Day 27 (part 2) – Leicester Square – National Portrait Gallery

So this is the second leg of the jaunt round the epicentre of West End Theatreland; picking up where we left off in Leicester Square then heading round its southern end for a visit to the National Portrait Gallery.

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We finished the last post at the Queen’s House and turning the corner there we enter into Leicester Place which definitely punches above its weight in terms of points of interest. First up is the church of Notre Dame de France which serves the French-speaking Catholic communities of London. The parish has been in existence since the 1860’s but the original church building was severely damaged during the WW2 bombings of 1940. Although it reopened a year later after extensive repairs a full reconstruction was ultimately required and in 1953 Maurice Schumann, French Foreign Secretary, laid the foundation stone of the new building, which was brought from the Cathedral of Chartres. The architect was Hector Corfiato of Beaux Arts de Paris.

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The most famous aspect of the church are the murals created by the artist, filmmaker and all-round renaissance man Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963) during a week’s visit to London in November 1959. The murals depict scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and are divided into three panels portraying the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. In front of the murals is an altar decorated with a mosaic of the nativity by the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1863-1969), best known for his giant works in the National Gallery, Westminster Cathedral and the Bank of England. This mosaic was created in 1955 but was then covered over in 1960 by a painted wooden panel of Cocteau’s a decision which unsurprisingly outraged Anrep. When the mosaic was rediscovered in 2003 in was decided to move the Cocteau panel to elsewhere in the church. The tapestry which hangs above the main altar is the work of the Benedictine Monk (and friend of Cocteau’s) Dom Robert (Guy de Chaunac-Lanzac 1907-1997). The theme of the tapestry is Paradise on earth with a reference to the Creation and to Wisdom. The New Eve, title given to Mary by the Church, is walking towards us as pure as a new bride.

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As you can see in the photograph above, part of the building which houses the church is given over to the Leicester Square Theatre. The LST is one of the top comedy venues in the capital, specialising in one-man stand up shows (I’ve seen Stewart Lee here a couple of times) or sketch group performances.

Next building along is the Prince Charles Cinema which these days is the only remaining repertory cinema in central London. Just lately I’ve spent quite a few afternoons there watching just-off new releases for a measly £4 (for members). The cinema started life as a small basement theatre in the early sixties then after a few years had a brief and equally unsuccessful stint as a music hall. Following rebuilding it opened as a cinema in 1969 eventually falling prey to the winds of change in the seventies and resorting to playing porn flicks. Its current incarnation began in 1991 and has enjoyed great success with a repertory mix of cult classics, arthouse second runs and themed programming.

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Staying with cinemas, next up when we return to Leicester Square and turn left towards the north east corner is the Vue West End. Currently a nine-screen complex this started life as the Warner Theatre, built in 1938 to the design of architects Thomas Somerford and E.A Stone. First presentation on opening was Errol Flynn in “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. The frontage was faced with reconstructed marble with a large relief panel by sculptor Bainbridge Copnall in each corner depicting spirits of sight and sound. When the cinema was redeveloped in the 1990’s this frontage was just about all that was retained of the original building.

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This brings us on to the Hippodrome which looms large over this corner of the square. The London Hippodrome was designed for the theatre impresario Edward Moss by architect Frank Matcham and opened its doors to the public 15 days into the start of the twentieth century. At the outset it specialised in a mixed programme of variety and circus performers including (as the name suggests) a number of equestrian acts. In 1958 the interior was completely remodelled and the venue was reborn as the Talk of the Town nightclub showcasing stars from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland at one end of the spectrum to Val Doonican and The Seekers at the other. The T.o.t.T lasted until 1982 when after a brief closure and another renovation Peter Stringfellow opened a new nightclub and restaurant, reinstating the original name. He in turn sold out to a company called European Leisure who cashed in during the height of club culture in the late eighties and nineties by making the Hippodrome one of the highest profile (and also naffest) destinations in London. When that boom was over the Hippodrome had a few years in the noughties riding the burlesque wave before, following a £40m investment, it converted to a casino in 2012.

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Here’s a copy of a contemporary press report covering the impending opening night of the theatre in 1900 – Hippodrome2.

Head out of the square through Bear Street (which is really just a passage) and turn right on Charing Cross Road past Hunts Court which has a claim as one of the least inviting alleyways in London.

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Turn right again up Irving Street, which is lined with tourist-trapping restaurants, and arrive back at the east side of the square which is home to the daddy of all West End cinemas, the Odeon Leicester Square. This iconic black monolith with its polished granite façade and 37m high tower was built in 1937 to the design of Harry Weedon and Andrew Mather. Weedon was the architect that Oscar Deutsch charged with overseeing the building programme for his  new chain of Art Deco Odeon Cinemas in the thirties. (Side note – it is apocryphally believed that the Odeon name is an acronym for Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation but it almost certainly comes from the term Nickelodeon coined in the US in the early years of the century and itself derived from Ancient Greek). The cinema took seven months to build at a cost of £232,755 and had 2,116 seats and the film shown on the opening night was The Prisoner of Zenda. The grand interior was desecrated in a cack-handed 1967 modernisation but at least some of the original styling was restored in the Eighties.

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Leicester Square was originally laid out in 1670 and named after (the then) nearby Leicester House built in 1631-35 by Robert Sidney 2nd Earl of Leicester. Its renown as a hub of popular entertainment began in the 19th century and was enhanced by the building of the imposing Alhambra Theatre in 1854 (it was demolished in 1936 to make way for the Odeon). In the latter part of the 20th century the square came to be a byword for seediness and urban menace. During the 1979 winter of discontent it effectively became a temporary rubbish dump, earning the nickname Fester Square. Eventually Westminster Council woke up to the fact that having this running sore in the heart of tourist London was something of an embarrassment and in 2010 a major redevelopment was undertaken and completed 2 years later to coincide with the London Olympics. The improvements included 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) of granite paving and a water feature surrounding the Shakespeare statue. The Shakespeare statue itself was erected during a previous renovation of the square in 1874.  It was sculpted by Giovanni Fontana after an 18thC. original by Peter Scheemakers which stands in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

In the background of the bottom right photo above you can see the empty space where the Odeon West End cinema used to stand. This site is currently being developed as a new cinema and “guess what” complex.

Exit the square’s south west corner via Panton Street where you will find the Harold Pinter Theatre (formerly The Comedy Theatre). This one opened in 1881, again designed by Thomas Verity, and atypically still has most of its auditorium in the original form. The change of name occurred in 2011 three years after the death of the playwright. Current production is the Kinks’ musical “Sunny Afternoon”.

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Comedy is still represented in the area in the form of The Comedy Pub and The Comedy Store which both inhabit Oxendon Street; the former was previously the rather classier Piccadilly’s No.7 Piano Bar (as the frontage still reflects).

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After a quick up and down of Oxendon Street we continue along Panton Street to Haymarket then turn south and head east again along Orange Street. The passageway that is the northern section of St Martins Street is closed off due to the new development so we have to skirt round Longs Court to get to no.35 which is now the Westminster Reference Library. However the building which formerly stood on this site was the home of Sir Isaac Newton from 1711 until his death in 1727. He had a small observatory built at the top of the house and a laboratory in the basement. Later residents of the house were the Burney family including Fanny Burney (later known as Madame D’Arblay) (1752 – 1840) the novelist and diarist. That building was demolished in 1913.

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The library holds over 15,000 books covering the performing arts and a wide range of film, theatre, dance, radio & TV publications, some (such as The Stage and Era) going back to the 19th century. It also houses The Sherlock Holmes Collection (which contains a far greater wealth of material than the tawdry museum on Baker Street which we ignored in our very first post). The library was also bequeathed the ballerina Anna Pavlova’s collection of books on dance which is kept in a separate section that was opened by Dame Alicia Markova in 1957.

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Back on Orange Street is the Orange Street Congregational Church founded in 1693 by Huguenot refugees who fled France following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Given the current furore concerning migrants from Syria and North Africa I thought the passage (included in the slideshow above)  which I discovered in one of the books on Isaac Newton’s house that I looked at in the library had a timely poignancy.

Reaching the end of Orange Street we turn right on Charing Cross Road past the statue of the stage actor Henry Irving (1838 – 1905) (who gives his name to the aforementioned street of course) to get to the National Portrait Gallery.

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The NPG was the brainchild of three men, Philip Henry Stanhope, Thomas Babington Macauley and Thomas Carlyle, whose efforts are commemorated in three busts above the main entrance to the gallery. Although the idea for a national gallery dedicated to portraits of famous Britons was first mooted in 1846 it was another ten years before it was actually founded. And then it wasn’t until 1896 that it established a permanent residence on the current site, funded by a donation from the philanthropist, William Henry Alexander. Both the architect, Ewan Christian, and the gallery’s first director, George Scharf, died shortly before the building was completed.

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There are over 200,000 works in all in the NPG’s collection though only a fraction of these are on display at any one time. On the second and first floors the portraits of the great and famous are displayed more or less chronologically from the Tudor period up to the 20th century. The ground floor is devoted to special exhibitions and contemporary works.

The following slideshow presents the individual portraits of all the British monarchs from Henry VIII through to William IV (excluding a couple of Georges) but starts with a compendium set of portraits depicting all the rulers from William the Conqueror to Mary Tudor which was probably created between 1590 and 1620 (after the last of them had died).

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And since we were just looking round where his old gaff used to be here’s Sir Isaac Newton (bottom) with his contemporary, the philosopher John Locke.

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Finally, for this time, here are the so-called Medieval Stairs with their busts on the main protagonists in the Wars of the Roses, for the Houses of York and Lancaster respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Day 27 (part 1) – Leicester Square – Chinatown – Shaftesbury Avenue

Back again and into the heart of tourist London; running the gauntlet of the yellow properties on the Monopoly board – Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly – along with the streets that make up the capital’s Chinatown.

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Starting point for today is Piccadilly Circus and as we head east along Coventry Street the first thing we pass is the massive London Trocadero complex, a site with a long and chequered history. In the 1820’s and 30’s there were various attempts to establish a theatre here but by the mid century it was being mainly used as an exhibition space. It was then leased to a wine merchant by the name of Robert Bignell, who reconstructed the existing buildings into Assembly Rooms called the Argyll Subscription Rooms. Thirty years later the place had degenerated into a haunt of prostitutes and their clients and in 1878 was raided and then closed down by the police. Despite losing his license, Bignell was not one to let go lightly and four years later he managed to re-open the building as the Trocadero Palace music hall. Bignell died in 1888, the music hall failed to flourish in his wake and seven years later his daughter sold the building on a 99-year lease to J. Lyons & Co. who converted it into the Trocadero Restaurant. This was decorated in an opulent baroque style with murals on Arthurian themes alongside the grand staircase and a Long Bar which catered to gentlemen only. During World War I, the Trocadero initiated the first “concert tea” served in the Empire Hall and accompanied by a full concert programme. The restaurant lasted right up until 1965 and after its demise the building played host variously to a dance hall, bowling alley and casino. Then in 1984, the Trocadero was redeveloped as a tourist-oriented entertainment, cinema and shopping complex; the largest in the UK at the time. Sadly for the owners, visitor numbers for attractions such as the Guinness World Records Exhibition and later the Segaworld arcade failed to match the scale of the ambition. By the mid-noughties the place was in a sorry state and, as you can see in the pictures below, most of it is now boarded up. In 2015 however the opening of a new Picturehouse cinema on the Shaftesbury Avenue side of the building at least provided signs of rejuvenation.

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Turn north up Rupert Street passing this elaborate roof-top embellishment about which I can find no information on whatsoever.

 

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Emerge on to Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the run of three theatres that we covered briefly in one of the Soho posts. First of these, moving west to east, is the Lyric which opened in 1888 but retained the façade of the house built in 1766 by  Dr William Hunter, an anatomist, partly as a home and partly as an anatomical theatre and museum. Amazingly, “Thriller Live”, the current production has been running since 2009 which means it could soon become the most successful show this theatre has ever hosted (takes all sorts I guess).

Bang next door is the Apollo which opened three years later with an exterior designed in the Renaissance style. The four figures on the top of the facade were created by Frederick Thomas, of Gloucester and Cheltenham, for the Theatre’s opening and represent Poetry, Music, Comedy and Dance.

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In 2013 part of the auditorium ceiling collapsed during a performance of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ and nearly 80 people were injured. The Theatre was subsequently closed for investigation and repairs for over 3 months and by the time it reopened the National Theatre-spawned smash had moved to the Gielgud just a block down.

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The Gielgud started life as the Hicks Theatre in 1906 but within three years had been renamed the Globe. It was renamed again in 1994 after the eponymous theatrical knight; partly in celebration of the renowned thespian (who still had six years to live at the time) but also to avoid any confusion with the newly opened Shakespearean Globe Theatre on the south bank. (For this information and most of the rest on the history of London theatres I am greatly indebted to www.arthurlloyd.co.uk).

Next we cut through Rupert Court to the lower end Wardour Street which marks the western boundary of Chinatown,

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No 41-43 is the home of the Wong Kei restaurant, renowned back in the day for the “alleged” rudeness of its waiting staff. This was said to only increase the popularity of the restaurant which is generally full but that probably has more to do with the reasonableness of their prices. You can’t expect both value for money and over-politeness.

The building is another designed in the baroque style (with added touches of Art Nouveau) and as the blue plaque attests was once owned by Willy Clarkson (1861 – 1934), theatrical costumier and perruquier (that’s wigmaker to you).

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Dansey Place is basically just a back alley that runs behind the restaurants on the north side of Gerrard Street and emerges into Macclesfield Street. Despite all the visits I’ve made to this area I’d never even noticed it before but it has a distinct dingy, unchanged for decades charm to it.

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Next we’re on to Gerrard Street itself which at mid-morning with a parade of white vans lined up making deliveries manages, if anything, to look slightly tackier than normal. Though I have to confess to a bit of a soft spot for its gaudy accoutrements.

The part of London originally known as Chinatown was down in Limehouse in the East End and consisted of businesses that catered to Chinese sailors visiting the docks. It wasn’t until the Seventies following an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong and a growing taste for oriental cuisine that Gerrard Street and the surrounding area began to assume the name.

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Those two carved Chinese lions in the one of the slides above were donated by the People’s Republic of China and were unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester in 1985 at a formal naming ceremony (which coincided with the quatercentenary of the City of Westminster). Appropriately, given the Chinese fondness for gambling, they are now backdroppped by a  Betfred bookmakers.

There are a couple of atypical commemorative plaques on Gerrard Street. At no.37 is one to John Dryden (1631 – 1700), England’s first Poet Laureate. The phrase “blaze of glory” is believed to have originated in Dryden’s 1686 poem The Hind and the Panther (which celebrated his conversion to Catholicism), in that it refers to the throne of God as a “blaze of glory that forbids the sight.”

(The portrait of Dryden above was taken in the National Portrait Gallery which will feature in the next post.)

The second plaque is at no.37 in honour of the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729 – 1979). Burke, who was both a philosopher and politician, was supportive of American independence and Catholic emancipation but vehemently antipathetic to the French Revolution. Although a member of the Whigs he is widely touted as the “father of modern conservatism”.

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As noted in an earlier post, the original Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club was at no. 39.

If you nip up Gerrard Place, at the western end of the street, you hit Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the Curzon Cinema which, to my mind, is one of the best in London. Its existence is under threat from the proposed Crossrail 2 (Gawd help us) and though the building it occupies the basement of is nothing to write home about, the cinema would be sorely missed. (So go on – sign the petition).

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Next we go south down Newport Place and veer left down the alleyway that is Newport Court. This brings us out onto Charing Cross Road where we turn right almost immediately back up Little Newport Street. The building on the corner that is now a branch of Pizza Express is Grade II listed and was once an outlet of the costumiers, Morris Angel & Son.

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Pass round the back of the Hippodrome (more of that next time) and continue along Lisle Street which probably has a better selection of Chinese restaurants than its parallel neighbour.

At the end we’re back out on Wardour Street opposite what used to be the Chuen Cheng Ku restaurant which served the best Dim Sum in Chinatown in bamboo baskets wheeled round on trolleys. Not sure what it is now and the splendid Dragon Pole is gone, in its place a plaque commemorating the building as the site where the Magic Circle was founded in 1905. Bizarrely a website for the restaurant still lives on as a ghostly reminder so you can see what’s been lost here.

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A couple of doors down no. 9 was once the residence of Benjamin Smart, a goldsmith and dealer in bullion, who wasn’t shy of advertising the fact as you can see.

A left turn at the southern end of Wardour Street and Swiss Court takes you into Leicester Square and face-to-face with the Swiss Glockenspiel, a 10m high structure, with 27 bells, an automated musical clock with a procession of herdsmen and their animals ascending an alpine meadow. This rather charmless confection was only erected here in 2011 in an attempt to replace the far more impressive glockenspiel and clock which in 1985 was installed on the front of the Swiss Centre that occupied the north-west corner of the square, from 1966 until its demolition in 2008.

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I don’t think I ever really understood the purpose of the Swiss Centre but its demise seems to be lamented by quite a few online commentators. In any event it was preferable to the building which has replaced it and incorporates yet another luxury hotel and M&M’s World which stretches to a mind-boggling four floors. About as necessary as another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.(For people of a certain age – M&Ms are like an American version of Smarties).

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Leicester Street runs north from the square to Lisle Street emerging opposite no.5 which was designed by Frank T. Verity in 1897 in the early Renaissance style of northern Europe. The building was first occupied in 1900 by the French Club and subsequently by Pathé of France and Pathéscope Limited, film-makers. From 1935 to 1989 it was the home of St. John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. After that it became the aptly-named Crooked Surgeon pub until in 2007 it was (sigh) taken over by the owners of the ubiquitous Slug and Lettuce Chain.

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In the next block down on the square itself is the Empire Cinema and Casino. The current building is the third incarnation of the Empire Theatre to occupy this site. The first version opened in 1884 as a high-end variety theatre but within three years had repositioned itself as a popular music hall. That building was demolished in 1927 and the second Empire Theatre which opened a year later operated primarily as a cinema. After WW2 the theatre became known for its Cine-Variety programmes – a combination of film showings and live performances – and example of which you can see here. In 1959, the Empire installed 70mm projectors and a new screen in front of the proscenium to show Ben-Hur, which ran for 76 weeks. Following this, in 1961, the Empire was closed for extensive internal reconstruction to a design by Architect George Coles. It reopened in 1962 with a new 1,330 seat auditorium in place of the circle and a Mecca Ballroom where the stalls used to be. The latter is now the Casino. The cinema today comprises 9 screens, one of which is an IMAX.

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Next door to the Empire is Queen’s House which was built in 1897 and opened as the Queen’s Hotel in 1899. In 1920 the socialist MP Victor Grayson vanished mysteriously after telling friends that he had to pay a quick visit to hotel. It was rumoured that the MP, who had made a number of enemies in high places, was killed to stop him revealing details of government corruption.

In 1936 the building was remodelled to accommodate office space on the upper floors but today it is once again a hotel (wait for it) as part of the Premier Inn stable. It also plays host to yet another casino (Napoleon’s).

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On that note it’s time to bring things to a conclusion but we’ll be back with more of Leicester Square in the next post. Until then here’s a reminder of what it’s really all about – foreign tourists and half-baked street performers.

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