An 18th century ice house has been (re)discovered beneath the streets of Marylebone during a residential development project known as Regent’s Crescent. The subterranean red brick ice house – which measures 7.5 metres wide and 9.5 metres deep and was built in the 1780s – was used by pioneering ice-merchant William Leftwich during the 1820s to bring high quality ice to wealthy households and service the trend to serve frozen treats to guests as well as supply increasing demand from food retailers and medical institutions. Leftwich, seeing a niche for clean, quality ice (ice sourced from local canals and lakes during winter was often dirty), shipped ice collected in Norway’s frozen lakes and then transported it into London via Regent’s Canal. Now listed as a scheduled monument by Historic England, the egg-shaped ice house was rediscovered by MOLA archaeologists who were working on the site on behalf of property developer Great Marlborough Estates. It will now be incorporated into the gardens of Regent’s Crescent which have been newly designed by Kim Wilkie as part of the £500 million development project. The Grade I-listed crescent was originally designed by John Nash (of Buckingham Palace and Brighton Pavilion fame) and built in 1819. The houses were destroyed during the Blitz and replica properties were built in the 1960s. But the ice house, an entrance tunnel and ante-chamber all survived the bombing and remain in what MOLA has called “excellent condition”. It is anticipated that the ice house chamber will be open to public viewing via a special corridor during archaeological and architectural festivals.

PICTURES: Top – Buildings archaeologists from MOLA record the interior of the ice house/A MOLA archaeologist brushes the near perfect exterior of the ice house exposed during excavation in 2015 (Images© MOLA).

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This month marks 50 years since The Beatles’ final public performance – a seemingly impromptu concert which took place on a Savile Row rooftop on a freezing day in 1969 (but was actually held to record the final scenes of a film they were making).

The unannounced concert on 30th January was only 42 minutes long and featured five songs – including Get Back, I’ve Got A Feeling, One After 909, Dig A Pony and Don’t Let Me Down, some of which were played more than once (as well as various other song snippets).

As well as band members John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, Billy Preston had been brought in as a keyboardist.

The event, described in RollingStone as the band’s first “truly live” performance in more than two years, took place on the roof of the headquarters Apple Corps, then located at 3 Savile Road, which was the corporation the group had founded as an umbrella organisation for its various business ventures including Apple Records.

The performance, which famously ended with John Lennon saying “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition”, was filmed and recorded and 21 minutes of the footage featured in the 1970 documentary, Let It Be.

The Fab Four’s concert was eventually shut down by the Metropolitan Police – located just up the street at number 27 – over noise and traffic issues but no arrests were made (Ringo later wrote about his regret at not being dragged off by them).

 

Located in Chancery Lane, this “House for Converts” – for Jews who converted to Christianity – was founded in 1232 by King Henry III.

The buildings, which included a chapel as well as living quarters, provided a communal home for residents – needed because when they converted, they forfeited all their possessions to the king.

Chaplains were employed to teach the new converts and a warden appointed to manage their day-to-day living.

The Royal Treasury bore the expenses of the institution which included paying its residents a small income (although the annual grant from treasury apparently wasn’t always forthcoming leaving the residents destitute) and it was supplemented with a poll tax called the “chevage” levied on all Jews over the age of 12.

In 1290, King Edward I expelled the Jews from England. Residence here was officially the only way Jewish people could remain and some 80 residents apparently did so.

It’s said that apart from these original 80 residents (the last of whom – said to be a woman called Claricia of Exeter – died in 1356), only some 50 further converts were admitted between 1331 and 1608.

By the early 17th century, records of the buildings’ use as a house for Jewish converts had come to an end. The main residential building was destroyed in 1717 to make room for a new house for the Master of the Rolls – the chapel was at this stage being used as a storehouse for the rolls of Chancery.

Subsequently known as the ‘Rolls Chapel’, it was eventually largely demolished to make way for an extension to the Public Records Office which had been built on the site in 1851.

But some monuments from it are preserved in part of the former PRO known as the ‘Weston Room’ (pictured below).

In the late 1990s, the PRO moved out to Kew where it formed part of the National Archives. The building was acquired by King’s College London in 2000 and is now the Maughan Library.

PICTURES: Top – The Maughan Library (FormerBBC; licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0); Below – The Weston Room in what is now the Maughan Library (Cmglee; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

This five star Mayfair establishment owes its origins and name to William Claridge, possibly a former butler, and his wife Marianne, who took over management of a small hotel at 51 Brook Street in 1853.

In 1854, they purchased the adjoining Mivart’s Hotel, first established in 1812, and substantially expanded the premises. It apparently combined the two names – Mivart’s and Claridge’s – for a short time before the reference to Mivart’s was dropped.

The hotel, which stands on the corner with Davies Street, was bought by Richard D’Oyly Carte (owner of The Savoy) in 1893 and subsequently rebuilt in red brick to the designs of CW Stephens (of Harrods fame) with interiors by Sir Ernest George and the inclusion of modern amenities including en suite bathrooms and lifts. The hotel, which is now Grade II-listed, reopened in 1898, with some 203 rooms and suites.

It was extended in the late 1920s with the addition of 80 new rooms and a ballroom while the lobby was redesigned by art deco pioneer Oswald Milne (much of that decoration, including work by Basil Ionides, remains).

The hotel’s reputation as a place to stay among the well-to-do was given a significant boost when Empress Eugenie, wife of French Emperor Napoleon III stayed in 1860 and entertained Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

It was also favoured by exiled royals during World War II including King Peter II and Queen Alexandria of Yugoslavia all staying here. In fact, their son, Crown Prince Alexander II, was born in suite 212 in 1945 (now named the Prince Alexander Suite).

The story goes that Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared the suite Yugoslav territory for a day (although evidence supporting the story about Churchill’s involvement is apparently scarce). It’s also said that a spadeful of dirt from Yugoslavia was placed under the bed so the Crown Prince could literally be born on Yugoslav soil (but there’s no mention of this aspect of the story on Crown Prince Alexander II’s official website).

Churchill and Clementine stayed in a suite here on the sixth floor after the wartime PM’s unexpected defeat in the general election of 1945.

Other luminaries to have stayed here include American actors Cary Grant, Katharine (and Audrey) Hepburn, Yul Brynner and Bing Crosby (Spencer Tracey famously said he didn’t want to go to heaven when he died but to Claridge’s) as well as director Alfred Hitchcock, Aristotle and Jackie Onassis, and, more recently, everyone from Mick Jagger and Madonna to Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. Kate Moss celebrated her 30th birthday here.

And, of course, royals including the late Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip have all been regular diners.

The hotel, which underwent a major restoration from 1996 and saw 25 new suites designed by David Linley opened in 2012, is now part of the Maybourne Hotel Group, having parted ways with the Savoy Hotel in the mid-noughties.

Current facilities include the restaurant Fera at Claridge’s (this opened in 2014 after the closure of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s in 2013) as well as The Foyer & Reading Room (where afternoon tea is served), The Fumoir cocktail bar, Claridge’s Bar and a health club and spa.

The Claridge’s Christmas Tree is a much anticipated part of London’s festive season, with recent years seeing a different world-renowned designer taking on the task of decorating it, including the likes of John Galliano, Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and Christopher Bailey of Burberry.

The hotel was the subject of a three part documentary, Inside Claridges, in December, 2012.

For more, see www.claridges.co.uk.

PICTURE: Tim Westcott (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Looking across the Thames toward South Bank and the Tate Modern. PICTURE: JJ Jordan/Unsplash

This Soho pub, located not far from Piccadilly Circus, takes its name from the blue posts which once stood out front.

A pub is believed to have stood on this site at 28 Rupert Street – now in Chinatown – since at least 1739 and is believed to have been updated substantially in about 1850. While the blue posts themselves are long gone, the building itself is now painted blue.

It has been suggested that the blue posts were simply placed out the front to mark the pub’s location before street numbering systems were introduced – as in, “it’s the place with the blue posts out the front”, but there are a number of other suggestions for the origins of the name.

One is that the blue posts were used as border markers for the royal hunting ground which once stood or Soho. Another, perhaps more likely than the aforementioned, that they marked locations where you could hire sedan chairs from in times gone by.

Whatever the reason for its name, this small, Grade II-listed pub, which is located on the corner with Rupert Close, underwent a complete transformation in early 2018 by the team behind the Israeli eatery, The Palomar.

As well as a small pub in ground floor of the building, it also boasts a cocktail lounge on the upper floor called the Mulwray (apparently named for the character, Evelyn Mulwray, played by Faye Dunaway in the movie Chinatown) and a small restaurant in the cellar called Evelyn’s Table (another Chinatown reference).

The Rupert Street establishment is one of several pubs with the same name in West End – others include one located nearby in Berwick Street, another in Newman Street, and yet another in Bennet Street in St James’s. And that’s just those in near proximity. So whatever the blue posts represented, it was clearly a relatively common feature in the area.

For more, see http://theblueposts.co.uk.

PICTURE: Ewan Munro (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Located in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, the Hardy Tree takes its name from its association with novelist Thomas Hardy.

Before Hardy found fame as the author of such novels as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge and Far from the Madding Crowd, in the 1860s he worked as an assistant to a West End-based architect, Arthur Blomfield.

Blomfield’s firm, in order to make way for a new line for the Midland Railway, was commissioned by the Bishop of London to exhume bodies from their graves in the churchyard and relocate them.

Hardy was given the job of supervising the removal of the corpses – apparently among those exhumed was a coffin containing a man with two heads!

It’s said that after he had removed the bodies, Hardy had to decide what to do with the headstones which remained and came up with the idea of placing them in a rather lovely fanned collar around an ash tree growing in a part of the churchyard unaffected by the railway line.

Whether Hardy was actually responsible for the placement of the gravestones remains somewhat uncertain (although it’s a nice story). But his work in the graveyard is believed to have at least partly inspired his poem, The Levelled Churchyard.

The moss-covered gravestones and tree have since merged and now make a fascinating monument to the churchyard’s past life, attracting Hardy pilgrims from across the world. And, of course, the churchyard is also famous as the site where Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, planned her elopement with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while she was visiting the grave of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft not to mention Charles Dickens’ famous reference to it in A Tale of Two Cities and its association with so-called ‘resurrection men’ or ‘bodysnatchers’ in the 19th century.

PICTURE: Stef (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Eighty original comic strips hand-drawn by Charles M Schulz, of Peanuts fame, are on show at Somerset House on the Strand along with many of his personal effects and interactive installations in an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the creation of iconic character Charlie Brown. Good Grief, Charlie Brown! Celebrating Snoopy and the Enduring Power of Peanuts looks at the impact of the comics on the cultural landscape, from 1950 to now, and, alongside works by Schultz, features responses to them by 20 figures from the worlds of art, fashion and music. The comic strips are showcased in their original state and size – complete with inky thumbprints and correction marks – and sit alongside vintage Peanuts products and publications as well as correspondence between Schultz and people such as Billie Jean King and Hillary Rodham (now Clinton). Along with interactive displays including a real-life re-imagination of Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth, light boxes where people can learn to draw the Peanuts characters and a Snoopy Cinema, here are also three large-scale lights installations illuminating the entrance to the exhibition. This landmark exhibition can be seen until 3rd March. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.somerset.org.uk.

Newly acquired contemporary artworks by Pacific Island artists are at the centre of an exhibition re-examining the relationship between Captain James Cook and the peoples of the Pacific Ocean which is running at the British Museum. Reimagining Captain Cook: Pacific Perspectives also features historic artefacts including Cook’s personal possessions and the British Museum’s oldest example of a Hawaiian shirt (pictured). Among the 14 contemporary artworks are eight specially acquired for the exhibition and all are in some way a response to Cook’s voyages to places including Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, Hawaii, Vanuatu and Tahiti. They include Maori artist Steve Gibbs’ Name Changer – an attempt to restore awareness of the traditional Maori names for the region around Gisborne in New Zealand, and a work by the Aboriginal photographer and artist Michael Cook, Civilised #12, which reflects on the legacy of William Dampier, the first Briton to visit Australia (before Cook). The display can be seen in Room 91 until 4th August. Admission is free. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org. PICTURE: ‘Hawaiian’ style vintage cotton shirt, decorated with designs from drawings done on Captain Cook’s voyages, Hawaii, 1970-1980. © Image The Trustees of the British Museum.

An exhibition marking the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport is running at the Jewish Museum London in Camden. Remembering the Kindertransport: 80 Years On tells the story of how in 1938-39, the British Government allowed 10,000 Jewish and other ‘non-Aryan’ children from Nazi-occupied Europe to come to Britain in a rescue operation which became known as the ‘Kindertransport’. It features the children, now in their 80s and 90s, telling their stories on film as well as personal objects and artefacts they brought with them from their homelands. Also on show is a photographic exhibition – Still in Our Hands: Kinder Life Portraits – featuring archival photographs and portraits of former Kindertransportees and another – My Home and Me – which, held in partnership with the British Red Cross, explores the journey of young refugees arriving in Britain today. The exhibition, which is being accompanied by a series of events, runs until 10th February. Admission is free. For more, see www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/kindertransport.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.


The first purpose-built luxury hotel built in Britain (and often referred to as London’s “most famous” hotel), The Savoy opened its doors on 6th August, 1889.

Located on the river side of the Strand on the site of what had been the medieval Savoy Palace (its most famous resident was John of Gaunt), the hotel was built by theatre impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte using profits made from his staging of Gilbert and Sullivan operas, some of which were performed in the neighbouring Savoy Theatre.

The now Grade II-listed building, which apparently had no overall architect in its initial design process, exuded opulence and its interiors included the latest in modern amenities such as electric lighting and lifts, en suite bathrooms in most of the guest rooms and constant cold and hot running water.

César Ritz, who would later rise to fame as the owner of The Ritz Hotel in Paris and then London (see our recent post), was hired as the manager and Auguste Escoffier as the chef. Together they oversaw the introduction of a new, unprecedented level of hotel service which would set the standard for future enterprises. This included keeping a comprehensive index of guest’s tastes and preferences and saw Escoffier revolutionise the restaurant industry in the country with the creation of various “stations” in the kitchen (his pots and pans are apparently still at the hotel).

The hotel was expanded in 1903-04 under the eye of architect Thomas Edward Collcutt (the designer of Wigmore Hall) with new east and west wings and the main entrance was moved from the river side of the building to Savoy Court running off The Strand. The Front Hall is a survivor of this period while the Lancaster Ballroom dates from 1910.

The hotel underwent further remodelling in the 1920s – it was during this period that the famous stainless steel sign over the Savoy Court entrance, designed by art deco architect Howard Robertson (later Sir Howard), was created (Savoy Court incidentally is the only street in the UK where traffic must keep to the right – more on that another time). The sign is topped with a gilt statue of Peter of Savoy, the uncle to King Henry III’s wife, Eleanor of Provence (pictured below). It was Peter who first built the Savoy Palace on the land where the hotel now stands. The sign, meanwhile, was created for the 1904 extension but placed here during the 1920s works.

Further modifications – including the introduction of air conditioning – followed in later decades. The hotel now boasts some 267 rooms and suites (the latter include the Royal Suite which spans the entire riverside of the fifth floor), many of which feature panoramic views of the River Thames.

Famous guests over the years have included royalty such as King Edward VII (when Prince of Wales) as well as more recent royals, French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, Sir Henry Irving and Sir Laurence Olivier. It’s also hosted a who’s who of Hollywood – everyone from Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra, Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne – and US President Harry S Truman.

Others associated with the hotel include opera singer Dame Nellie Melba – the dessert known as a Peach Melba was created here in her honour, and artist Claude Monet, who painted Waterloo Bridge from a position on one of the balconies.

Among other significant events to take place within its walls was a 1905 “Gondola Party” hosted by American millionaire George A Kessler which saw the central courtyard flooded as part of a recreation of Venice with guests dining on an enormous gondola and entertainment featuring singer Enrico Caruso.

In 1953, to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the hotel hosted a ball attended by 1,400 of the rich and famous with special touches including 16 Yeoman Warders from the Tower of London who lined the entrance staircase.

Films shot here include Kipps (1921), based on a HG Wells novel (Wells was in attendance during the filming), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and Notting Hill (1999).

The Savoy remained in the Carte family until it was bought by an American private equity house in 1998 and eventually sold, in the mid-2000s, to become part of Fairmont Hotels and Resorts of Canada.

Closed in late 2007 for a complete renovation (the cost of which has been put at £220 million), it reopened in October, 2010. Among restaurants and bars now in the premises are the Thames Foyer restaurant – hosted in a glass atrium, it’s where afternoon tea is taken, the American Bar – described as the oldest cocktail bar in Britain, the Beaufort Bar, and the restaurant Kaspar’s.

The latter is named after the hotel’s oldest “employee” – Kaspar the Cat. Carved in 1927 by Basil Ionides, the cat was created to act as a 14th guest in the private dining rooms when 13 guests were present, a figure which was considered unlucky and which, tradition held, meant the first person to leave the table would one the first to die.

Its origins go back to 1898 when a wealthy South African by the name of Woolf Joel apparently scoffed at the idea of 13 being an unlucky number at the table and volunteered to leave it first. He was shot dead back in South Africa just a few week’s later. In the wake of his death, management at the hotel decreed that any table of 13 would be joined by a staff member.

But this was only a short-term solution – not only there was there the privacy of diners to consider, the fact staff would be a person down when this was required was a problem. So when Ionides redecorated the private dining room ‘Pinafore’ in the 1920s, he created the cat, complete with napkin, to fulfil the role of the 14th diner. And so he has ever since. Kaspar, the subject of a children’s book written by Michael Morpugo in 2008, can these days be found in Kaspar’s or, when not working, in the Front Hall.

For more, see www.thesavoylondon.com

2019 is upon us so we at Exploring London would like to take the opportunity to wish all our readers a very Happy New Year! We look forward to bringing you fascinating new stories about London’s history and culture in the year to come.

Meanwhile, here are the two most popular (new) posts of 2018…

2. Treasures of London – The Great Hall at Eltham Palace…

1. A Moment in London’s History – The execution of the George, Duke of Clarence…

PICTURE: © ENGLAND’S HISTORIC CITIES (New Year’s Eve fireworks from 2014).

The next two posts on our annual countdown…

4. LondonLife – Still waters at Hampstead Heath…

3. Lost London – Jacob’s Island…

 

The next two on our countdown of most popular (new) posts for 2018…

6. 10 islands in the Thames – 3. Brentford Ait…

5. LondonLife – Victorian London in photographs…

The next two on our countdown of most popular (new) posts for 2018…

8. 10 islands in the Thames – 1. Chiswick Eyot…

7. Where’s London’s oldest…umbrella shop?

And so we’ve reached the end of another year on Exploring London. As always, we counting down our 10 most popular new posts for the year, starting with numbers nine and 10 (and they both come from the same special Wednesday series on Thames islands)…

9. 10 islands in the Thames – 10. Garrick’s Ait…

10. 10 islands in the Thames – 6. Glover’s Island…

 

 

Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2018

 

 

Wishing all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a great start to 2019!

 

 

 

PICTURE: Christmas tree in St James (KotomiCreations (licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0))

Costumes from a new film about Queen Anne, The Favourite, have gone on show at Kensington Palace where the Queen once lived. The film, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, explores the relationships and power struggles between the Queen (played by Olivia Coleman) and two of her closest female attendants – Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and Lady Churchill’s impoverished cousin turned chambermaid, Abigail (Emma Stone). The costumes have been designed by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell who worked with Fox Searchlight Pictures and Historic Royal Palaces in creating the display in the Queen’s Gallery, once used by Queen Anne and her husband for exercise when the weather was bad. The display can be seen until 8th February. Admission charge applies. The Favourite opens in the UK and Ireland on 1st January. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace/. PICTURE: © Historic Royal Palaces/Michael Bowles

Previously unseen portraits of Amy Winehouse and Sir Kenneth Branagh and newly acquired portraits of explorer Sir Rannulph Fiennes, astronaut Tim Peake and British Museum director Neil MacGregor have gone on show at the National Portrait Gallery. The portraits, which also include photographs from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding in May this year, form part of a major new display of the gallery’s contemporary collection which features works produced from the year 2000 until today. Sitting alongside the collection is a new exhibition of works by artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby from her series The Beautyful Ones – comprised of portraits of Nigerian youth, including some members of her own family. Admission is free and The Beautyful Ones display can be seen until 3rd February. For more. see www.npg.org.uk.

A recently discovered rare self portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi, the most celebrated female artist of the Italian Baroque, has gone on show at the National Gallery. Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1615-17), which was acquired by the gallery in July, 2017, can be seen in the Central Hall of the gallery after going through a five month conversation and restoration process which was documented in a series of short films shared on social media via #NGArtemisia. In March, the painting will leave the gallery on a “pop-up” tour of unexpected venues across the UK. A major exhibition of Gentileschi’s work is planned at the National Gallery in 2020. Admission to see the painting is free. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

This Piccadilly institution was constructed from 1904 to 1906 and takes its name from Swiss hotelier César Ritz.

It was constructed on the site of a former coaching inn for the Blackpool Building and Vendor Company – it was the first steel-framed building in London – and designed by Mewés and Davis, the architects of the Paris Ritz. And even though Ritz himself was apparently actually retired at the time, it was built according to his specifications.

The exterior facade features Norwegian granite and Portland stone and boasts an arcade on Piccadilly which deliberately evokes the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. The interior, the work of Waring and Gillow, is designed in the style of Louis XVI and was designed to be opulent with all rooms featuring a working fireplace.

Public spaces include the Palm Court – famous for its traditional afternoon teas –  and a Michelin-starred restaurant with floor to ceiling windows overlooking Green Park. Other features include the Rivoli Bar, designed in 2001 by Tessa Kennedy to resemble the bar in the Orient Express, and the basement Ritz Club, a private casino.

The now Grade II*-listed hotel was officially opened by Ritz himself on 24th May, 1906, and was soon adopted by the rich and famous – the patronage of the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VIII) after the death of King Edward VII was one key reason for its success.

Actor Charlie Chaplin, who apparently had to have 40 police hold back the crowd to enter the hotel, is also a name famously associated with it as is that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova who performed here.

The Aga Khan and Paul Getty both had suites, and playwright Noel Coward and Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, regularly dined here while Tallulah Bankhead famously sipped champagne from a slipper in the bar. The Marie Antoinette Suite was also famously the location of a conference between Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle during World War II.

The hotel also featured in 1999 film Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and in the more recent TV drama Downton Abbey.

The five star hotel underwent a major 10 year refurbishment after it was acquired by the Barclay brothers in 1995. The complex these days includes the adjoining 18th century property William Kent House (designed, of course, by William Kent).

In 2001, the hotel was awarded the first Royal Warrant for Banqueting and Catering Services. Other boasts these days include being the only UK hotel to have a certified tea sommelier (among teas served is the hotel’s own Ritz Royal Blend).

For more, see www.theritzlondon.com.

Trafalgar Square bedecked for Christmas with its famous Norwegian tree. PICTURE: Ben Pipe Photography via London Partners.

This year marks 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s book, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, so it’s timely to have a look at the life of this famous Londoner.

Shelley was born on 30th August, 1797, in Somers Town, London, to feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher, novelist and journalist William Godwin. Her mother died soon after her birth, leaving her upbringing to Godwin (and his second wife Mary Jane Clairmont who apparently didn’t get on with Mary).

While she received little formal education, she was tutored in a range of subjects – everything from literature to art, French and Latin – by her father and visiting tutors. Godwin described her as having a great desire for knowledge.

She first met her future husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, while still a teenager. Shelley, who was estranged from his wife, had struck up a friendship with her father and was subsequently a regular visitor to their house.

Mary and Percy began secretly meeting each other at Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave in St Pancras Churchyard and then on 28th June, 1814, the couple eloped to France, taking Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont with them but leaving Shelley’s pregnant wife behind.

They went on to Paris and then, through war-ravaged France, to Switzerland. At Lucerne, however, a lack of money forced them to turn back and they returned to London where Mary’s father refused to have anything to do with her.

Now pregnant, Mary and Shelley moved into lodgings with Claire in Somers Town and later in Nelson Square where they were known for entertaining his friends. Shelley’s wife, meanwhile, gave birth to his son – something that must have been hard for Mary – and it is believed that he was also a lover of Mary’s step-sister Claire.

Mary gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on 22nd February, 1815, but she died just 12 days later. That same year, the death of Shelley’s grandfather brought himself considerable wealth and with their financial situation now relieved, in August, 1815, they moved to Bishopgate, in Windsor Great Park. In January, 1816, Mary gave birth to her second child, a son, William.

In May, 1816, the couple travelled with their son William and Mary’s step-sister Claire to Geneva in Switzerland where they hoped to improve Percy’s health. It was during the time they spent there that a ghost-writing contest in June, 1818, led her to write what would be the basis of the novel Frankenstein – credited with introducing genre of science fiction into English literature.

Returning to England, the Shelley’s took up residence in Bath (Clairmont was pregnant by Lord Byron and they wanted to keep this from the Godwins). Harriet Shelley, Percy’s estranged wife, drowned herself in the Thames on 9th November and it was following that, that on 30th December, Mary and Percy married at St Mildred’s Church in London with Mary’s father and step-mother as witnesses.

In March, 1817, the Shelley’s took up residence in Marlow where Mary gave birth to second daughter, Clara Everina Shelley, on 2nd September. Then in March, 1818, the family – along with Claire Clairmont and her daughter – travelled to Italy where it was hoped the warmer climate would help Shelley, who had been diagnosed with pulmonary disease.

There they lived at various addresses and were in Venice when Clara died of dysentery on 24th September, 1818. They traveled to Rome in April the following year and there, on 7th June, William died of malaria, leaving the couple devastated.

Their fourth child and only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, was born in Florence on 12th November. Their Italian sojourn continued for the next couple of years until, on 8th July, 1822, Percy Shelley and his friend Edward Williams were drowned in a squall in the Gulf of Spezia.

Determined to show she could write and look after her son, Mary Shelley returned to England in mid-1823 and lived in The Strand with her father and stepmother until in the summer of 1824 she moved to Kentish Town. Her novel, The Last Man, was published in 1826 followed by The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) as well as working on numerous other writing projects.

Shelley never remarried although she was linked to various men romantically including American actor John Howard Payne whose offer of marriage she rejected.

After her son Percy left university in 1841, he came to live with her and between 1840 and 1842 Shelley travelled to various locations in Europe with her son. Sir Timothy Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s father, died in 1844 with the result that Shelley and her son were now financially independent.

Percy married Jane Gibson St John in 1848 and Mary lived her son and daughter-in-law, splitting their times between the ancestral Shelley home – Field Place in Sussex – and Chester Square in London as well as accompanying them on their travels overseas.

Shelley suffered considerable illness in the last years of her life – including debilitating headaches and bouts of paralysis in her body – before on 1st February, 1851, she died at the age of 53 from a suspected brain tumour at the Chester Square property.

She had asked to be buried with her mother and father, but Percy and Jane instead buried her at St Peter’s Church in Bournemouth closer to their home. In order to fulfill her wishes, they had the bodies of her parents exhumed from St Pancras graveyard and reburied with her.

Despite gaining respect as a writer in her own lifetime, Shelley’s reputation in the literary arts was overshadowed by that of Percy’s after her death. But in more recent decades her overall writing career has come to be more closely examined and applauded.

If you missed it, for more on Mary Shelley’s links with London, see our special series 10 sites from Mary Shelley’s London.

PICTURE: Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell (oil on canvas, exhibited 1840/NPG 1235). © National Portrait Gallery, London (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The V&A has reopened the second of its two Cast Courts following a redevelopment which has seen the addition of a new interpretation gallery, new exhibits and the restoration of historic original features. The West Court, now renamed the Ruddock Family Cast Court, has been returned to its historic past with original 19th century floors and wall colours and the Central Gallery, now renamed the Chitra Normal Sethia Gallery, features a new exhibition exploring the history, significance and contemporary relevance of the casts on display. Among the new exhibits are a scaled down digital reproduction of the arch of Palmyra destroyed by the so-called Islamic State in 2015 while one of the key existing exhibits, a 35 metre high cast of Trajan’s Column (displayed in two parts – see picture) has had its base permanently opened so visitors can gain an internal perspective. The reopening follows that of the Weston Cast Court in 2014 and completes a project which was begun in 2011. The Cast Courts were first opened in 1873, then known as the Architecture Courts, and house a collection of casts of some of the world’s most inspiring objects including everything from Michelangelo’s David to 16th-century tombs by Peter Vischer in Nuremberg and the Pórtico de la Gloria from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. They are the only public galleries in the South Kensington institution to display the same collection of objects as when they first opened. Entry to the Cast Courts is free. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk. PICTURE: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Works by Edward Burns-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Grayson Perry are among those on show as part of a new exhibition at the City of London Corporation’s Guildhall Art Gallery. Visions and Visionaries – a collaboration between the Guildhall Art Gallery, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Flat Time House, and the Bologna-based Association Age of Future, highlights some of the key figures who defined the ‘Visionary’ idea of art and laid the foundations for a later generation of avant-garde artists. Among the works on show are Sir John Gilbert’s depiction of two knights ambushed by fairies in a moon-lit forest, Marcello Pecchioli’s Alien Priest, and John Latham’s experimental screen print, NO IT, 1967 as well as Sir John Gilbert’s The Enchanted Forest, Burne-Jones’ St Agnes and St Dorothy; and a series of 25 drawings by Blake to illustrate two poems by Thomas Gray, The Bard and The Fatal Sisters. Admission is free. Runs until 28th April. For more, follow this link.

On Now: Cats on the Page. Featuring original illustrations of Mog by Judith Kerr, Beatrix Potter’s Kitty-in-Boots as imagined by Quentin Blake and two illustrations by Axel Scheffler for TS Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, this exhibition at the British Library is a celebration of literary felines and their creators. Objects on show include Lewis Carroll’s own copy of the exceptionally rare 1893 (third) edition of Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there (in which the author expresses frustration with the printing including a comment on an illustration of Alice’s kitten), an 1879 letter by Edward Lear in which he included doodles of himself and his cat Foss, a 16th century pamphlet on witchcraft with a woodcut image accompanying the description of a black cat or familiar belonging to ‘Mother Devell’, and a letter written by TS Eliot to Alison, daughter of his friend Geoffrey Tandy, which contains a draft of his poem Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer as well as Alison’s reply which includes drawings of the two cats. Coinciding with the 80th anniversary year of the original publication of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, the free exhibition is being accompanied by a programme of events and can be seen until 17th March. For more, see www.bl.uk/events/cats-on-the-page.

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