This Holborn square was laid out in the 1680s by property speculator Nicholas Barbon and took its name from the Red Lion Inn which once stood here.

The inn, incidentally, is said to be the place where the exhumed bodies of Oliver Cromwell, his son-in-law (and Parliamentarian general) Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw, president of the parliamentary commission to try King Charles I, lay the night before they were taken to Tyburn where they were desecrated (there’s a story that the bodies were switched that night and the real men lay buried in a pit in a square).

The square was laid out on what had been known as Red Lion fields and there were apparently some physical scuffles between the workmen, led by Barbon, and lawyers of Gray’s Inn who objected to the loss of their rural vistas.

The square, meanwhile, soon became a fashionable part of the city – among early residents was Judge Bernard Halle – but by the mid-19th century, its reputation had slumped only to move up again in later years.

Famous residents included Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1851 and William Morris who lived in a flat on the southern side of the square with Edward Burne-Jones in the later 1850s. The art deco Summit House was built in 1925 on the former residence of John Harrison, inventor of the marine chronometer. Jonas Hanway, the first man to walk London’s streets with an umbrella, apparently also lived on the square.

The square today is home to the Royal College of Anaesthetists and Conway Hall, home of the Conway Hall Ethical Society (in fact, it was Conway Hall which was at the centre of one of the most famous incidents in the square – clashes between anti-fascist protestors and National Front members and subsequent police response which took place on 15th June, 1974, and left a university student, Kevin Gately, dead.

The garden in the centre of the square features a statue of anti-war activist Fenner Brockway and a bust of philosopher, essayist and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell.

PICTURE: Top – View across part of the square (Google maps)/Below – Fenner Brockway statue (Matt Brown/licensed under CC BY 2.0)

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liberty1Liberty, now a West End institution, was founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty in 1875 with a vision to transform the way people thought of fashion and homewares.

Born the son of a Buckinghamshire draper, Liberty worked with relatives from a young age before he eventually started work with a women’s fashion house, Farmer and Rogers. Rising to management, when they refused to make him a partner in the business, he decided to strike out on his own and established Liberty & Co at 218a Regent Street, an ‘oriental warehouse’ selling ornaments, fabric and objets d’art. He named the property East India House.

libertyOnly 18 months after he first set up shop – financed with a £2,000 loan from his future father-in-law and employed three staff – he was already expanding his premises into properties to the south in Regent Street to house furnishings and carpets. He eventually took over all the buildings between 140 to 150 and named the extended building Chesham House.

The costume department was introduced in 1884 and together with its director EW Godwin, Liberty created in-house fashions to challenge those of Paris. He is also noted for having encouraged and collaborated with designers like Archibald Knox and William Morris.

Liberty, who took the company public in 1894, was knighted in 1913. He died in 1917, seven years before the current Liberty store – the mock-Tudor building on the corner of Regent Street and Great Marlborough Street – was built.

Designed by Edwin T Hall and son, the shop was built from the timbers of two ships, the HMS Impregnable and the HMS Hindustan (and the shop frontage measures the same length as the latter). It was built around three light wells, each of which was surrounded by smaller rooms – many of which have fireplaces and were designed to give the feel of rooms in a house.

Features on the Grade II*- listed building include its weathervane – an exact replica of the Mayflower, which took pilgrims to the US in 1620, decorative shields including the arms of Shakespeare and those of the wives of King Henry VIII, and the clock above the Kingly Street entrance.

Liberty, which is generally acknowledged to have been a powerful influence on 19th and 20th century fashions and tastes, was bought by its current owners, BlueGem in 2010.

~ www.libertylondon.com

Sherlock-15Sherlock Holmes and his relationship to London, the city in which he lived, is the focus of a new exhibition which opens at the Museum of London from Friday. Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, the first major temporary exhibition on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character to be held in London in more than 60 years, will look at his literary origins and his relationship with late 19th century London, through to his portrayal in popular culture including through stage and screen performances starring everyone from Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey, Jr. Highlights of the exhibition include Conan Doyle’s notebook containing the first ever lines of a Sherlock Holmes story and notes in which he experimented with names for his to leading characters (later Holmes and Dr John Watson), a rare oil on canvas painting of Conan Doyle painted by Sidney Paget in 1897 which has never before been on public display in London, the original manuscript of 1903’s The Adventure of the Empty House, the Belstaff coat and the Derek Rose camel dressing gown worn by Benedict Cumberbatch from the BBC series and original pages from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 hand-written manuscript of The Murders in the Rue Morgue (Poe was an important influence on Conan Doyle’s writings). The exhibition will also include paintings, drawings, illustrations and photographs of Victorian London along with a vast collection of objects from the period. Runs until 27th April. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk/sherlock. PICTURE: Two editions of A Study in Scarlet in which Conan Doyle introduced Holmes and Watson, Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887.

The first ever in-depth exploration of Rembrandt’s final years of painting opened at the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square yesterday. Rembrandt: The Late Works features about 40 paintings, 20 drawings and 30 prints with key works including moving The ‘Jewish Bride’ (from Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam), An Old Woman Reading (The Buccleuch Collection in Scotland), Bathsheba with King David’s Letter (Musee du Louvre in Paris) and Lucretia (National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC) as well as the last minute loan of The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Sweden). The exhibition provides new insights into some of the artist’s most famous works including The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers (aka The Syndics), and brings together a number of self-portraits usually seen in different galleries. The exhibition runs in the Sainsbury Wing until 18th January. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

The first exhibition devoted to Pre-Raphelite William Morris and his influence on 20th century life opens at the National Portrait Gallery off Trafalgar Square today. Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and His Legacy, 1860-1960 explores the ‘art for the people’ movement which Morris and the artists of the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood initiated, reveals the work of Arts and Crafts practitioners inspired by Morris, and shows how Morris’ “radical ideals” influenced the Garden City movement and post-war designers like Terence Conran. Highlights include Morris’ handwritten Socialist Diary, his gold-tooled hardbound copy of Karl Marx’s Le Capital and Burne-Jones’ handpainted Prioresses Tale wardrobe. Admission charge applies. The exhibition runs until 11th January. For more, see www.npg.org.uk.

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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.

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A remarkable Pre-Raphaelite painting has been found painted on the wall of a Bexleyheath house lived in by artist William Morris. The bedroom wall painting at Red House, which is believed to have been painted by Morris and other Pre-Raphaelites, was hidden behind a wardrobe and covered by wallpaper for years with only two figures from the painting visible. But following two months of conservation work by the National Trust – which acquired the property in south-east London in 2003 – a six by eight foot image has been discovered depicting Biblical characters such as Adam and Eve, Noah, and Rachel and Jacob. Designed to resemble a hanging tapestry, the image also contained faded and incomplete lines of text which have been identified as being from the Biblical book of Genesis (chapter 30, verse six). Morris lived at the house between 1860 and 1865, during which time Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife Elizabeth Siddal, Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown were regular visitors. It is understood his friends helped decorate the property’s walls, ceilings and items of furniture with wall paintings and patterns. While it is thought Jacob was painted by Morris, Rachel possibly by Elizabeth Siddal and Noah by Madox Brown, further research is being undertaken to help identify who painted which image. For details on visiting times and how to get to the property, check out www.nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house/. PICTURES:  © National Trust / James Breslin and, © National Trust.

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Laus Veneris (1873-8) by Edward Burne-Jones was inspired by Algernon Swinburne’s poem Laus Veneris which relates the tale of a knight who falls in love with Venus (shown in red) but then decides to leave her. Usually found in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, it’s among the 180 or so works on display at Tate Britain on Millbank as part of its recently opened exhibition, Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde. The exhibition, the largest survey of the group in almost 30 years, locates the Pre-Raphaelites as the UK’s first modern art movement and traces the group’s development from its formation in 1848 through to their Symbolist creations of the 1890s. Other works on show, some of which have been rarely seen in the UK, include John Everett Millais’ Ophelia, William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Found. There are also works by Madox Brown and William Morris and as well as paintings, the display includes sculpture, photography and the applied arts. Runs until 13th January next year. Admission charges apply. For more, see www.tate.org.uk.

A sensual and vivid masterpiece, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s La Ghirlandata, hangs in the main hall of the Guildhall Art Gallery at the heart of the city.

The portrait, which is alive with the imagery of sexual attraction including honeysuckle and roses around the top of the harp and the harp itself – representing music, a common metaphor for love, was one of several depicting women playing musical instruments painted by Rossetti in the early 1870s.

It was painted in oils in 1873 at Kelmscott Manor in Gloucestershire, a property part-owned by Rossetti and his friend William Morris. There Rossetti, a founder of the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, had come after having what has been described as a mental breakdown in 1872.

Morris was not at the property when the painting was made but his wife Jane, with whom Rossetti was in love and who was one of his key muses, was. The model, however, was Alexa Wilding while the angels bore the face of Jane’s young daughter May.

PICTURE: Courtesy of Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

WHERE: Guildhall Art Gallery, Guildhall Yard (off Gresham Street) (nearest Tube stations are Bank, Mansion House, Moorgate and St Paul’s); WHEN: 10am to 5pm Monday to Saturday/12pm to 4pm Sunday (excluding some public holidays); COST: Free (fees may be charged for some temporary exhibitions); WEBSITE: www.guildhallartgallery.cityoflondon.gov.uk/gag/

A love letter Romantic poet John Keats wrote to his beloved Fanny Brown will be returned to the house in which it was written. Keats wrote the letter in 1820 while living next door to her at Wentworth House in Hampstead, north London – his home from 1818 to 1820 and the setting that inspired some of his most memorable poetry including Ode to a Nightingale. The City of London Corporation, who manage the house – now a museum known as Keats House, recently purchased the letter with the support of the Heritage Lottery Fund for £80,000. They say it will now be returned to the house and displayed there. In the letter Keats wrote: “I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been – Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things.” He said his consolation was “in the certainty of your affection”. See www.keatshouse.cityoflondon.gov.uk.

Amid the host of souvenirs and trinkets up for sale in the lead-up to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton comes news of a unusual offering from Transport for London – a limited edition royal wedding Oyster card. The card, which will go on sale in the week leading up to the ceremony, features a portrait of the couple and their wedding date – 29th April, 2011. More than 750,000 of the cards will be offered for sale. The move is not without precedent – in 1981, a unique ticket was produced for the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana.

• Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, the youngest Spitfire pilot to take part in the Battle of Britain, was granted the Freedom of the City of London at a ceremony at Guildhall last week. Wellum was just 18-years-old when he joined the RAF in August 1939. Serving in a frontline squadron, he flew many combat missions including dogfights during the Battle of Britain and was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

• On Now: The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in . Said to be the “most comprehensive” exhibition ever staged on the Aesthetic Movement in Britain, it brings together masterpieces in painting as well as sculpture, design, furniture, architecture, fashion and literature of the era and explores some of the key personalities  involved in the movement – from William Morris and Frederic Leighton through to James McNeil Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones and Oscar Wilde. Organised in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition runs until 17th July. Tickets are £12 (concessions available). See www.vam.ac.uk.

Exploring London visited the home of 19th century artist Lord Frederic Leighton in Kensington last weekend as part of Open House London.

Built over a period of more than 30 years from 1864 until Lord Leighton’s death in the home in 1896, the house is a monument to the decorative arts with a series of intricately decorated halls and rooms including the superb domed ‘Arab Hall’ featuring tiles brought from Damascus in Syria and an overhanging lattice window from Egypt.

The house, which once hosted Queen Victoria as well as nineteenth century luminaries poet Robert Browning and artist William Morris, was preserved as a museum as far back as 1900 and is now in the care of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

WHERE: 12 Holland Park Road (nearest tube station is High Street Kensington); WHEN: 10am to 5.30pm, closed Tuesdays; COST: £5 adult, £1 concessions ( with free return entry within 12 months); WEBSITE: www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum.aspx

So where did you go as part of Open House London and what was good about it? Share your experiences with us here…