History

The layout of the square over the years

“The Great Square Place”

In March 1661 the newly created Earl of St Albans obtained a freehold from Charles II for 45 acres of pasture known as St James’s Field. The Earl, undoubtedly inspired by his sojourn on the continent, set about constructing a number of grand houses, ‘fitt for ye dwellings of Noble men’ that were to be arranged around a grand residential square or piazza. Conveniently close to the royal palaces of Whitehall, St Albans’ grand enterprise in urbanism was to outshine the Earl of Bedford’s Covent Garden and Lord Southampton’s Bloomsbury Square, establishing a newly fashionable address for British aristocracy. Originally, St Albans intended on building no more than 12 or 13 grand houses, but as the format was finalised, a total of 23 houses were separately constructed on the East, North and West sides of the square.

 

The Success of the Square

In some ways, St Albans took a gamble in supposing that his grand houses would attract British aristocrats of the era, most of whom preferred to do their socialising on their country estates. Exhibiting plain and, in architect and artist James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s opinion, unnecessarily austere facades, these terraced houses, based on the Carolean and early Georgian style, masked deceptively grandiose and palatial interiors. The succession of Princes, Dukes and Earls who assumed residence, however, ensured that the houses and square became the epicentre of an elaborate social parade. As the architect and social commentator Robert Adam remarked, the conversations that took place in these rooms ‘would not be wholly ephemeral but would echo round political England.’ Over the centuries the Square has been home to monarchs, Earls, Dukes, foreign ambassadors, no less than fifteen Prime Ministers and several other British dignitaries. Today, the square is an iconic piece of British history, a history recognised by the many clubs, institutions and offices based in the seventeen listed houses of the square.

 

“An oasis in the centre of London”

Until the beginning of the 18th century the square itself remained an open and rough space. The first initiative to ‘clean, adorn and beautify’ the square came in 1726 with the passing of the Improvement Act, which appointed Trustees as regulators of the gardens. The act itself was the first piece of legislation passed to regulate a London square and remains the only one to remain in un-amended operation to this day.

 

Stages of Development

A succession of landscaping initiatives have taken place over almost 300 years, starting with Charles Bridgeman, creator of the Serpentine and Kensington Gardens. He installed a gravel walkway, surrounded by octagonal railings intersected with 8 obelisks, while the extensive area outside was paved with Purbeck flags, in a style known as ‘French Paving’, greatly enhancing the artistry of the Square. In 1730 an ornamental lake, 150 feet wide and 4 foot deep, was installed and initial steps for the installation of a statue were taken. Nearly a century later, in 1808, the magnificent statue of King William III, designed by John Bacon, was delivered and took centre stage in the Square, while in the same year St James’s Square became the first London thoroughfare to be regularly lit with gas lighting.

In 1818 the gardens received another makeover, this time overseen by John Nash, one of the most innovative landscape architects of the Victorian era. Nash widened the enclosure and installed a belt of shrubs around the perimeter, creating the layout we recognise today. In 1854 the ornamental basin was filled in, allowing the square to become host to a number of spectacular lawns. Meanwhile, disputes emerged between the Trust and the Clubs over access to the gardens.

 

The Early Twentieth Century

Vital repairs were undertaken on the statue, hedges were removed for better 1st floor views, and general rejuvenation of the Gardens took place in the early 20th century, in time for the coronation of George V, in 1911. At a Trustees’ meeting in 1912 further improvements were agreed upon, with assistance from Mr W Goldring, the Director of Kew Gardens and the florist, Mr James Carter. In 1933 the gardens were finally opened up to the public, but with the outbreak of the 2nd World War, further beautification initiatives were shelved, and both the gardens and iron railings were requisitioned for the war effort. All in all the Square survived largely unscathed during the war, the only major casualty being the Canada Life Assurance Co. at No. 2, which was destroyed by German bombs in October 1940.

 

To the Present Day

With the end of the War in 1945, the momentum once again built for a thorough rejuvenation of the gardens. In 1971 the cultural contribution of the Square was formally acknowledged when a Town and Country Planning Act declared 17 of 25 houses in the Square, along with the statue, as ‘listed’, deemed to be ‘retaining features, outside and in, of special importance’. In 1985 a scheme by landscapist John Brooks saw the installation of 4 stone obelisks, an addition harking back to the original 8, alongside a circular rose bed, intended to enhance and beautify the statue. Today the gardens continue to be a horticultural and architectural jewel.

© 2016 Charlie Burton