Saturday, May 11th 2013
Our first port of call this morning was Kentish Town. I used to work in the area and have retained a certain affection for it but I also think that it is one of those places that is often overlooked, perhaps because it languishes in the shadow of the more “happening” Camden Town. Kentish Town’s treasures don’t jump out at you – you have to seek them out.
Does it leave a good impression?
For breakfast we went to Cafe Renoir. Named after the Impressionist painter and using a large facsimile of his signature as its name sign, this cafe is familiar to us from previous visits. However, we found it was under new management with a few changes of furniture and decor. The somewhat amateurish Renoir pastiche decorating the walls of the back room was still there but it didn’t put us off our food too badly and will not prevent us returning. Oh yes, and the breakfast was fine, too.
A three-generation family firm
A few minutes’ walk from Renoir stands one of the afore mentioned treasures of Kentish Town. It is a shop selling clothing for ladies. I have been aware of Blustons as long as I have known Kentish Town and have admired the style of the shop and its will to survive while remaining true to itself. The business was started in 1931 by Jane and Samuel Bluston, Jewish émigrés from Russia. They had already started trading in the East End, going on to open a number of draper’s shops and, finally, this fashion store. Their other businesses closed in the 1950s and 1960s but Blustons remains in the family, being run today by Michael Albert, a grandson of the founders.
A rare survival
The shop front, including the Vitrolite lettering, is original and, I think, could stand unashamed beside the best modern shop designs. More remarkable still, however, is the arcade-style entrance with its glass-fronted display cases. This design was once common but has gone out of favour, modern shopkeepers usually preferring to use the space expand their floor area instead, and survivals, especially on this scale, are becoming rare.
Their portraits in the fitting room
The shop has two fitting rooms and in the larger we find photographic portraits of the founders, amiably looking out at the shop and its customers. Between them is a clock whose sunburst design reflects – whether by chance or intention, I do not know – the sunburst pattern of the stained glass in the shop front.
Second fitting room
Note the neo-Classical wall mouldings
At the other end of the shop is a second, much smaller, fitting room. On top of it are family photos – a nice touch in a family business! On the wall we can see the original neo-Classical mouldings forming a panel design. This picture also shows that, sadly, the original interior of the shop has been stripped away and replaced by fittings of rather flimsy plywood. This was no doubt owing to the need felt to maximize floor space for the display of stock.
A certain informality in the layout
Another survival is the separate cash desk where customers would have gone to pay or where the assistant would have taken their money to give to the cashier. In this age of electronic tills, such cash desks have all but disappeared, or where they are still present, are often used for some other purpose, such as storage. As we can see, in some parts of the shop there is a certain informality in the way things are arranged!
Accessible and well presented
Protected by covers
Generally, though, the goods are accessible and well presented, with plastic covers to keep garments clean and dust free. This is obviously a working shop and not a museum. In the above photo, note the sunburst pattern in the stained glass as mentioned earlier.
Fine Georgian houses and a central park
Tigger made a purchase at Blustons, so we went home to drop it off and then took a bus towards our next destination. The bus left us at Bedford Square which is one of London’s fine squares of Georgian houses, built between 1775 and 1780. The central garden is now open to the public, a welcome oasis of greenery and mature tall trees.
Classic Georgian houses
Famous people have lived here
The dwellings take the form of classic Georgian terrace houses offering commodious accommodation for affluent householders. The “bridge” to the front door crosses the “area” whose steps lead down to the basement realm of the servants. The large windows and the front doors with elaborate surrounds declare prestige and wealth. Today, many of the houses are divided into flats or offices but quite a few also bear plaques showing that famous people have lived in them. The house in the photo has a place in the history of education: the green plaque tells us as follows:
COLLEGE FOR WOMEN
UNIVERSITY OF LONDON
Under the shadow of the BT Tower
Crossing Tottenham Court Road and passing along Percy Street, we came to Charlotte Street, in the heart of Fitzrovia, under the shadow, and possibly the watchful eye, of the BT Tower.
With a figure at the window
Thus we came to Rathbone Street and the Newman Arms. This Georgian building has an amusing feature that may be missed unless you have developed the valuable habit of looking up as you walk about the city. At a window lurks a figure, a sleepyhead in a nightgown, looking wistfully out of the window. Is she the maid-of-all-work, facing another long day of toil? Or perhaps a live-in barmaid, still sleepy from too few hours’ sleep? Whichever she is, she is a reminder of those hapless generations of women who worked long hours, often in cramped and dirty conditions for low pay and a hard cot in the attic.
Is this Pie & Mash Passage…
…or Percy Passage?
Beside the pub is a narrow covered alleyway. According to a handwritten annotation on the wall, it is called Pie & Mash Passage, but according to some people it is Percy Passage. The longer alley that runs from opposite the pub to Charlotte Street is certainly called Percy Passage. Is this section considered part of that, or is it an independent alley deserving its own name? I have no idea.
Whatever it is called, the alley leads to another passage, this one closed off at one end, called Newman Passage, and this leads us into Newman Street.
And the ever watchful Tower
You might by now be wondering why there are so many places in this area bearing the Newman name. I wondered too. There is another name that also occurs frequently. It appears in Berners Place…
Three generations of names
…Berners Street, Berners Mews and perhaps others. So what? Well, the two names are connected in one person. In the 18th century, one William Berners owned land around here and so his name became attached to parts of it. He also owned Newman Hall in Quendon which, in turn, took its name from the man who built it in the 16th century, Thomas Newman. Said Thomas might be astonished, could he return, to find his name scattered about in Fitzrovia!
A gallery of art
Newman Street leads to Eastcastle Street and a gallery of art that goes by the name of Scream. We had come to see their current exhibition. It was called I’VE LOOKED UP TO HEAVEN AND BEEN DOWN TO HELL and features art works made with neon tubes by Chris Bracey. Admission was free and photography was allowed.
Shine a light…
…in the darkne$$$ of your soul
I don’t know how many artists are working in this medium but this is the first collection of such works that I have seen. They are, it goes without saying, very colourful and very bright. They are easy to photograph precisely because they shine with their own light. The only problem is that in many of them, parts of the structure flash on and off and light up in sequence, something which is impossible to show in a still picture.
This was Bracey’s first solo exhibition but he has been working for three decades with neon tubes and already has a following and has provided installations for films and other enterprises. I am not sure of the provenance of the statue in the above work but Bracey does salvage lights and props to reuse, so this may well be such a “repurposed” object.
Saint – Sin
As the rather strange exhibition title suggests, the works allude to religion, spirituality, love and sex. The above work, in concept though not in its raunchy iconography, reminds one of the hell-fire preachers of yesteryear and their message that sexual activity is a deadly sin.
Find love upstaiors
As I said above, I can’t reproduce the dynamic movement of flashing and sequenced lights but I here show three stages in the cycle of this work Find Love Upstairs.
Capel Bedyddwyr Cymreig
Welsh Baptist Chapel
A few yards along Eastcastle Street from Scream we found the impressive building pictured above. It is a Grade II listed building and if you are as fluent in Welsh as I am you will need to consult a dictionary to find out that the name Capel Bedyddwyr Cymreig means Welsh Baptist Chapel. I counted no fewer than three foundation stones (meaning that at least three people thought their names ought to be remembered!), all dating the building of the church to 1889. This was a time when the Welsh community in London was growing fast and a large church in which the Welsh language was used was deemed both necessary and justified. David Lloyd George was said to be a regular visitor.
The Photographers’ Gallery
“Photography in all its forms”
Cross Oxford Street from Eastcastle Street, travel west(ish) for a while and on the left you find a narrow street called Ramillies Street. Here we find the 4-storey building that houses The Photographers’ Gallery. The street is too narrow to get a good shot of the building but we did our best. In any case, the important stuff is inside, though we’re not allowed to photograph any of it. (Is there irony in that? Probably not…) The best strategy is to take the lift to the top floor and then work your way down from there. Today’s offering included the winning entries in the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2013 and work by other individual photographers. Some of the photos were striking, some shocking and some so-so, while others left no impression on me at all. A typical exhibition experience, then. As admission is free and the exhibitions are changed regularly, it is certainly one to visit often.
The Soho Mural
Ode to the West Wind
As we walked back through Soho, we came across a wall painting in Noel Street. This is the well known Soho Mural, entitled Ode to the West Wind, and it was painted in 1989 by Louise Vines. Information is given in handy form on a blue plaque beneath the mural. The plaque is not genuine but is a painted imitation of one, presumably by the artist. Nice touch. The mural is beginning to show signs of age and the colours have faded. This, I suppose, is not surprising after 24 years and is a problem faced by all such public works.
Its seamier side
Soho means different things to different people. It is a picturesque and cosmopolitan area where waves of immigrants have made their home and practised their trades. It is a place for restaurants and pubs, theatres, film companies and wine shops. It also enjoys a more risqué fame arising from the backstreet strip clubs and the handwritten cards in doorways announcing “Model, Third Floor”. Dull is one thing it is not.
St Pancras Old Church
A resting place for some famous bodies
In the evening, we paid a visit to St Pancras Old Church. We sat in pews and listened to what was being said. Before you start getting worried about me, though, I will quickly state that this was not a church service but a lecture or, rather, the introductory talk preceding a guided tour of the graveyard. I have already written about this church (see A look at St Pancras Old Church) and, as churches go, it is a fine and pretty example. It is common for churches to boast of ancient origins but in this case there is more substance to the boast as the site has been used for worship since at least the Saxon era. The building incorporates antique bits but has been modified and rebuilt at various times.
Whatever I may think of the superstitious claptrap that is dispensed here, I agree that this church, both as a building and as an institution, is of great interest, both historically and aesthetically. It is sad to discover, then, that it is under threat from subsidence caused by the old drainage system. Large cracks have appeared in the walls and action needs to be taken urgently to prevent further damage and to restore stability.
William Platt and Family (17th century)
In order to help raise funds for the work, a series of talks has been arranged, tickets £10, and today’s was the introductory session. The event was entitled No Ordinary Churchyard: the tombs of St Pancras, by Roger Bowdler, well known for his conducted tours of graveyards. Admission to this one was free but participants could contribute by donations and purchase of books.
Many famous people have been buried here and the churchyard itself has suffered a somewhat chequered history, not least as a result of railway building work encroaching on it. No few tombs have been displaced or removed but some cherished examples remain, such as the family tomb of Sir John Soane, designed by himself.
More information on this historic, and rather pleasant, site can be found online, for example here.
For us, it had been a full day and I was glad to betake myself off to the nearby bus stop and return home for a rest and cup of Russian Caravan!
A corner of the churchyard
St Pancras Old Church
Copyright © 2013 SilverTiger, http://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.