In Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous 1886 story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,the address of the home of Dr Henry Jekyll (and his alter-ego Mr Edward Hyde) is simply given as a square in Soho – then a rather seedy district.

Dr Jekyll is said to have bought the property from the heirs of a “celebrated surgeon”. Like the man himself, the house has two characters and features a “blistered and distained” rear entrance used by the dastardly Mr Hyde.

In a BBC Scotland documentary broadcast several years ago, author Ian Rankin identified the house in which Jekyll and Hyde lived as being based on that which pioneering Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter (1728-1793) lived in on the east side of Leicester Square.

Hunter leased both the property at 28 Leicester Square (the present number 28 – the ground floor of which is a pub – is pictured) and another behind it (it fronted onto what was then Castle Street) in the 1780s. He then spent a good deal of money joining the two properties together, creating a complex of rooms which included space for his thousands of specimens (now in the Hunterian Museum) as well as an anatomy theatre. It was at the rear Castle Street entrance that he apparently received human cadavers, brought by so-called “resurrection men” for dissection.

The dualistic nature of the property fits with that of Jekyll and Hyde and while Leicester Square isn’t usually considered part of Soho, it’s at the least very close by.

“In the book, Stevenson gives a detailed description of the layout of Dr Jekyll’s home,” Rankin said in the documentary. “It is identical to John Hunter’s.”

He added that, despite Hunter’s “fame and respectability” – he was appointed Surgeon Extraordinary to King George III and was one of London’s most sought-after doctors, “Hunter still demanded a constant supply of cadavers for his growing anatomy collection and teaching”.

“Naturally Hunter’s new home, in Leicester Square, was purpose-built for a surgeon’s double life.” Or for the respectable Dr Jekyll and brutish Mr Hyde.

Interestingly, the previous owner of Dr Jekyll’s home us said to have been a Dr Denman – there was a Dr Thomas Denman who was a contemporary of John Hunter who was a pioneering obstetrician.

The Leicester Square property later became the site of the Royal Panopticon of Science and Art (more of that in an upcoming Lost London post).

PICTURE: Top – Number 28 Leicester Square as it is today/Google Maps; Below – A ground floor plan of John Hunter’s residence made in 1792 (drawn in 1832) © Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0

 

Steven-SpielbergDirector Steven Spielberg, actor and playwright Mark Rylance, physicist Professor Stephen Hawking, TV personality Simon Cowell, and The Duchess of Cornwall are among 50 high profile personalities who have put their childhood dreams and aspirations on show around the country – including in London – to mark not only the release of the film The BFG but also the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth. Launched last weekend, the ‘BFG Dream Jar Trail’ features a series of up-to-six-foot-tall ‘Dream Jars’, each of which contains a sculpture representing the childhood dreams of a different personality. The free trail – which takes in London sites such as Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Leicester Square, Harrods, Emirates Stadium and The Shard – has been created in support of the work of Save the Children and a specialist nursing programme supported by Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Children’s Charity with the jars to be auctioned in collaboration with Paddle8 later this year to raise money for both causes (the auction will be launched on the film’s premiere on 17th July). At least 34 jars have already gone on display with more to be unveiled in coming days. The joint creation of  Save the Children, the Roald Dahl Literary Estate, Entertainment One and VisitLondon.com with support from Unilever, the trail can be seen until 31st August. To see the art trail map and discover the stories behind each jar and its location, head to www.visitlondon.com/bfg. For more on the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth, head to www.roalddahl.com/roalddahl100. PICTURED: Above – director Steven Spielberg’s self-designed jar, on display in Leicester Square, illustrating his childhood fantasy of having all the sweets in the world but none of the ill effects from overindulgence.

Following on from last week’s post, we look at a couple more London memorials to The Bard,  playwright William Shakespeare…

Shakespeare-Leicester-SquareLeicester Square: Returned to the West End square last year following its restoration (and the square’s redevelopment), this statue of Shakespeare – claimed to be the only outdoor one in London – was designed by architect John Knowles in 1874 when the square was constructed. Now Grade II-listed, it depicts Shakespeare leaning on a pedestal, pointing to a scroll which reads “There is no darkness but ignorance”, a quote from Twelfth Night. An inscription on the plinth upon which Shakespeare stands, refers to the laying out of the square by Albert Grant and doesn’t mention the playwright at all. The statue stands in the middle of a fountain, upgraded  as part of the recent overhaul of the site. PICTURE: Carcharoth/Wikipedia.

Primrose Hill: Shakespeare’s Tree on Primrose Hill was originally planted in April, 1864, to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth. An estimated 100,000 people marched to the site to watch the tree planting by poet Eliza Cooke and actor Samuel Phelps which was organised by the Workingmen’s Shakespeare Committee – apparently in response to the lacklustre efforts of a government-backed committee to mark the anniversary. The tree stood for 100 years before it died and was replaced with an oak sapling planted in 1964 actress Dame Edith Evans. A plaque which was attached to the tree detailing when it was planted has long since gone but there is talk of some sort of a permanent new memorial on the site.

There are other numerous places in London where Shakespeare – and his works – are remembered in London. One of our favourites is based in Love Lane and recalls the work of John Heminge and Henry Condell is getting Shakespeare’s works out to the world (for more on this, see our previous post here).

In our final post in this series next week, we take a look at some of the key London locations mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.

Cantonal-treeIn the hubbub of the West End, it’s easy to walk past the colourful monuments of Swiss Court without realising their significance is. 

Located between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, the area was formerly home of the Swiss Centre, completed in the late 1960s as a showcase and trade centre for Switzerland. The centre was demolished in the late Noughties and replaced by the building now housing the W London Hotel and M&M’s World.

It was named Swiss Court on 15th April, 1991 – the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation – by the then Lord Mayor of Westminster, Cr David Avery – and has two monuments commemorating the friendship between Switzerland and the UK.

The first is a “cantonal tree” (pictured) which displays the coats of arms of 26 cantons of Switzerland and was presented as a gift from Switzerland to mark the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in May 1977, “as a token of the friendship that exists between our two countries.”

The second is a glockenspiel featuring 27 bells and 11 moving figures which was originally attached to the front of the Swiss Centre after it was gifted to the City of Westminster by Switzerland and Liechtenstein in 1985.

It was removed when the building was demolished but, following a restoration and update (it’s now wirelessly controlled from Derby), returned to Swiss Court as a freestanding, 10 metre monument in late 2011. It now stands just a couple of metres from the cantonal tree.

The Bard is back in Leicester Square with the announcement last week that restoration work on the square’s 19th century Grade II listed statue of William Shakespeare – the only full-length statue the playwright in central London – has been completed. The 11 month restoration was carried out as part of £17 million revamp of the square which has seen the installation of a new fountain. The statue, which was the work of James Knowles, has been in the square since it was completed in its current configuration in 1874. Meanwhile, in other sculpture-related news, Sorry, Sorry Sarajevo – a life-size statue of a man holding  a dead or badly injured man in his arms has been placed in St Paul’s Cathedral where it will remain for the rest of the year. The work by Nicola Hicks dates from 1993 – when the Bosnian war was at its height – and has been placed opposite Henry Moore’s 1983 sculpture, Mother and Child: Hood as part of the cathedral’s approach to next year’s World War I centenary.

Two new displays opened at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury last month. Hogarth and Copyright, which runs until 5th January, looks at the role the artist William Hogarth played in the passing of the 1735 Engravers’ Copyright Act (also known as Hogarth’s Act – it was the first law to protect artist’s rights over their work) while Handel and Lucretia, presented in conjunction with The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust and running until 26th January, shows Guercino’s painting Lucretia alongside two early manuscripts of Handel’s cantata La Lucretia. Entry is part of admission price. For more, see www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk.

A new exhibition tracing the history of attacks on artworks in Britain from the 16th century to today opened at Tate Britain in Millbank this week. Art under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm looks at why and how monuments have been damaged over the past 500 years. The display includes the remarkable pre-Reformation sculpture, the Statue of the Dead Christ (about 1500-1520), which was discovered in 1954 beneath the chapel floor at the Mercer’s Hall. Already damaged – most likely at the hands of Protestant iconoclasts – it may have been buried there to protect it. Also displayed are fragments of monuments destroyed in Ireland last century, paintings including Edward Burne-Jones’ 1898 painting Sibylla Delphica which was attacked by suffragettes in 1913-14, and Allen Jones’ 1969 work Chair – damaged in a feminist attack in 1986. Runs until 5th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.tate.org.uk.

A controversial exhibition of sexually explicit Japanese works of art created between 1600-1900 opened at the British Museum this week. Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese Art – which carries a warning of “parental guidance for visitors under 16 years – features 170 works including paintings, prints and illustrated books. Drawn from collections in the UK, Japan, Europe and the US, the exhibition of explores the phenomena of what are known as shunga (‘spring pictures’), looking at why it was produced and to whom it was circulated. Admission charge applies. Runs until 5th January. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

This former fixture of Leicester Square featured a giant globe containing in its innards a detailed physical relief map of the earth’s surface.

The-Great-GlobeThe globe was the brainchild of James Wyld (the Younger), a Charing Cross cartographer and map publisher as well as an MP and Geographer to Queen Victoria, who originally planned on exhibiting it at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

At more than 60 feet high, its proposed dimensions, however, meant it would be too big to be housed inside the Crystal Palace being erected in Hyde Park (besides which, Wyld did want to use the globe to promote his map business, something which was frowned upon by the exhibition’s organisers).

So he turned to Leicester Square and, after a rather complicated series of negotiations with the owners of the gardens, was granted permission locate the globe there for 10 years. An exhibition hall large enough to house the globe – and the globe itself – was hastily constructed in time for the Great Exhibition (and the increased visitor numbers it would draw). It opened on 2nd June, 1851, one month after the Great Exhibition.

Inside the gas-lit interior of the globe – entered through four loggias – were a series of galleries and stairways which people could climb to explore the concave surface of the earth depicted – complete with plaster-of-Paris mountain ranges and other topographical details, all created to scale – on the inner side of the great orb.

Initially a great success (visitor numbers are believed to have topped a million in its first year), its appeal faded after a few years amid increasing competition from other attractions such as Panopticon of Science and Art (more of that in an upcoming post) and Wyld was obliged to introduce other entertainments to keep the public satisfied. Wyld himself was among those who gave public lectures at the site.

When the lease expired in 1862, the exhibition hall and the globe were both demolished and the globe sold off for scrap. Wyld, meanwhile, apparently didn’t keep his promise to return the gardens to a satisfactory state but after much wrangling over their fate, they were eventually donated to the City of London.

 PICTURE: The Great Globe in cross-section from the Illustrated London News, 7th June, 1851 (via Wikipedia).

Poet. Painter. Visionary? William Blake failed to find great success in his lifetime and died in relative obscurity but is now known internationally for his controversial and innovative works in the written word and visual arts.

Blake was born on 28th November, 1757, at 28 Broad Street in Soho, the third son of hosier James Blake and his wife Catherine (he was christened at St James’s Piccadilly). Little is known of his early life although accounts suggest he had some spiritual experiences – including a vision of a tree full of angels – as a young boy and also showed an interest in the visual arts at an early age.

William-BlakeAbout the age of 10, he started attending Henry Par’s drawing school before, at the age of 14, becoming an apprentice to James Basire, engraver to the Royal Society and Society of Antiquaries. Among his early assignments was to make drawings of the monuments and paintings at Westminster Abbey – interestingly, Blake’s earliest extant drawings are of the opening of King Edward I’s coffin on 2nd May, 1774.

In 1779, his apprenticeship completed, Blake enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts and at the same time, made his living as a copy engraver. His clients included the radical bookseller Joseph Johnson through whom he became introduced to people like Joseph Priestley. He also began producing original works on historical themes apparently with the aim of forging a career in the painting of history.

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher and they took up life together at a property near Leicester Square, later moving to Lambeth. They were to have no children.

Experimenting with new methods of engraving, in 1788, he published the first of what he was to call his “illuminated books” – All Religions are One, and There is no Natural Religion – with his first illuminated book of poetry, Songs of Innocence, coming a year later (its sequel Songs of Experience was published in 1794). In 1789, he published The Book of Thel, combining his new method of engraving with “prophetic” verse.

Later works in prose and poetry – created while Blake was still working as an engraver – continued to explore his increasingly radical views on religion and politics. They included The Marriage of Heaven and Hell published in 1790, The French Revolution in 1791, America: A Prophecy in 1793 and Visions of the Daughters of Albion the same year.

In 1800, Blake moved to Felpham, West Sussex, thanks to his friendship with one William Hayley who engaged his skills on several projects. It was while living here that Blake began work on his epic poems Milton (printed in 1810-11) and Jerusalem (completed in 1820).

Following an incident in 1803 in which Blake removed a drunk soldier from his garden, Blake was charged with high treason but acquitted after a trial at Chichester.

Having meanwhile moved back to London, in 1809 Blake made a last effort to gain the public’s attention with his work and held an exhibition of his paintings and watercolours at his family home in Broad Street (now home of his eldest brother James). But the exhibition did not elevate his profile as he may have hoped and during his last years, Blake increasingly sank into obscurity amid tightening finances and, although he continued to produce poetry, paintings and engravings, he found it hard to find work.

Blake died on 12th August, 1827, at his home at 3 Fountain Court on the Strand and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields. The stone which now stands there (pictured above) was added later.

It was during the Victorian-era that Blake’s work made its way into the hands of a larger audience than it ever had while he was alive, thanks to Blake enthusiasts like his first biographer Alexander Gilchrist and people associated with the Romantic movement.

His work continued to gain attention into the 20th century (in particular around the centenary of his death in 1927) and by mid-century had become what Robert N Essick says in Blake’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “one of the cultural icons of the English-speaking world”. Interest in Blake and his works has continued both in the UK and around the world.

A new room dedicated to showing Blake’s works opened at Tate Britain in May.

In the first of a new Wednesday series looking at historic London garden squares, we take a look at what next to Trafalgar Square, is the most famous square in the entire city – Leicester Square.

Located in the heart of the West End, Leicester Square’s history finds its origins back in the 17th history when Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester acquired property on the site where the square now stands. Then known as St Martin’s Field and located within the parish of St Martin’s, Sidney purchased four acres in 1630 and constructed Leicester House on land now located at the square’s northern end.

Leicester-SquareThe earl raised the ire of locals, however, when – having subsequently fenced off the land to prevent people from wandering on to his property – he enclosed what had previously been common land.

The people appealed to King Charles I who appointed three members of the Privy Council to look at the issue. Their decision? That the earl keep a section of his land open for the use of the parishioners of St Martin’s.

First known as Leicester Field, it was this land which later became known as Leicester Square. Fine homes were built around the square (its proximity to the Royal Court and centre of government made it a desirable place to live for the well-to-do and those seeking influence) with the centre enclosed with rails (it’s pictured here in 1750).

The square’s reputation also had a royal boost when, in 1717/1718, Leicester House became home to Prince George (later King George II) and his wife Princess Caroline along with their court after the prince fell out with his father King George I and was banished from St James’ Palace (this story is recounted in marvellous detail in Lucy Worsley’s terrific book, Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court).

The prince remained at the house for 10 years and was proclaimed King George II after his father’s death at its gate. Interestingly, King George II’s eldest son, Prince Frederick, also lived here for a time after he too fell out with his father (King George II). Apparently their relationship was even worse than the previous generation’s had been.

Despite its royal attractions, even at this stage the square apparently had it’s darker side with some less than savoury characters attending the hotels and livery stables that were built there. But things were to get worse as the wealthy moved out – a situation not helped when Leicester House was demolished in the 1790s.

Leicester Square became known as an entertainment venue in the 19th century (among attractions was the short-lived Royal Panopticon of Science and Art which showcased the best in science and art and Wyld’s Great Globe which contained a gigantic model of the earth) and received a new injection of life when theatres and music halls moved in, bringing the crowds back with them.

Shakespeare-StatueMeanwhile, the status of the square – and whether it could be built upon – remained a matter of debate well into the 19th century. That ended in 1874 when businessman Albert Grant bought the freehold of the land, had the garden created upon it and then donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works as a gift to the city.

Responsibility for the management of the square now rests with the City of Westminster. The square area – which is now known for hosting film premieres as well as the tourists who inevitably gather there – was pedestrianised in the 1980s and has just undergone a redevelopment and modernisation which was unveiled last year.

Meanwhile, work to restore the 19th century Shakespeare statue and fountain in the square’s centre is about to be completed (pictured). The square also contains a statue of actor Charlie Chaplin in the square as well as busts of scientist Sir Isaac Newton, painter and first president of the royal Academy Sir Joshua Reynolds, 18th century pioneer surgeon John Hunter, and painter William Hogarth.

The tradition of the entertainment continues in the modern era through the cinemas which now stand in the square and regularly host film premieres (an interesting, if oft-repeated, film-related anecdote connected to the square is that it was in a phone booth located at the square that during the 1960s a young actor Maurice Micklewhite saw a poster for The Caine Mutiny and decided to change his name to Michael Caine).

PICTURES (top) Wikipedia and (below) City of Westminster.

One of the stranger sights in London during this week of Olympic celebration are the many statues around the city adorned with hats – including Trafalgar Square’s iconic statue of Admiral Lord Nelson which now wears a Union Jack hat featuring a replica of the Olympic flame. Designed by Sylvia Fletcher and made by London’s oldest hatters Lock & Co, makers of Nelson’s original bicorn hat, the hat is one of 20 which has been placed upon London statues. It’s all part of Hatwalk, an initiative which aims to take visitors on a tour of the city by bringing some of its most well-known statues to life. Other statues wearing hats include those of former US President Franklin D Roosevelt and former British PM Winston Churchill in Bond Street, the Duke of Wellington near Wellington Arch, and William Shakespeare in Leicester Square. Hatwalk, which features hats designed by some of the UK’s top milliners, was commissioned by the Mayor of London, in partnership with BT, Grazia magazine, the British Fashion Council and the London 2012 Festival. The hats, which appeared on the statues yesterday, will remain on the statues for only four days before they are auctioned for charity. For more on Hatwalk and a map of where the hats are, see www.molpresents.com/hatwalk

 

• It’s all about the Olympics in London this week and many of the events – like the Opening Ceremony and Torch Relay (see last week’s post) – are well covered elsewhere, but we thought we’d mention a couple of things in relation to the Games: 

The first is the ‘All the Bells’ project which will see bells across London being rung at 8:12am on Friday to “ring in” the first day of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Work No. 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes, commissioned as part of the London 2012 Festival, is the brainchild of Turner Prize-winning artist and musician Martin Creed and will involve thousands of bells across the nation. Speaking of bells, the City of London has announced that some of the City’s churches will be ringing continuously during the three Olympic marathon events – the men’s, women’s, and Paralympic events. As many as 57 of the country’s most experienced bell ringers, co-ordinated by the Ancient Society of College Youths (a ringing society created in London in 1637) will be working for three to four hours continuously at churches including St Paul’s Cathedral, St Mary le Bow, St Lawrence Jewry, St Magnus the Martyr, St Vedast and St Katharine Cree. During the women’s marathon, an all-female band will be attempting a peal at St Paul’s, the first all-woman attempt on the bells. (Apologies, this article had originally had the time for the bell ringing at 8.12pm – it is in the morning, not the evening!)

A new exhibition exploring London’s Olympic history has opened at the British Library. Olympex 2012: Collecting the Olympic Games features a range of memorabilia including a swimming costume and the finishing tape broken by – later disqualified – marathon runner Dorando Pietri  from the 1908 London Games (see our earlier post for more on him) as well as posters and artworks, stamps, letters and postcards. The exhibition also features audio interviews with Olympians including William (Bill) Roberts, a relay runner in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and Dorothy Tyler, a medal-winning high jumper who competed in the 1936 and 1948 Olympics. Presented by the British Library and International Olympic Committee, the exhibition runs until 9th September at the library in St Pancras. Entry is free. For more, see www.bl.uk. PICTURE: Rare 1948 postcard by an unknown artist (c) Private collection/IOC

• A new free wifi network has been launched in London’s West End. Westminster City Council and telco O2 launched the network this week. It will initially cover Oxford and Regent Streets, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Parliament Square with further areas in Westminster and Covent Garden the next to be included in the network. A once-only registration process is required to join.

• Henry Moore’s famous sculpture, The Arch, has been returned to its original home in Kensington Gardens. The six metre high work was presented to the nation by Moore in 1980 and was positioned on the north bank of the Long Water until 1996 when the structure became unstable and was placed in storage. In late 2010, the Royal Parks began a project with The Henry Moore Foundation to see if the work could be returned to the gardens. Work began to restore the piece – which consists of seven stones weighing 37 tonnes – to its original location earlier this year. For more on Kensington Gardens, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/kensington-gardens.

• On Now: From Paris: A Taste for Impressionism. This Royal Academy of Arts exhibition at Burlington House features 70 works from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and includes works by Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Sisley, Morisot and Renoir as well as those of post-Impressionist artists Corot, Théodore Rousseau and J-F. Millet, and ‘academic’ paintings by Gérôme, Alma-Tadema and Bouguereau. Runs until 23rd September. Admission charge applies. See www.royalacademy.org.uk for more.

• Leicester Square officially reopened last night following a £15.3 million transformation which has seen every paving stone replaced, new plants, and 40 new water jets placed around the Grade II listed fountain and statue of William Shakespeare. The 17 month makeover also included new lighting, new seating and a refurb of the underground toilets. The square – which owes its name to Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, who purchased this land in 1630 and, after building himself a mansion, kept aside part of the land for public use – now welcomes as many as 250,000 tourists a day and is known as one of the world’s premiere sites for the release of new films.

• The Royal Academy of Arts is marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee with a new exhibition opening tomorrow which features a selection of paintings by Royal Academicians elected during the early part of the Queen’s reign. The Queen’s Artists will include works by Jean Cooke, Frederick Gore and Ruskin Spear and will be displayed in the Reynolds and Council Rooms. Meanwhile The Saloon will house a collection of sculptures, paintings and drawings prepared by Royal Academicians for British coins and royal seals on loan from the Royal Mint Museum. The collection includes portraits of the Queen by Edward Bawden and Sir Charles Wheeler which have never before been shown in public, and Sir Anthony Caro’s new coin design of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Over in the Tennant Gallery, The King’s Artist’s George III’s Academy, will look at the king’s role in the foundation of the academy in 1768 and his influence in selecting the first artists. Highlights include portraits of King George III (pictured) and Queen Charlotte painted by the academy’s first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalacademy.org.uk. PICTURE: Copyright Royal Academy of Arts, London/John Hammond.

• A new exhibition focusing on Londoners and their treasured souvenirs commemorating Queen Elizabeth II opens tomorrow at the Museum of London. At Home with the Queen features 12 photographic portraits of Londoners at home with their mementos as well as a selection of royal commemorative objects from the museum’s collection. The latter include trinkets produced for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, official Coronation Day street decorations, Silver Jubilee paper tableware and souvenirs relating to the current Diamond Jubilee. Runs until 28th October. Admission is free. For more (including a series of events running on conjunction with the exhibition), see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

The Royal Parks’ Shire horse, Jed, retired last week after a decade of service working in Richmond Park. The Queen presented a commemorative retirement rosette to Jed who was born in 1993 and joined the Royal Parks from Bass Brewery in Burton upon Trent almost 10 years ago. Horses have been used in Richmond Park since it was enclosed by King Charles I in 1637. The horses took a break in 1954 but the Shires were reintroduced in 1993 as a way to sustainably manage the parkland. For more on Richmond Park, see www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/richmond-park.

On Now: The horse: from Arabia to Royal Ascot. This major free exhibition at the British Museum is part of the august institution’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and traces the history of the horse from domestication around 3,500 BC through to present day, with a particular focus on Britain’s equestrian tradition, from the introduction of the Arabian breed in the 18th century to events like Royal Ascot. Highlights include one of the earliest known depictions of horse and rider – a terracotta mould found in Mesopotamia dating from around 2000 to 1800 BC, a cylinder seal of Darius dating from 522 to 486 BC depicting the king hunting lions in a chariot, a 14th century Furusiyya manuscript, an Arabian manual of horsemanship, and the 19th century Abbas Pasha manuscript, the primary source of information about the lineage of purebred Arabian horses acquired by Abbas Pasha (mid-nineteenth century viceroy of Egypt). The exhibition is being held in Room 35. Runs until 30th September. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

We’re celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens this year so it’s only fitting that we look at a building which has been, rightly or wrongly, associated with one of his books.

Located at 13-14 Portsmouth Street in Westminster, The Old Curiosity Shop now operates as a shop selling handmade fashions and footwear but the building apparently dates back 1567, making it a strong contender for the title of London’s oldest shop.

The name – The Old Curiosity Shop – was apparently applied to the building some years after Dickens first published his story, The Old Curiosity Shop, in the weekly serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, in 1840 and 1841. The belief subsequently arose that it was this building the author had in mind when writing the book which tells the tale of Little Nell and her grandfather, a shopkeeper, and their interactions with the evil moneylender Daniel Quilp.

The claim is disputed by some, author Ed Glinert among them. In his book Literary London: A Street by Street Exploration of the Capital’s Literary Heritage he says the model for Dickens’ building was located at either 24 Fetter Lane or 10 Orange Street near Leicester Square and notes that at the end of the novel, Dickens said the building had long since been pulled down.

The Grade II* listed building, which survived the Great Fire of 1666 and the Blitz of World War II, is said to have been made from wood taken from old ships. Apparently at one stage it was a dairy which belonged to an estate awarded by King Charles II to one of his mistresses.

For more, see www.curiosityuk.com.

• Dickens fever is well and truly upon us in the lead-up to the bicentenary of his birth in February and tomorrow the Museum of London opens its own unmissable exhibition, Dickens and London. Displays centre on the relationship between Dickens and the city and visitors will be able to follow in the great novelist’s footsteps as they visit some of the places which sparked his imagination as well as confront some of the great social issues of the 19th century – including childhood mortality, prostitution and poverty – and be taking on a tour of some of the age’s greatest innovations – everything from railways and steamboats to the Penny Post. Among the objects on display will be Dickens’ writing desk and chair, his bank ledger, excavated items from Jacob’s Island, a notorious slum which was located near Bermondsey, and manuscript pages describing an East End opium den which was featured in Dicken’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (this, along with William Powell Frith’s celebrated portrait of the author, are being lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum). The exhibition also features a specially commissioned film looking at London after dark in Dickens’ time and today. Costumes from the upcoming BBC One drama series, Great Expectations, will also be on display and there is also a specially commissioned window display by acclaimed creative director and set designer Simon Costin showing a wintery London in the mid-19th century. The museum is also offering a new iPhone and iPad graphic novel app, Dickens: Dark London, which will take users on a “journey through the darker side” of Dickens’ London. Opens on 9th December (tomorrow) and runs until 10th June, 2012. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk. For more on Dickens, see www.dickens2012.org. PICTURE: Dickens Dream by Robert William Buss (Courtesy Museum of London).

New hoardings have gone up at Leicester Square celebrating the area’s history as work continues on an £18 million plan by Westminster City Council to revitalise the Leicester Square streetscape. The more than 160 square metres of hoardings feature 11 images spanning a period of 250 years (and selected from thousands of archive images of the square). Meanwhile in Trafalgar Square, the famous Norwegian Christmas Tree was lit in a ceremony last Thursday. The tree is an annual gift from the people of Oslo as thanks for British support during Norway’s years of occupation in World War II. It will be lit from noon until midnight every day until 6th January.

And, briefly…..London’s Kew Gardens has been voted the top visitor attraction in Britain at the British Airways magazine travel award while the London Eye and Tate Modern came runner’s up…..Figures released to mark the 10th anniversary of free admission to England’s national museums show that visitor numbers to the museums have more than doubled over the past decade…..and, the first woman Tube driver, Hannah Dadds, reportedly died at the age of 70.

On Now: The Flamboyant Mr. Chinnery: An English artist in India and China. This exhibition at Asia House in New Cavendish Street in the West End, focuses on the work of 19th century artist George Chinnery and features landscapes and portraits he painted while in China and India. Runs until 21st January. Admission is free. For more, see www.asiahouse.org.

• On Now: Miracles & Charms. The Wellcome Collection is hosting this exhibition which features two shows – Infinitas Gracias: Mexican miracle paintings, the first major exhibition of Mexican votive paintings outside of Mexico, and Charmed life: The solace of objects, an exhibition of unseen London amulets from Henry Wellcome’s collection. Runs until 26th February, 2012. For more, see www.wellcomecollection.org.

A ship-builder and New World colonist of some renown, Thomas Coram is primarily remembered now as the founder of London’s Foundling Hospital.

While details of Coram’s early life are sketchy, it is known that he was born in Dorset, possibly in Lyme Regis, in 1668 and was believed to be the son of a merchant seaman, John Coram.

Coram’s mother apparently died while he was still young and he went to sea at the age of just 11. Following his father’s remarriage, however, the family moved to Hackney in East London and it was after that move that Coram was apprenticed to a shipwright working beside the Thames.

In 1694, having previously worked for the Government auditing troop and supply ships, a group of merchants asked Coram to establish a new shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts. He did so and spent the next 10 years building ships in Boston and Taunton. But, a staunch Anglican living among Puritans, he apparently make some enemies while doing so (this led to lawsuits and even apparently an attempt on his life). It was during this time that he also married a Bostonian, Eunice Wait.

Following his return to England in 1704, Coram found further success as a merchant and was soon commanding merchant ships during the War of the Spanish Succession (it is believed it was during this time that he acquired the title of captain). Throughout the following years he continued to conduct business in the New World colonies – particularly Massachusetts and Maine – as well as in London.

It was after he had moved to Rotherhithe in 1719 that Coram’s eyes were opened to the plight of abandoned children – he would apparently see them when travelling into London – and, his heart obviously moved, he began to advocate for the creation of a foundling hospital similar to those he had seen on the continent during his travels.

While his efforts initially came to nothing, Coram eventually received the backing of Queen Caroline, wife of King George II – an important step for the plain-speaking seaman. Having presented numerous petitions to the king, His Majesty finally signed the Foundling Hospital Charter on 14th August, 1739. The first meeting of the governors – which included notables such as artist William Hogarth and prominent physician Dr Richard Mead – was held at Somerset House that November.

A temporary hospital opened it’s doors at Hatton Garden on 25th March, 1741, and the first foundlings were baptised Thomas and Eunice Coram. But it was only four and a half years later – in October, 1745 – that a purpose-built hospital opened its doors in an area known as Bloomsbury Fields. As well as Hogarth (who painted Coram in 1740 – the picture can still be seen in the Foundling Hospital today), the hospital also attracted the support of composer George Frideric Handel.

Coram’s role in the governance of the hospital effectively came to an end in 1741-1742 (he is said to have made some indiscreet comments about some of his fellow governors) but – despite being still engaged in numerous business activities – he continued to visit the hospital regularly and, as well as being Godfather to more than 20 of the foundlings, the story goes that he found the time to sit in an arcade at the hospital and pass out pieces of gingerbread to the children.

Captain Thomas Coram died on 29th March, 1751, in lodgings on Spur Street near Leicester Square (his wife Eunice had died earlier, in July 1740, and the couple had no children). He was buried in the Foundling Hospital chapel.

One of the best places to visit to find out more about Captain Coram and his life is the Foundling Museum, housed in part of the former hospital. For our previous story on the hospital, follow this link. A statue of Coram (pictured above) stands outside in Brunswick Square.