Robert Browning remarked in Up in a Villa - Down in the City (As Distinguished by an Italian Person of Quality) (1855):
Had I but plenty of money, money enough and to spare,
The house for me, no doubt, were a house in the city-square;
Ah, such a life, as one leads at the window there!
Something to see, by Bacchus, something to hear, at least!
There, the whole day long, one's life is a perfect feast.
A view of Cavendish Square, 1820. Private collection
The poet - a long-time resident of Florence -was, of course, describing an Italian piazza, which was a far cry from a London square. His contemporary, the Scotsman William Weir, remarked in 1844 that the squares of London had 'little to do with the piazza, place, or platz of Italy, France and Germany; that like many other good things in this world... [it] appears to have been in a great measure an accidental invention. Seeking to make something else, men stumbled upon the square, as the alchymists, in trying to make gold, stumbled upon truths compared with which the purest gold is valueless.'
The most obvious differences between London squares and their continental forebears were that the former were open spaces, often in a square figure (or a figure approximating to the square), with houses on each of the four sides, and an enclosed centre, with turf, a few trees, and maybe flowers or a statue, whereas piazzas were condemned as 'continental vacuums', 'artificial stone-quarries' or 'wayworn and dusty areas, with none of the refreshing beauty of a garden or a green field.'
It was not only these physical characteristics that distinguished the two traditions, but their use. Whilst London squares certainly owed a debt to the Italian piazza, and were since their inception in the early seventeenth century a setting for a great range of social interaction, their surrounding houses and their central areas were intended to project an a image of outward respectability and reticent propriety. Italian piazzas were, on the other hand, bustling public concourses filled with a broad cross-section of society.
J.B. Papworth, Soho Square, aquatint from 'Select Views of London' (1816),
Guildhall Library, Corporation of London
We tend to imagine that the central areas of London's squares have historically been pure sanctuaries - or as Lord Byron opined, 'vestal shrines of innocence of heart'.
These impressions are reinforced by the countless early- to mid-eighteenth-century engraved bird's-eye views by the likes of Edward Dayes, Sutton Nicholls, Nathanel Parr, John Maurer and Thomas Bowles that portray squares and their central enclosures as 'dull and desolate', and 'bare and sterile deserts' - where the pavements are sprinkled with knots of polite staffage, and a statue occasionally 'makes a very good appearance in prospect' at the centre of a garden laid out in 'a very expensive taste’. At this time the city's topographers – like the residents themselves – were eager to promote these 'excellent features' as purveyors of airy splendour, and resorts of 'freshness and repose '.
These generalised views, however, convey none of the squares' idiosyncrasies or peculiarities: they are less accurate reflections of the true character of squares they commemorate than idealised evocations of what were at the time novel and uncommon residential precincts generally built for and inhabited by 'people of fashion' or 'the better class of merchant'.
Whilst most topographers since the late eighteenth century have tended to emphasise the much-vaunted verdant foliage, the 'ever-green turf on earth, and the ever-varying features of our rarely cloudless sky', which were freely revealed by these 'openings amid a forest of houses', some have portrayed more truthfully the robust vitality of the city's squares, and the inhabitants and visitors that animated them: John Buonarotti Papworth depicted sheep and cattle being shepherded through Soho Square, George Scharf recorded the workaday world of Bloomsbury Square, and A.C. Pugin and Robert Banks commemorated the presence of boisterous rabbles In Portman and St James's Squares respectively.
Robert Banks, 'The manner in which the Queen proceeded daily from Lady Francis's House, St James's Square, to the House of Lords', etching, 1810, private collection
These were not everyday scenes, but nor were they extraordinary. Day-to-day life in these squares was, in fact, generally much more interesting, and surviving minute books from various frontagers' committees demonstrate that the goings-on in many London squares were no less lively than they were in their Italian counterparts. Whereas in Italy the squares were, according to Browning, chaotic openings thronged with 'Rev. Don So-and-so's', 'priests, monks with cowls and sandals', noisy children, maids, dogs and penitents, the central gardens of London's squares gave the appearance of being altogether more orderly affairs, populated by nursemaids and their charges, perambulating key-holders, the occasional visitor, and liveried gardeners.
London's squares were, nevertheless, also the scene of less salubrious social intercourse. We know, for instance, that in the early nineteenth century the shrubberies of Grosvenor Square were a favourite resort of philandering servants ('whose noise disturbed the nobility and gentry during their morning repose'), that loose women and 'idle and profligate' children tormented the residents of Fitzroy Square, and that 'very poor, and very uncleanly' Irish immigrants were known to drop their sickly children over the iron railings of Portman Square garden so that these might relieve themselves in its leafy glades. Accounts also abound of snapping dogs, the unauthorised and frequent use of gardens 'in the night time', exceptional depredations, and acts of ‘vandalism, hooliganism, reckless behaviour and general rowdiness’.
These were, however, minor annoyances - few of which posed serious threats to the physical fabric of the square or the well-being of its inhabitants. They were, nonetheless, real concerns of the key-holders; and the fact that they recur in the minute books of numerous squares across London indicates that the emerald oases of many squares – despite their secure enclosure, rigorous invigilation and stringent rules and regulations – were susceptible to day-to-day mischief, and their users to dangerous impropriety. This should not, perhaps, surprise us. It does, however, suggest that whilst the view from the piano nobile apartments of a house overlooking one of the West End's squares might not have been a ‘perfect feast', it was seldom uninteresting.
Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is a landscape architect and historian, Gardens Adviser to Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces, and is editor of The London Gardener. He is currently writing a book on the history of the London square, which will be published by Yale University Press. He is the author of The London Town Garden 1700-1840 (Yale University Press, 2001), and The Gardens and Parks at Hampton Court Palace (Frances Lincoln, 2005).