doesn’t have quite the same cachet for the traditional opera-going audience as the Royal Opera House. I know which I prefer, though there are times when I opera definitely sounds better if you can’t follow the words.
At the bottom end of the street is the Chandos pub c.1839 which is distinguished by the mechanical statue of a barman opening a barrel perched on a balcony at the top of the building.
We head back up St Martin’s Lane and cut right down Brydges Place – one of the narrowest alleys in London – into Bedfordbury (it’s just called that and that’s the only interesting thing about it).
Cut back again down May Court and then head up to the top of St Martin’s Lane and take a right into New Row. Couple of pubs here that I used to frequent back in the day – the Roundhouse, whose address is actually 1 Garrick Street and which isn’t actually round, more of a semi-octagon and the White Swan (in the background below) occupying a Grade II listed building from the turn of the 18th century and which features in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Murder Must Advertise.
Next we turn southward down Bedford Street and arrive at the front entrance to St Paul’s, the Actors’ church, which we touched on previously in Day 30. The interior is filled with plaques commemorating a host of departed great British thespians as well as a memorial stone for Thomas Arne (1710 – 1778), the composer of Rule Britannia, who is buried here.
Nxt up we turn right onto Chandos Place then again onto Agar Street. On the west side here stands Charing Cross Police Station. The core of this building was erected in 1831 as a new home for the Royal West London Infirmary which was then renamed Charing Cross Hospital. The hospital was extended several times over the next two hundred years and was used for the treatment of war casualties in both World Wars. When it became part of the NHS in 1948 it was as a teaching hospital but even in this guise it had outgrown the premises by the early sixties and in 1973 was relocated to a new hospital in Fulham that was ten years in the building. Strangely enough it kept the Charing Cross name. The Agar Street building remained vacant for many years until the Met took it over in the 1990s.
At the junction with the Strand we find Zimbabwe House. This was built in 1908 as the first headquarters of the British Medical Association. The architect was Charles Holden and the series of 18 8ft high naked figures that adorn the exterior were the (at the time) controversial work of the sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880 – 1959). The National Vigilance Association (a Victorian version of Mary Whitehouse’s NVALA) and the Evening Standard published their opposition to anyone having to see the sculptures, which caused people to flood into London to do just that. Artists and critics were equally vocal in support of Epstein and the BMA decided to withstand the pressure to remove the sculptures. However, in the 1930’s, the Rhodesian High Commission, which had bought the building in 1923, decided that the sculptures were no longer appropriate. Under the pretext that their protruding parts (including heads) were potentially dangerous the sculptures were hacked into the state you see below. After UDI in 1965, Rhodesia House, as it had been renamed, became merely a Representative Office with no official diplomatic status, until the triumph of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in 1980 and the country re-entry into the Commonwealth as Zimbabwe with fully recognized independent status.
Veer off west again to cover the length of William IV Street then double back and turn south down Adelaide Street to arrive on the Strand opposite Charing Cross Station.
Head east along the Strand before turning north again up the bottom section of Bedford Street then continue eastward along Maiden Lane. On the site of the Porterhouse craft beer emporium once stood the house in which our old friend John Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851) was born.
A short way further along Maiden Lane, Bull Inn Court leads down to the Nell Gwynne public house, built on the site of the Old Bull Inn and named after Charles II’s most infamous mistress of course. Had I known beforehand that this is one of the few pubs that still has a proper working jukebox I would definitely have gone in for a drink.
In 1897, William Terris, a well-known actor of the day, was murdered yards from the pub by a stage hand from the neighbouring Adelphi Theatre which is where we shall resume in part 2.
Bobble hat, anorak and shorts – what were you thinking mate ?