The Grosvenor Estate, begun in the 1820s, was the most prestigious development so far attempted in London and the 10-acre Belgrave Square was its centrepiece.
The Grosvenor family, who later became the Dukes of Westminster, acquired the land in 1677 when Sir Thomas Grosvenor married Mary Davies, heiress to some 1000 acres of boggy farmland west of London. The area was originally known as the Five Fields, feared in the 18th century as a place ‘where robbers lie in wait’.
The Grosvenors had already developed some of their land in nearby Mayfair, and in the early 1800s turned their attention to the Five Fields, after the king brought in top architect John Nash to remodel the nearby Buckingham House with the aim of making it the main royal residence.
Lord Grosvenor saw the potential, and in 1820 commissioned plans for the new estate. Building leases were sold to developers, the main one being Thomas Cubitt. He drained the marshy fields using spoil from his excavation of St Katherine's Dock, near the Tower of London, to raise the land.
Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855) was the leading developer of the early 19th century. He was the first large-scale commercial builder, employing his own workforce including dozens of brick-makers, masons, plasterers and painters. He also had a professional staff of architects and surveyors, as well as his own legal and letting departments.
Between 1820 and 1835, Cubitt built the houses and laid out the gardens of most of the estate. He realised that a lavishly planted garden was a major selling point for wealthy buyers, and established his own nursery specifically for the purpose.
Belgrave Square was established in 1825, with George Basevi as architect. It was named after the village of Belgrave in Leicestershire, part of the Grosvenor family estates.
Now largely occupied by embassies and other organisations, the grand, stuccoed residences of the square were once home to wealthy families who flocked to live close to Buckingham Palace.
Prince Henry the Navigator is one of four statues of historical figures which surround the square, reflecting its international nature. He was a Portuguese prince whose sailors travelled widely to uncharted parts of the ocean, discovering the island of Madeira and exploring the West African coast.
The four-and-a-half-acre garden was laid out in 1826, and was designed for privacy, surrounded by a dense belt of shrubbery and with outer and inner paths separated by more shrub planting. The centre of the garden features classical-style shelters and wooden pergolas. You can see the children's playground from here, and there are also tennis courts. During the Second World War, the gardens were covered in clinker, and used as a compound for army vehicles.
At the north corner there is a statue of General Don José de San Martin, an Argentinian national hero who was important in gaining the independence of Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spain.