I arrive later than intended and feel under pressure to get my drawing done before precious daylight begins to fade. But as I turn the corner I have to stop and stare; Golden Square really is golden! Bathed in gold! Not from November sunlight (in short supply today), but from the canopy of deep yellow hornbeam foliage, still hovering there, although many leaves have taken the plunge already, blown into yellow drifts on the paving and, at this moment, being swept into a bin liner by a nonchalant gardener.
Until the mid 17th century this was mostly grazing pasture in a tract of farmland called ‘Windmill Fields’. It was acquired by a pair of brickmakers and canny building speculators who had an eye on the city’s relentless expansion, and especially the craving amongst the gentry for smart properties at London’s fringes. Their plans for the square had to conform to strict design, drainage and usage guidelines laid down by Sir Christopher Wren (Surveyor General of His Majesty’s Works). Permission was granted in 1673, but it took about 30 years for all four sides of the square, with its 39 houses, to be eventually built. The new square had been given the name Gelding Close, alluding to its farming origins, but was quickly changed to Golden Square when it was realised that perhaps an address meaning ‘castrated horse’ would not be the best selling point! The houses were quickly snapped up by the aristocracy, clergy and political and military bigwigs. But it’s heyday only lasted half a century as, by the mid 1700s, the more socially active families had moved west to the newer, grander and more fashionable honeypots, such as Mayfair.
I walk all four sides, peering through iron railings into the garden: a rough grassy margin surrounds a raised paved square, with chopped corners. Gates on all four sides lead up steps onto this stage. Seated figures on benches are hunched and huddled against the cold breeze. A close group of young men, collars turned up, smoking and laughing, seemingly unaware of the ensemble in front of them: a trio of striking bronzes of human torsos, one reaching up with tied wrists (Homage to Prisoners of War): a temporary display of work by sculptor Josie Spencer. Rising above, and central to the square, is a white stone statue, a regal figure, dressed as Julius Caesar, frozen in mid speech with right hand outstretched (thumb broken off), but looking too much like Tommy Cooper in Roman soldier garb, with bare paunch overhanging his gladiator skirt. A pigeon sits proudly on his head. On the ground below him a large, open discarded umbrella rocks against the shrubs.
But over there, on the other side, and dominating all, is a massive 6 foot high, blue steel stiletto shoe (titled ‘Stiletto Heel’ by sculptor Kalliopi Lemos. Also a temporary installation). The heel is shaped as a highly reflective stiletto dagger. I decide to make it the foreground feature for my drawing and I open my sketchbook, trying to imagine the giant owner striding over the buildings to reclaim her shoe
This was originally laid out as a private garden with grass and gravel paths for the residents of the square. The central statue by Jan Van Nost was installed in 1753. The park information sign says that it’s of Charles II, but other sources claim it as George II. I think George wins, as he was on the throne at the time (and anyway, Charles is well represented around here; there’s a statue of him only a few streets away in Soho Square Gardens which I visited for Sticks in the Smoke 19 back in June). Allegedly this statue was presented to the square by a benefactor who accidentally bid for it at auction!
By the start of the 1800s, the residential character of the square had changed. Original 17th century family homes were split into lodging houses, many occupied by foreign workers, from the district’s theatres and music halls. Charles Dickens, in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), wrote of Golden Square:
“.. Its boarding houses are musical, and the notes of pianos and harps float in the evening time round the head of the mournful statue, the guardian genius of a little wilderness of shrubs, in the centre of the square. On a summer’s night, windows are thrown open, and groups of swarthy moustached men are seen by the passerby, lounging at the casements, and smoking fearfully. Sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air. There, snuff and cigars, and German pipes and flutes, and violins and violoncellos, divide the supremacy between them. It is the region of song and smoke. Street bands are on their mettle in Golden Square; and itinerant glee singers quaver involuntarily as they raise their voices within its boundaries..”
A large group of about 20 tourists press together for a photo in front of the statue. They arrange themselves in rows like a sports team. Some of them fling out their arms to copy George’s gesture.
During the rest of the 19th century, many original houses were demolished to make way for warehouses and office blocks in a chaotic and unrelating mix of architectural styles, many of which still stand today. Golden Square developed as the centre in London of the woollen and worsted trade, partly due to its proximity to the largest concentration of tailors in London. By 1900 there were seventy textile companies in the square.
Under the surrounding looming buildings, and with its mature plane trees blocking light, the garden became a shady and dismal space. During the second world war an air raid shelter was dug under the garden, the enclosing iron railings removed to provide metal for the war effort and the space was used as a dumping ground for bombed debris. In the 1950s it was taken over by Westminster City Council and completely refurbished to more or less the current design. The plane trees were felled, light was allowed back in and the hornbeams planted. The gardens were renovated again in 1984 with new shrubs and flower displays.
Light is fading fast, the late afternoon chill descending. I try to work more quickly. Colours seem to change dramatically every moment I look up from my sketchbook. A pink glow spreads through the sky and the streetlights have turned on. People scurry. The sound of many wings clapping, pigeons hurrying to roost.
As I pack up, a booming, out of tune singing starts up and echoes around the square: a busker sitting on his coat on the steps is belting out ‘Why, why, why, Delilah?‘ using a large traffic cone as very effective megaphone!
In his ‘Sticks in the Smoke’ project, Nick Andrew has been regularly visiting, researching and drawing different publicly accessible parks or gardens in London since January 2016, exploring the theme of city green spaces from the perspective of a rural landscape painter. The first two sketchbooks will be published as a book in late 2018. www.nickandrew.co.uk . Nick is grateful to London Parks & Gardens Trust for their support www.londongardenstrust.org.
Golden Square, Soho, London. W1R 3AD