Lovely Squares

    20 September 2014

    There’s a surreal sight at the western entrance to the gardens of St James’s Square these days. An isolated set of eight iron railings stands on the edge of the flower bed. Look at the notice attached to the railings, though, and it all makes sense; the heart soars, too.

    The enlightened trustees of the St James’s Square Trust have decided to reverse one of the stupidest decisions of the second world war. In a bid to boost the war effort, the elegant railings in St James’s Square were ripped out — in theory to be recycled for armaments. In fact, like hundreds of thousands of railings torn from squares across the country, they turned out to be useless for weapons-grade recycling. And so the railings around St James’s Square — the first square in the West End, built by Henry Jermyn (as in Jermyn St), Earl of St Albans, in 1665 — were dumped in the North Sea. It was a tragic loss, not least since the railings were designed in 1817 by John Nash, the king of Regency architecture, responsible for Buckingham Palace, Regent Street and Regent’s Park.

    Only now, 70 years after the railings were extracted, have the St James’s Square trustees made the bold decision to reconstruct them, along with their enchanting urns and pretty Portland stone base. Good riddance to the functional, dreary railings installed in 1974. The lonely set of eight railings standing in the flowerbed is a little preview of lovely things to come.

    We take our garden squares for granted in London. But they are deeply practical, beautifully designed for urban life and uniquely British. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner thought garden squares one of the few great pieces of British town planning. On an early trip to England in 1930 from his native Germany, Pevsner was particularly taken with Bloomsbury’s garden squares. He liked the way they had been arranged in haphazard relation to each other, with no focal point — the result of centuries of an independent bourgeoisie developing the city in an organic way, with no overarching plan forced on them from above.

    Yes, it’s true that the prototype of the garden square was the medieval Italian piazza. The first planned urban square in Britain — built in Covent Garden by Inigo Jones in 1631 — was exactly that: a paved piazza, surrounded by classical houses and Jones’s church of St Paul’s, Covent Garden. The idea of having the four entrances to St James’s Square in the middle of each side, as opposed to at the corners, was borrowed from a Genoa piazza.

    But the British architectural genius came, as so often, in the adaptation of Italian originality. Soho Square, laid out in 1681, was the first British square with the magic new ingredient — a properly laid-out, enclosed garden. That extra element satisfied two British desires that, with the best will in the world, aren’t very Italian: the desire for your own garden, and the desire for privacy.

    Nikolaus Pevsner took against the antisocial taste for locking up the squares — a reflection of the British cult of property ownership. But one of the many glories of St James’s Square — and lots of other British squares, like Queen Square, Bristol, and Thornhill Square in Islington — is that it’s open to the public during the day.

    Pevsner also objected to railings in garden squares — but there I part company with the great Herr Professor Doktor. A strange serendipitous calm is produced by a railed-in area, like St James’s Square, that’s also open at its four entrances. You can get in, but you also feel remarkably set adrift from the bustle of the outside world. The railings give a feeling of belonging and refuge to those held inside them, as well as hemming in the back of the borders that line the square. In the 1999 film Notting Hill, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts climb over the railings in Ladbroke Square at night to find a secluded spot to canoodle. It wouldn’t have been such a romantic haven without the railings. Or so secure — and can there be a prettier way to provide a secure, see-through barrier than a set of Georgian railings, with their neo-Roman vases, urns and Doric columns taking the edge off the arrow-head spikes they flank?

    For its first 41 years, St James’s Square wasn’t railed in. As a result, it became rough and rundown; so rundown that, in 1726, an Act of Parliament set up a residents’ trust to maintain the square, as it does today. A year later, the landscape architect Charles Bridgeman built the first set of railings around the square, which were replaced 90 years later by Nash’s restrained, classical ones — the ones that will return.

    Nash also introduced curving walks to St James’s Square. They survive in part today, an echo of William Hogarth’s ideal of the serpentine Line of Beauty; so unlike those formal Continental gardens, with their rigid right angles and stiffly regimented parterres.

    The other great difference between the British garden square and the Continental piazza is the architecture that surrounds them. The piazzas of Florence, Turin and Siena are surrounded by their most important buildings — their town halls and royal palaces — and their best sculpture. British garden squares are bordered by private houses; admittedly, pretty grand ones in St James’s Square, but private houses all the same. Domesticity triumphs over royalty and local government.

    It was in British garden squares — like Grosvenor Square and Bedford Square in London, and Queen Square in Bath — that the ‘palace front’ was developed. From a distance, these looked like the great big palaces that dominated Continental cities. But look closely, and you see the big British difference — lots and lots of front doors. Our ‘palaces’ were really divided up into a series of terraced houses. So the garden square didn’t just satisfy the British desire for privacy and gardens; it also answered the British longing for your own comfortable house.

    They’re flexible places, too. Through the 18th and 19th century, the garden square template kept on changing. They can be square, with curved paths at the corners, like St James’s Square; or rectangular, long and thin, like Bryanston Square and Montagu Square in west London. And they can be provided with all sorts of extras. Bloomsbury Square has got a 1960s carpark beneath it. Gibson Square in Islington has a charming little classical temple in it, built in 1970 by Raymond Erith and Quinlan Terry to mask a ventilation shaft for the Victoria Line. St James’s Square got the ultimate accessory — its own church, St James’s, Piccadilly, built by Christopher Wren. As if all that wasn’t enough, garden squares are also the most subtle of roundabouts.

    But their greatest triumph is the way they green British cities. When Earl Grosvenor was building his Grosvenor estate in Mayfair in 1828, he asked his super-quick builder, Thomas Cubitt, ‘Will you ensure you bring a little country into the town by having garden squares?’

    St James’s Square, with its swaying plane trees, is the ultimate chunk of rus in urbe: an injection of the wild picturesque amid the ordered, classical terraces of London. All hail the pocket parks of Britain!

    Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English.