Bedford Square: A History
The westward development of the Bedford Estate, the London property of the Russell earls and dukes of Bedford, began with the building of the Covent Garden piazza by Inigo Jones in 1630-1. After the adjacent Southampton estate came into the family’s possession in 1669, what had formerly been Allington Row and Seymour Row was rebuilt as Bloomsbury Square--where the Paul Mellon Centre was housed between 1971 and 1996. However, the rest of the Southampton estate was not properly developed until the fourth Duke of Bedford, enviously eyeing the success of the Harley, Grosvenor and Burlington developments in the West End, began to build terraces upon what had in the 1750s been virgin fields.
In both financial and aesthetic terms, the climax of this speculation was to be Bedford Square, sited at the extreme western edge of the estate. Begun in 1775, Bedford Square was unique in its symmetry and uniformity. Built seventy years after Henry Aldrich first applied the idea of an Italian palace front to everyday terraced housing, it nonetheless represented the first attempt in Britain to dignify all four sides of a square with Italianate pedimented centrepieces - each pair of opposites matching in the disposition of the pilastered portico. The resultant grandeur was much admired by contemporaries. John Wallis’s 1783 edition of James Ralph’s celebrated Critical Review of the Public Buildings of London and Westminster lauded it as ‘proof of the improvement of our taste’:
It is without exception the most perfect square in town. The regularity and symmetry of its sides, the great breadth of the pavements, and the neatness of the iron rails render it superior in everything but magnitude to squares in Europe.
Design and Speculation
Built during the period of the American War of Independence (and completed just before the postwar slump), Bedford Square was not designed by a major architect. The design of the terrace fronts and the schemes for internal planning were probably devised by the surveyor Robert Palmer, who had recently worked with James Adam at Hertford's Shire Hall of 1769-72. It seems, however, that Palmer worked closely with the builders William Scott and Robert Grews, who were effectively responsible for overall supervision of the site after Palmer died in 1776.
All of the square's houses were built by individual builders, each of whom had a separate contract with the Bedford Estate. The architect Thomas Leverton (who took the lease for number 13 in 1781, and lived there until his death in 1824) was certainly involved in the design, both inside and out, of number 1. Yet this house first let to the wealthy City merchant Sir Lionel Lyde, and the only one that does not conform to the uniformity of the rest of the development - effectively acted as a showhouse for the square. Leverton is only recorded as having an involvement with three more of the square's premises and, in every case, he was brought in by the builder at a late stage in construction to devise a suitably elaborate scheme of interior decoration. Leverton was thus not, as has often been suggested, the author of the square as a whole. The absence of a professionally-trained architect as the scheme's principal guide is underlined by the form of stucco centrepieces on the north and south sides, which commit the architectural solecism of including a five-pilastered portico.
Bedford Square, along with other large-scale developments of the time, was built according to the speculative practices established after London's Great Fire of 1666. The freeholder--in this case the Bedford Estate--would lease out each plot to a builder-speculator. The latter would be permitted to erect the carcase of a building at a minimal, peppercorn rent, levied for a predetermined period, and be responsible for arranging the first commercial let. (In Bedford Square's case, the first lets usually lasted 80 or 99 years.) The house would then be finished internally to the first lessee's requirements, and on occupation the lessee would be charged the full rental. The fact that most of the Bedford Square leases were assigned by the mid-1780s suggests that the square was immediately popular, the initial leaseholders generally being lawyers, doctors or merchants. By the end of the century the square was being hailed as one of the most fashionable addresses in London for 'the aristocracy of the City and the Inns of Court.
In the manner of previous speculative developments in the capital, Bedford Square was erected by a team of skilled tradesman who, while taking on one or more building leases themselves, contracted out their particular skills to their fellow-craftsmen. Number 16’s builder and building- leaseholder was John Utterton, a plasterer who lived in the adjacent parish of St. George, Bloomsbury. However, while Utterton would have been responsible for the plastering at number 16 (and for number 17 next door, which he also took on), he would have subcontracted other jobs in the house to fellow professionals from the square's team--tradesmen such as Thomas Martin, the carpenter who took on the building lease for number 15. In 1784 Utterton, who had signed the original 99-year lease for numbers 16 and 17 on 20 August 1782, was able to sell the lease for number 16 to City corn factor Joseph Shrimpton. He in turn resold it the following year (presumably at a healthy profit) to the solicitor Thomas Wildman, who lived there for ten years.
Either Shrimpton’s taste was simple, or his financial resources were limited. Either way, number 16 was provided with little in the way of lavish decoration. The cornice mouldings were modestly scaled; Utterton was evidently not required to execute any of the virtuoso plaster ceilings or friezes that were such a prominent feature of neighbouring houses such as number 14, whose stunning first-floor front room ceiling may well have been designed by Leverton himself. The only element of number 16 on which a degree of expenditure was sanctioned were the S-scroll iron balusters; these were surmounted, as was the new fashion, by a mahogany handrail.
Bedford Square was built shortly after the 1774 Building Act (‘an Act for the further and better Regulation of Building . . . and for the more effectually preventing Mischief by fire’). This is rightly celebrated as the first piece of legislation to attempt to impose across-the-board building standards. Drawn up by a number of the country's leading architects, the act stipulated minimum building requirements for houses, devised according to their size and grandeur. Every new house corresponded to one of four ‘rates’, each of which had their own particular set of rules and regulations. (The premises in this square corresponded to the highest of these, First Rate.) In accordance with the new act, Bedford Square's front windows were set back nine inches from the face of the wall, and the sash boxes hidden wholly behind the stock brickwork, so as to minimise the risk of fire spreading via vulnerable wooden features.
Wherever possible, however, the builders tried to circumvent the new legislation. Thus, whereas the 1774 Act stipulated that the front wall skin be at least one brick thick, in practice most of the quality brick facings of Bedford Square's houses are only half a brick thick.
The four ranges of the square were faced entirely with London stock bricks, and, aside from the centrepieces, were without any unifying order of columns or pilasters. Yet Palladian proportion still regulated the facade, even if the classical orders themselves were wholly implied. And in keeping with the Italian-inspired Palladian doctrine of denoting function, the principal rooms, sited on the first floor, were provided with the largest window openings.
The yellow-grey colour of the facing stock bricks (a term derived from the wooden ‘stock’ on which bricks were originally hand-shaped) derives from the London clay from which they were made. Often the clay was dug up on the building site itself, and the bricks made and fired right there. Expensive, red ‘gauged’ or ‘rubbed’ bricks, finely cut so as to require only thin mortar joints and probably imported from the home counties, were used for the window arches to provide some colour relief.
Behind the outer skin of stocks was a far thicker wall of cheap, often shoddily-made ‘place’ bricks, which were connected to the front skin by means of occasional brick ties. Place bricks were also used to construct the party walls and the internal walls, which served to support the cantilevered staircase; all other internal walls were simply wood-framed.
The stuccoed centrepieces were originally finished in four or five coats of Liardet’s stucco, painted, incised and colour-washed to imitate real stone. The stucco was made to a recipe patented by a Swiss clergyman in the 1773 and much used, and indeed heavily promoted, by the Adam brothers, who became partners in the company. Unfortunately for the Adams, Liardet’s product proved highly unreliable, and was soon falling off houses all over London. It is likely that the Bedford Square centrepieces were, in common with much of the capital, refaced in one of the more stable stuccoes that came onto the market after 1797.
The building of the square narrowly missed the worst effects of the economic slump which followed the ousting of the North government in 1782 and the conclusion of peace with the United States in 1783. The first leases were assigned in 1775, the year the American War of Independence broke out; by the end of 1777, the year of Saratoga, thirty-four houses had been leased. Over the next three years only fifteen leases were added to this total; yet by 1783 all had been accounted for. Builder Robert Grews later admitted that the American War ‘so severely affected many of the persons concerned under us, that some were compelled to stop, and we found ourselves under the unfortunate necessity of taking back the Ground, and completing houses thereon.’ By assigning all the leases by 1783, the square's promoters ensured that the development did not fall prey to the general building malaise that was to be so widespread by the middle of the decade.
As was the case in all Georgian terraces, in Bedford Square it was the fenestration which dominated the finished composition. The square's windows were of the double-hung sash form long standard for any British house, comprising two independently-weighted frames which could be lowered or raised to induce a very subtle change in the room's ventilation. Originally multi- paned, many frames had their glazing bars removed in favour of a single sheet of plate glass in the mid-19th century. (Plate glass was first patented in Britain in 1832.) Even in the 1770s, however, householders sought to exploit the rapidly improving glass technology in order to admit more light into their principal rooms. This change in fashion was recognised in the initial leases, which allowed future tenants to lower the windows on the first (principal) storey to floor level if they so required. This was duly done in a number of cases--though not at number 16. The result is, inevitably, that each range now has a rather uneven look, further exacerbated by the juxtaposition of plate-glass and multi-paned windows.
For all their enthusiasm for the latest technology, however, the Georgians were aware of safety implications. Open floor-level windows in particular could prove highly dangerous, especially for small children; thus, where windows were extended downwards, iron window-guards were installed to prevent the unwary from plummeting to the pavement below. At number 1 - by far the most sophisticated house in the square - window guards were considered too intrusive, and were eschewed in favour of an ingenious scheme by which the lowest three panes of what appeared to be the bottom sash frame were actually fixed at floor level.
All of the square’s windows were left unadorned; even those on the first floor were given no pediment, entablature or moulded surround. Some houses, however, (including number 16) do retain a blind box at the top of each window opening. This feature would have been added during the early 19th century to house an external roller blind, made probably of striped canvas.
While the square's window surrounds were left plain, the doorways--perhaps the most distinctive and celebrated element of the square--were not. The design of the exceptionally wide fanlights, which embrace not only the front door but also the side-lights, represents the high-water mark of this highly attractive Georgian motif. Framed in iron, their delicate, neoclassically-derived tracery was cast in more malleable lead. Sadly, many of the Square's original fanlights have gone, replaced with simpler, Regency forms or (as was the case at number 16 in the 1960s) with starkly functional modern substitutes.
Above each fanlight is a vermiculated keystone; below are matching voussoirs and quoins. These are not made of stone, nor of plaster, but of Coade stone, that marvellously durable ceramic which still looks as crisp as the day it was cast. Eleanor Coade founded her Lambeth factory in 1769; thus the Bedford Square decorations (which were still appearing in the Coade catalogue of 1799) are amongst the firm’s earliest products.
The front doors themselves are generally of a typical mid-Georgian pattern: six raised and fielded panels. Evidence from contemporary paintings and watercolours suggests that dark green was by far the most common colour for both front doors and external shutters. Originally, each front door would probably have only possessed a central door knob (in black-painted iron), and possibly a door number. The problem of how to accommodate a post-1840 letterbox within the six-panelled format is one that has been resolved in a variety of ways throughout the square.
Number 16 Today
The houses in Bedford Square are today listed Grade I, putting them in the top 5% of Britain's listed building stock. This listing (the whole square has been listed for group value, rather than for any particularly outstanding features) applies as much to the inside as the outside. However, the interiors of most of the houses in the square have inevitably suffered some depredation over the past two centuries.
The square’s garden was clearly not designed to reflect the line of the ranges but, unusually, is circular in shape - allegedly in imitation of John Wood’s Circus at Bath of 1754 (which rejected Roman precedents in favour of bizarre Druidic symbolism). In the early 1980s the road line on the northern, southern and western sides of the square was realigned by the London Borough of Camden to correspond with the circular garden, rather than with the terraces. Yet while this helped to reduce the traffic levels in the square, it did leave large areas of arid paving at each corner - sterile hard landscape punctuated only by litter bins and wooden benches. Only the old streetlamps - mid-19th-century gaslights converted to electricity at the end of the Victorian era - strive to remind passers-by of the original kerb-line.
The Paul Mellon Centre moved into 16 Bedford Square in June 1996. The property had been empty for almost two years and was comprehensively refurbished by the Bedford Estate, who generously provided half a million pounds for this purpose. Emulsion paint was sensitively removed from the cornice mouldings on the ground and first floors, while the house's original chimneypieces (which, while of the correct period, do not necessarily originate from the rooms in which they now stand) were carefully restored and replaced. John Sambrook, an outstanding fanlight-maker, was contracted to fashion an appropriately detailed fanlight. At the same time the Estate's subcontractors uncovered much of the utilitarian, turned-wood balustrade that once linked the second floor bedrooms with the servants’ attic.
Much work was also done to the large, top-lit room built over the rear yard during the 1920s. From the evidence of the plaster ‘proscenium arch’ at the north end, this may well have been designed as a private cinema. Equipped with a new wooden floor and bookshelves by Thistle Joinery, the room now functions as the Centre’s Library and Study Room.
Throughout the building a new colour scheme has been applied, recalling as far as possible paint colours of c.1780-1810. The hall and staircase has, for example, been finished in the rich cream used for equivalent areas in Chambers’ Somerset House in the 1780s. An authentic chocolate brown (again, taken from a Somerset House reference) has been used for the building's skirting and for the pine doors, in accordance with 18th-century practice. And the office walls have been decorated with colours that may well have been found here at the end of the 18th century - the principal rooms on the first floor boasting the most expensive paints, the utilitarian rooms on the attic floor being finished with cheap ‘common colours’. While the paint colours are generally of late 18th-century pedigree, however, the paint systems used are not. All the wall paints used throughout the building are of a modern, vinyl-based type, which differ considerably from Georgian lead-based finishes in terms of surface consistency and light-reflecting qualities. These approximations of original late Georgian colours have been devised by Patrick Baty by means of a detailed analysis of original pigments. However, the blue colour of the iron staircase balusters - the only historic decorative treatment for which there is documentary evidence - is authentic, and was prepared by Mr Baty from a surviving recipe.