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The ghost streets of W1

On this week's virtual ramble, Diary calls in on the truculent Turner, recalls a tragic royal love story, and gets a bit lost around Cavendish Square

14 August, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Cavendish Square. Photos: Stephen McKay/Christine Matthews

WE left each other seven days ago, remembering Bevin’s line about his foreign policy: “to be able to board a train at Victoria and go where ever I damn well please”.

And so shall we.

This week, we’re heading underground for a few stops on the Victoria line, up to Oxford Circus to have a mooch round Marylebone. As we walk through the low ceiling hall at Victoria tube station, let us start by recalling an incident that took place in 2014.

Builders upgrading the place accidentally smashed a hole into the signalling room – and compounded their error in a cartoon-ish way by filling the place with quick-drying cement.

It caused havoc with the trains and workers had to mix sugar into the gloop to slow its setting, then shovel it all out.

We’ve hopped on a near-empty tube, and now, back above ground at Oxford Circus, we’ll pop into Cavendish Square, and hear how its development led to a change in the law regarding intellectual copyright.

Robert Dodsley started his working life as a footman. He became the author of a number of poems and plays and was championed by Alexander Pope, who lent him cash to set up a map-making firm.

And there was money to be made in maps – though quite how original and well-researched each publisher’s efforts were can be seen by a series of rival guides produced in the 1700s.

Like Mr Dodsley’s, they all showed a set of streets around Cavendish Square that had been included on one of his street plans in anticipation of building work. The economic meltdown that was the South Sea Bubble struck. They never were built.

Princess Amelia

Map-makers did not bother to survey the area for new editions and for years ghost streets confused the newcomer hoping to navigate this part of town armed with a street plan.

This copy-and-paste thievery was used by Hogarth in 1734 as an example of people stealing others’ works – and led to an Act of Parliament establishing copyright at 14 years. Those found breaking the new law would be fined five shillings per imprint – a huge sum at the time.

Later that century, Princess Amelia, daughter of George III, lived in the square: her ailments included the painful skin disease known as St Anthony’s Fire.

Amelia, who would spend weeks in the sea at Weymouth to alleviate the complaint that manifested itself in giant, swollen red blotches across her body, fell in love with a Colonel Fitzroy. George III did not like the suitor and was having none of it – but the couple were inseparable. When she died, aged 27, she left her fortune to him.

Now to a Victorian convent on the northern side of the square that was smashed about in the Blitz. After the war, the nuns employed architect Louis Osman to rebuild – and he in turn commissioned Jacob Epstein to create a piece of sculpture, the Virgin and Child, to hang from its façade. The Mother Superior did not realise he was Jewish. and when she did she kicked up a fuss. Thankfully, in the face of stinging criticism, Epstein’s work was reinstated and the piece is there today.

Moving westwards, let’s stroll to Wigmore Street, home of Wigmore Hall. It is said to have some of the best acoustics for classical music in the world – which might not be surprising. It was built as Bechstein Hall by the German piano firm, who had a shop next door.

Epstein’s Virgin and Child

They employed architect Thomas Collcutt (who also gave us the Savoy Hotel), but disaster struck in 1916 when the firm’s assets were seized. The hall was sold as “an alien property”. It cost the Bechsteins £100,000 to put up, and fetched £56,000 in the fire sale.

From Wigmore Street, we’ll pop down the thoroughly well-heeled Queen Anne Street.

It was here JMW Turner made his home in 1836 and it became known as Turner’s Den, a filthy dwelling stuffed full of paintings and the general flotsam and jetsam of his life.

One visitor recalled: “The windows were never cleaned, and had in them breaches patched with paper; the door was black and blistered; the iron palisades were rusty for lack of paint. If a would-be visitor knocked or rang, it was long before the summons was replied to by a wizened, meagre old man, who would unfasten the chain sufficiently to see who knocked or rang, and the almost invariable answer was, ‘You can’t come in.’”

And Turner was just as unwelcoming to potential buyers of his works. He was offered £100,000 to sell Queen Anne Street, with its rolls of musty paintings stashed in cupboards and propped up against easels and walls, a sale he refused by saying he’d been offered more.

One wealthy collector managed to force his way past Turner’s elderly servant, only to be met by the furious artist – who relented when the intruder pulled out £5,000 in cash.

And on the steps of the home of this cantankerous genius, let us retire for another week with Turner’s summer sunsets on our minds.

Stay well, stay safe.

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