wimpole-streetThis notable Marylebone Street contains the home of Henry Higgins, the professor of phonetics who attempts to help Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle pass for a duchess as part of a bet in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion.

Written in 1912, the play which gives Professor Higgins’ address as 27A Wimpole Street was in 1964 adapted into the film, My Fair Lady, starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison.

The choice of Wimpole Street as the address of Professor Higgins – both for his home and “laboratory” – was apparently not co-incidental. Articles in The Telegraph and Daily Mail last year talk about the fact that 27a lies not far from a grand Georgian (Grade II-listed) townhouse (then on the market for £15 million) in Upper Wimpole Street which was formerly the home of a Professor Horace Hayman Wilson, a professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University in the early 19th century.

The articles say that while the “real-life academic ‘model'” for Higgins was Henry Sweet – an early 20th century Oxford professor of phonetics who is named in the preface to the play, the basis for Professor Higgins’ rather grand lifestyle was that of Professor Wilson.

They also suggest that the connection between Professor Higgins and Professor Wilson makes sense considering one of the mysteries of Pygmalion – how a humble phonetics professor could afford consulting rooms on a street known for wealthy private medical practices.

The answer lies in the Professor Wilson’s history – his father, a doctor, bought a house in the street in 1806 and subsequently bought a neighbouring property for his son who initially pursued a medical career before moving into academia where he specialised in languages. Splitting his time between Wimpole Street, Oxford and Calcutta in India, Professor Wilson’s lifestyle, straddling high society and academia, formed a prototype for that of Professor Higgins. Or so the story goes.

PICTURE: Looking down Wimpole Street; number 27 is second on the left. PICTURE: Google Maps.

An iconic location in one London’s most well-known Royal Parks, the history of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner as a site of public oratory dates back to at least the mid 1800s (although thanks to the site being located close to where Tyburn Tree once stood, its arguable that the tradition goes further back, to when condemned prisoners were able to have a final word on the gallows – but for more on the Tyburn Tree, see our previous post here).

Located near Marble Arch on the north-east corner of Hyde Park, the area was the scene of massive protests by the Reform League in the mid 1800s which were aimed at extending the voting franchise to the working class. In 1866, protestors tore up the railings and rioted for three days after they approached the area and found themselves locked out of Hyde Park. They returned en masse the following year in defiance of a government ban but were allowed to protest without intervention.

While there was some opposition to the idea of public protests in the area, in 1872, the passing of the Parks Regulation Act meant the park’s authorities could issue permits for speakers (while it didn’t enshrine the right to speak in law, it did establish the general principle of speaking in parts of the park). The area covered by the act is much larger than Speakers’ Corner but tradition has established that as the site where people gather to speak (and listen).

Anyone can now turn up to address the public at Speakers’ Corner whenever the park is open but tradition has meant most of the speaking happens on a Sunday morning (when you’ll certainly encounter some very regular speakers). The only condition is that the speech be considered “lawful”.

Among the more notable speakers who have attended are Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw and William Morris. The suffragettes also held meetings there in the early 1900s and, in 2003, it was the scene of a massive rally against the taking of military action in Iraq.

Numerous other countries have since adopted the idea and created their own version of a “speakers’ corner” including Australia, Singapore, Canada and the US.

London’s Speakers’ Corner has undergone a makeover in recent months (somewhat controversial to some) and was last month reopened by the Culture Secretary Sajid Javid who described Speakers’ Corner as a “deeply symbolic space that celebrates freedom of speech”.

The refurbishment included new trees and plantings, resurfacing and the installation of railings, designed by Royal Parks landscape architect Ruth Holmes and landscape architects Burns + Nice and carried out by award-winners Bowls and Wyer.

For more, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/hyde-park-attractions/speakers-corner.

• An appeal has been launched to raise the final £500,000 of a £7 million project to restore Sir John Soane’s private apartments in his former home overlooking Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn. Phase one of the three year restoration project, Opening up the Soane, is expected to be complete by late 2012 with the entire project – which will see all of the rooms open to the public – to be completed by 2o14. The eight rooms being restored in the project, all of which are located on the second floor of No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields – one of three adjoining properties Soane owned , include the architect’s bedroom, bathroom, oratory and book passage as well as Mrs Soane’s morning room and a room containing Soane’s architectural models. The building  already contains the Sir John Soane Museum which features an eclectic and at time outright strange mix of artefacts Soane, designer of the Bank of England (although it has since been substantially altered), collected during his lifetime. For more information, see www.soane.org.

Highland cattle will return to Richmond Park in autumn to help create patches of bare ground for wildflowers to grow after the success of a recent grazing trial. Richmond Park has the most extensive area of natural grassland in London and the type of grassland – known as ‘acid grassland’ – is a nationally rare habitat. Richmond Park is already home to 650 red and fallow deer. For more information, see www.royalparks.org.uk.

On Now – A new exhibition of street photography in London has just opened at the Museum of London. London Street Photography showcases 200 candid images of everyday life in the city with images ranging from sepia-toned scenes of horse-drawn cabs captured by tripod mounted cameras through to the use of digital cameras in snapping images of 21st century residents. Among the 59 photographers whose work is on display is that of Paul Martin, who pioneered the idea of candid street photography in London in the early 1890s, freelance photojournalist Henry Grant who photographed London’s streets in the Fifties and Sixties, and Stephen McLaren, known for his contemporary “quirky and colorful” street images. Entry is free. The exhibition runs until 4th September. For more information, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

On Now – The first major exhibition in 30 years of the work of EO Hoppe has opened at the National Portrait Gallery. Hoppe, who lived from 1878 to 1972, is considered one of the most important photographers of the early 20th century and is described as the “prototypical celebrity photographer”, shooting among others Margot Fonteyn, George Bernard Shaw, King George V, David Lloyd George and Ezra Pound. He also published the Book of Fair Women – photographs of women he believed to be the most beautiful of earth – in 1922 and in the Twenties and Thirties increasinly spent time outside the studio photographing street life. Hoppe Portraits: Society, Studio and Street runs until 30th May. For more information, see www.npg.org.uk.