Blue Plaques of London
A culture obsessed with celebrity is certainly not a twenty-first century phenomenon. While tabloids cater to the rabid curiosities of the undiscriminating on the lives, loves and secrets of the celebrated, an excellent scholarly and diverting compendium for the more sensibly minded high-brow intelligentsia has just made its debut in the publishing world. Described by Disraeli as “a roost for every bird,” Lived in London: The Stories Behind the Blue Plaques edited by Emily Cole, profiles the lives of such luminaries as Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Twain, Mahatma Gandhi, Virginia Wolfe and Winston Churchill.
The proof of their time spent living in London is to be found in the blue plaque on the wall of each of their homes. Those familiar tablets — introduced by the Royal Society of Arts in 1866 and continued by the London County Council, the Greater London Council and now English Heritage — are elegantly and comprehensively covered honoring a program that connects people and place, drawing out the human element of the historic environment and helping to save a number of London’s buildings from demolition. What’s particularly fascinating is that each individual is given a potted biography with an anecdote or two relevant to that address.
A few choice excerpts:
39 Westmoreland Road
Once the home of the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Condemned as degenerate by the Nazis, he ended up in Barnes by way of Oslo and internment on the Isle of Man. He achieved widespread recognition only after his death in 1948. “English people don’t understand art at all,” he once observed gloomily.
14 The Terrace
Overlooking the river, this former home was the domain of Dame Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, who in her declining years was sometimes seen drinking a pint of beer while reading the papers on a Sunday morning in the garden of the Coach and Horses round the corner.
23 Tedworth Square
Mark Twain spent much of a nine-year sojourn in Europe (1891-1900) almost unnoticed — he and his wife were so distressed by the death of their daughter Susy in 1896 that they lived in “complete seclusion” there, seeing few friends.
1 Orsett Terrace
Exiled political thinker and “father of Russian socialism” Alexander Herzen made his home here for several years playing host to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and the anarchist Michael Bakunin. It is rumored he found London life “about as boring as worms in a cheese”.
No. 20 Baron’s Court Road
Nineteen-year-old Mohandras Karmchand Gandhi lived here while studying law at the Inner Temple in the late 1880s. It seems that his landlady, who charged him 30 shillings a week, had her work cut out to cater to his vegetarian diet. He described her meals as “third rate” and said he was often hungry.
87 Hackford Road
A 20-year-old Vincent Van Gogh lodged in these quarters from August 1873 until the following summer while working for an art dealer. He had yet to find his way as a painter. It is told he fell hopelessly in love with his landlady’s daughter, Eugenie Loyer who was, alas, already spoken for, and subsequently left, dejected, to find new lodgings. In farewell, the love-struck young man gave his beloved a drawing of the front of the house, which now, faded and stained, shows no sign in its execution of the genius to come.