Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Gaslight and Daylight, by George Augustus Sala, 1859 - Chapter 16 - Leicester Square

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[-173-]

XVI.

LEICESTER SQUARE.

DID Archimedes square the circle? The legend (I have a great respect for legends, mendacious . though they often be) says that he did. The confident legend has it that he really, truly, and completely succeeded. That, chalk in hand, heedless in his scientific pre-occupation of the sack of Syra-[-174-]cuse, he bent over the magic diagram he had traced on the floor of his humble domicile, contemplating with joy and exultation the glorious end by which his labours had been crowned. That then, however, a Soldier entered, hot with plunder and blood-spilling. That with his murderous javelin he smote the sage to death; and that the blood of Archimedes flowing in a sluggish stream effaced the diagram (which was to the ruthless warrior an unmeaning assemblage merely of lines curved and straight). And the circle remains unsquared to this day.
    Many have experimentalized on the mighty problem since the legendary days of the Greek philosopher; but the failures have been as numerous as the attempts. Not that the thing is impossible; oh no! All of us have, more or less, friends and acquaintances on the very verge - the extremest point - of squaring the circle, as also of discovering perpetual motion, paying the National Debt, and accomplishing some trifling little undertakings of that description. Only, they never do. They resemble somewhat the poor little 'punters' one sees at Hombourg and Baden-Baden - the men with 'systems' - infallible 'martingales,' believers in masse en avant, who would always have won fifty thousand forms to a dead certainty, in one coup, my dear sir, if red had only turned up again. But it didn't. Red never does turn up when you want it. So with the circle-squarers, perpetual motion discoverers, National-Debt liquidators, and inventors of directing power to balloons. Something always occurs at the very ace and nick of time - the critical moment - to nip their invention in the bud. My friend A. would have squared the circle, years ago, if he had not been sentenced to six months' imprisonment in one of Her Majesty's gaols for writing threatening letters to the Earl of Derby, in which the Circle was mixed up, somehow, with a desire to have his lordship's Life. B. is only deterred from terminating his experiments by the want of a loan (temporary) of one pound five. C.'s landlady, in the neighbourhood of Red Lion Square, has impounded for unpaid rent his philosophical apparatus, without which it is impossible for him to complete his discoveries. D., on the very eve of success, took it into his head to preach the Millennium, as connected with the New Jerusalem and the Latter-day Saints, in the vicinity of Rotherhithe; and as for E., the only man who they say has squared the circle these few hundred years, he is at present so raving mad in a lunatic asylum, that we [-175-] can't make much of the desperate diagrams he chalks on the walls of his day room, mixed as are his angles, arcs, and diameters with humorous couplets and caricatures of public characters. I might, if I chose, enumerate initials which would use up the alphabet twice over; from M., who combined philosophy with the manufacture of Bengal lights, and blew himself and half his neighbourhood, up one day, down to Z., who, impressed with a conviction that the circle was only to be squared in the interior of Africa, went out to the Gold Coast in a trader, and was supposed to have been eaten up by the natives, somewhere between Timbuctoo and the Mountains of the Moon. Still, the circle remains unsquared.
    I, who am no mathematician, and would sooner throw myself off the parapet of the pons asinorum, or go to sleep in one of the dry arches underneath, than trudge over it, not presuming to attempt squaring a circle, humbly intend to see if I cannot circle a square. Say Leicester Square, in the county of Middlesex.
    In my opinion Leicester Square, or Leicester Fields, or the' Square,' as its inhabitants call it, or 'Laystarr Squarr,' as the French have it, offers in many of its features some striking points of resemblance to an institution expatiated upon by Monsieur Philippe de Lolme, called the British Constitution. The Square, like the Constitution, has been infinitely patched, and tinkered, and altered. Some of its bulwarks have been broken down, some of its monuments have been utterly destroyed; and coaches-and-six may now be driven where edifices were. But in their entirety both institutions are unchanged. The Square and the Constitution have yet their Habeas Corpus and their Bill of Rights. Much has been abolished, changed, improved; but the Square is the Square, and the Constitution is the Constitution; and the Briton may point to both with pride, as immutable evidence of the stability of the institutions of a free country.
    Before I commence circling seriatim this square - which I may call the liver of London, often spoken of but little known - let me say a few words of its history. This quadrangle of houses once went by the name of Leicester Fields. These fields (now partially covered by Mr. Wyld's great globe) were built round, three sides of them, about 1635, what time Charles the First was in difficulties about ship-money, and thirsting for Mr. Pym's ears. During the civil wars and Commonwealth, the powers that were, occupied themselves [-176-] rather more with pulling down mansions than with building them; and the south side remained uncovered with houses until the days of that virtuous and exemplary monarch, who passed the bill for the better observance of the Sabbath, and murdered Algernon Sydney. From 1671 to the middle of the eighteenth century, Leicester Fields were Leicester Fields. Then the royal German gentleman, second of his name, endowed the enclosure in the centre with an equestrian statue of his gracious self (brought from Canons, the seat of the Duke of Chandos), and the fields became thenceforward a square, and fashionable.
    Fashionable, to a certain extent, they had been before; since Charles the Second's time, Leicester Fields had boasted the possession of a palace. Yes, between where there are now sixpenny shows and cafés chantants with a Shades beneath, and where there is a cigar-shop, once stood Leicester House, built by Robert Sydney, Earl of Leicester, the father of poor Algernon Sydney, of Henry Sydney (the handsome Sydney of De Grammont's Memoirs), and of Lady Dorothy Sydney, the Sacharissa of Waller the poet. Here, when the Sydneys had come to grief, lived and died the Queen of Bohemia. Here resided the great Colbert, Louis the Fourteenth's ablest minister of finance and commerce, when on an embassy to King Charles the Second. Here, in 1703, lived (hiring the house from Lord Leicester) the ambassador from the Emperor of Germany. Prince Eugene lay at Leicester House, and courtiers (no doubt) lied there in 1713. In 1718, no less a personage than the Prince of Wales bought Leicester House, and made it his town residence. Pennant, that sly old antiquary-whose wit, though dry, like old port, is as nutty and full-flavoured - calls it the 'pouting house for princes;' for here, when the next Prince of Wales, Frederick, quarrelled with his papa (who had quarrelled with his), he, too, removed to Leicester House and kept a little sulky Court there.
    Of Leicester House, palatially speaking, what now remains? Of that princely north-east corner of the square, what is there, save a foreigner-frequented cigar-shop? Stay, there is yet the Shades, suggestive still of semi-regal kitchens, in their underground vastness. And haply there is, above Saville House, a palace once, for George the Third's sister was married from thence - so says the 'European Magazine' for 1761 - to a German prince, and, to her misfortune, poor soul, as her German prison-cell shall tell her in years to come. And Saville House is [-177-] a palace still, far more palatial than if kings sat in its upper rooms, and princes in its gates. It is the palace of showmanship. It is the greatest booth in Europe.
    Saville House! What Londoner, what country cousin who visited the metropolis twenty years ago, does not immediately connect that magic establishment with the name of Miss Linwood and her needlework? It was very wonderful. I, as a child, never could make it out much, or settle satisfactorily to my own mind, why it should not, being carpeting, have been spread upon the floor instead of being hung against the wall. I did not like the eyes, noses, and lips of the characters being all in little quadrangles; and I was beaten once, I think, for saying that I thought my sister's sampler superior to any of Miss Linwood's productions. Yet her work was very wonderful; not quite equal to Gobelin tapestry, perhaps, but colossal as respects patience, neatness, and ingenuity. Of and concerning Miss Linwood I was wont in my nonage to be much puzzled. Who and what was this marvellous being? I have since heard, and I now believe that Miss Linwood was a simple-minded, exemplary schoolmistress, somewhere near Leicester - a species of needleworking Hannah More; but at that time she was to me a tremendous myth - a tapestry-veiled prophetess - a sybil working out perpetual enigmas in silk and worsted.
    The shows at Saville House remained alive o! What show of shows came after Miss Linwood? There were some clumsy caricatures of good pictures and good statues, enacted on a turn-table by brazen men and women, called Poses Plastiques.. I, your servant, assisted once at a representation of this description, where I think the subject was Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Adam by Herr Something, Eve by Madame Somebody, and the serpent by a real serpent, a bloated old snake quite sluggish and dozy, and harmless enough, between his rabbits, to be tied in a knot round the tree. The most amusing part of the entertainment was the middle thereof, at which point two warriors arrayed in the uniform of Her Majesty appeared on the turn-table, and claimed Adam as a deserter from the third Buffs; which indeed he was, and so was summarily marched off with a great-coat over his fleshings, and a neat pair of handcuffs on his wrists - the which sent me home moralizing on the charming efficiency of the Lord Chamberlain and his licencers, who can strike a harmless joke out of a pantomime, and cannot touch such fellows as [-178-] these, going vagabondizing about with nothing to cover them. I think I went the same evening to a certain theatre, where I saw the most magnificent parable in the New Testament parodied into a gew-gaw spectacle - a convention between the property-man, the scene-painter, and the corps de ballet - which made me think that the Lord Chamberlain and his licencers did not dispense their justice quite even-handedly; that they strained at the gnats a little too much, maybe, and swallowed the camels a little too easily.
    Serpents both of land and sea; - panoramas of all the rivers of the known world; jugglers; ventriloquists; imitators of the noises of animals: dioramas of the North Pole, and the gold-diggings of California; somnambulists (very lucid); ladies who have cheerfully submitted to have their heads cut off nightly at sixpence per head admission; giants; dwarfs; sheep with six legs; calves born inside out; marionnettes; living marionnettes; lecturers on Bloomerism; expositors of orrery - all of these have by turns found a home in Saville House. In the enlarged cosmopolitanthrophy of that mansion, it has thrown open its arms to the universe of exhibitions. One touch of showmanship makes the whole world kin; and this omni-showing house would accommodate with equal pleasure, Acrobats in its drawing-rooms, Spiritual Rappers in its upper rooms, the Poughkeepsie Seer in the entrance hall, and the Learned Pig in the cellar.
    But I shall be doing foul injustice to Saville House were I to omit to mention one exhibition that it has of late years adopted. The assault of arms! Who has not seen the adventurous life-guardsman effect that masterly feat, the 'severisation' of the leg of mutton; and that more astonishing exploit, the scientific dissection at two strokes of the carcase of a sheep? Who has not applauded the masterly cutting asunder of the bar of lead; the 'Saladin feat;' the terrific combat between the broadsword and bayonet; the airy French fencing and small-sword practice (like an omelette souflée after solid beef and pudding)? And then the wind-up, when Saville House, forgetting its antecedents of the drama (slightly illegitimate), and puppets and panoramas, takes manfully to fisticuffs! I am reminded of that company of Athenian actors, who, in the earlier days of the Greek drama, essayed a performance before an Athenian public; but who, finding their efforts not by any means appreciated or understood by their audience, took refuge in some gladiatorial acquirements they [-179-] were lucky enough to possess, and 'pitched into' each other manfully, to the intense delight of the Areopagus. I am reminded, too, by the way, during this 'wind-up,' of the propinquity of certain gentlemen, whose bow-legs, green cut-away coats, fattened noses, fancy shawls, scarred lips, chameleon- coloured eyes, swollen mottled hands, Oxonian shoes (tipped), closely-cropped hair, bull necks, large breast-pins, &c., remind me, in their turn, that I am in the antechamber of the Ring; which leads me to descend into the street, foregoing the pleasure of witnessing the 'Grand exhibition of wrestling between two Southerners,' wherein I am promised a living illustration of the genuine Devonshire kick, and the legitimate Cornish bug. Formerly I was wont to linger, by the peristyle of Saville House, at the foot of its wide exterior staircase; though Mr. Cantelo's acolyte, next door, mellifluously invited me to ascend and see how eggs were hatched by steam; though there was a rival lady with her head undergoing the very process of decapitation next door to him; with a horned lady, a bearded lady, and a mysterious lady, on the other side. Saville House has yet charms for me which I cannot lightly pass by. There are the Shades, a remnant of the old London night cellars, bringing to mind Tom King's Coffeehouse, and the cellar where Strap had that famous adventure, and the place where the admired Captain Macheath and his virtuous companions first heard 'the sound of coaches.' Saville House boasts also of a billiard-room, where there are celebrated professors in mustachoes, who will give you eighty out of the hundred and beat you; who can do anything with the balls and cues save swallowing them; who are clever enough to make five hundred a year at billiards, and do make it, some of them; where there are markers who look like marquises in. their shirtsleeves and difficulties. I have nought more to say of the palace of my square, save that the Duke of Gloucester lived at Leicester House, in 1767, previous to its final decadence as a royal residence; that Sir Ashton Lever formed here the collection of curiosities known as the Leverian Museum; and that New Lisle Street was built on the site of the gardens of Leicester House in 1791.
    To resume the circling of my square may I beg you to pass Cranbourne Street, also a large foreign hotel, also a hybrid floridly eccentric building of gigantic dimension., where the Pavilion at Brighton seems to have run foul of the Alhambra, and repaired damages with the temple of Juggernaut: splicing [-180-] on a portion of a Chinese pagoda as a jury-mast, and filling up odd leaks with bits of the mosque of St. Sophia.
    Passing this enigmatical habitation (now a circus for horse-riders), tarry, oh viator! ere you come to Green Street, by Pagliano's Sablonière Hotel, a decent house, where there is good cheer after the Italian manner. The northern half of this hotel was, until 1764, a private dwelling-house - its door distinguished by a bust made of pieces of cork cut and glued together, and afterwards gilt, and known as the 'Painter's Head.' The painter's head was cut by the painter himself who lived there; and the painter was that painter, engraver and moralist, that prince of pictorial philosophers,
        Whose pictured morals charm the mind,
        And through the eye correct the heart:
the King's Sergeant Painter, William Hogarth.
    I would give something to be able to see that merry, sturdy, bright-eyed, fresh-coloured little fellow in his sky-blue coat, and bob wig, and archly cocked hat, trudging forth from his house. I would hypothecate some portion of my vast estates to have been in Leicester Square the day Will Hogarth first set up his coach; to have watched him writing that wrathful letter to the nobleman who objected to the too faithful vraisemblance of his portrait, wherein he threatened, were it not speedily fetched away, to sell it, with the addition of horns and a tail, to a wild beast showman, who doubtless had his show in Leicester Fields hard by; to have seen him in his painting-room putting all his savage irony of colour and expression into the picture of the bully-poet Churchill; or 'biting in' that grand etching of sly, cruel, worthless Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, counting the forces of the Pretender on his fingers; or correcting the proof-sheets of the Analysis of Beauty; or scarifying Jack Wilkes on copper; or haply, keeping quiet, good-humoured company with his gentle lady wife, Jane Thornhill, telling her how he engraved pint pots and masquerade tickets in his youth, and how he painted his grandest pictures for the love of her. We have painters, and engravers, and moralists now-a-days, and to spare, I trow; but thy name will long smell sweet as violets, Will Hogarth, though thou wert neither a Royal Academician nor a 'Sir.'
    Yet, circling round about, stand momentarily at the corner of a little street - Green Street by name - full of musty little book-stalls and fugacious shops. Fugacious I call them, for [-181-] their destinies are as fleeting as their proprietors. They are everything by turns, and nothing long: now betting-offices, now print-shops, now cigar-shops, anon oyster-shops, coffee-shops, brokers' shops. In Green Street shall you be sensible also of an odour very marked, of the cookery of the various foreign boarding-houses and cook-shops of the neighbourhood; and, towering above the dingy little houses, shall you see the Elizabethan chimney-shaft of the St. Martin's baths and wash-houses: a beacon of cleanliness to the neighbourhood; a Pharos of soapsuds; a finger-post to thrift and comfort.
    We pass St. Martin's Street - street of no thoroughfare, but remarkable for Mr. Bertolini's restaurant, and formerly famous as the residence of Sir Isaac Newton. We pass the Soup-kitchen Association's Offices, Star Street, a score of private houses, and, halting at number forty-seven, we descry a mansion of considerable dimensions, formerly the property of Lord Inchiquin, afterwards the Western Literary and Scientific Institution, then the resting-place, I think, of a panorama of the Australian Gold Diggings; but, before all these, residence of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Knight, the first President of the Royal Academy.
    It is something to think, gazing at this plain house from the shabby cab-stand opposite (where there are always six cabs, and apparently never any one to hire them) that to number forty-seven came, sixty years ago, all that was great, noble, and beautiful - all that was witty, learned, and brave - in this land. It is something to think that the plain awkward country lad, poor in purse and pauper in influence in the beginning, should in this number forty-seven, from 1761 to 1792, have held his state undisputed, undisturbed as the pontifex maximus of portrait-painting - the Merlin of his art - that the steps of his house should have been swept by the ermine of judges, the lawn of prelates, the robes of peers, the satin and brocade of princesses; that there should have been about his ante-rooms, thrown into corners like unconsidered trifles, of as little account as the gew-gaws of a player's tiring- room, the fans of duchesses, the batons of victorious generals, - the badges of chivalry, the laurels of poets, the portfolios of ministers. It is something to think that if some spoony lords, some carpet warriors, some tenth transmitters of a foolish face, have mingled with the brilliant crowd at forty-seven, Leicester Fields, its rooms have re-echoed to the silvery laughter of Georgina Duchess of Devonshire, to the commanding tones of [-182-] Chatham, and Mansfield, and Camden. It is more to think that to this house came, to hold familiar converse with its master, the wise men of England.
    Come back, shades of the mighty dead, to nuinber forty- seven! Come back from Beaconsfield, Edmund Burke! Come back, Percy, scholar and poet; Joe Warburton; lively, vain, kind-hearted David Garrick, courtly Topham Beauclerc, staunch old General Oglethorpe, drawing diagrams of the fields of Belgrade and Peterwardein with filberts, and nut-crackers, and port wine! Come back, stout-hearted Pasquale di Paoli; gossipping, toadying, boozy Boswell. Come back, oh, thou leviathan of literature, with the large wig and larger heart, with the rolling gait and voice of thunder, come back, Samuel Johnson!
    Do thou also return, sprightly, kindly spectre in suit of Filby-made Tyrian bloom-poet and novelist and essayist and dramatist, for whom, wert thou alive and hard up for paper, I would send my last shirt to the paper-mill to make Bath post. Return, if for a moment, Oliver Goldsmith! Sins and follies there may be posted against thee in the Book, but surely tears enough have been shed over the 'Vicar of Wakefield' to blot them out, and airs of light-hearted laughter have been wafted from 'She Stoops to Conquer' to dry the leaves again a thousand times!
    But they cannot come back, these shades, at my poor bidding. Beaconsfield and Poet's Corner, St. Paul's and Dromore, will hold their own until the time shall come. I cannot even wander through the genius hallowed rooms of Reynolds's house. Literary and scientific apparatus, and panorama, have effaced all vestige thereof. I can but muse in the spirit on the dining-room where these great ones met-on the octagon painting-room with the arm-chair on a dais, with the high window looking to the northward darkened on the day of Goldsmith's death, with the palette and pencils laid by for the day when Johnson was buried, and on every Sunday afterwards, according to his dying wish.
    My square is nearly circled. When I have stated that David Loggan, the engraver immortalised by Pope, lived next door to Hogarth, and that next door on the other side resided (after the painter's death) John Hunter, the surgeon, who here formed the famous anatomical museum, called the Hunterian collection, and gave every Sunday evening, during the winter months, medical soirees, where matters germane to the scalpel [-183-] and lancet were pleasantly discussed over coffee and muffins, I think I have named all that Leicester Square offers of  remarkable, historically speaking. I am not aware that any nobleman ever had his head cut off here; that Lord Rochester ever said anything witty from any of its balconies; or that any patriot, from Jack Cade to Mr. Hunt, ever addressed British freeholders within its precincts.
    The diameter I proposed to myself is well-nigh completed;. but there is yet the centre of my self-traced circle to be visited. I shall say no more of Mr. Wyld's globe, save that it is a very excellent viva voce course of lessons in geography. I will not touch upon the bazaar that was to have been built there once; but I must, for the benefit of my untravelled readers, say a word about the centre of the square before it was built upon.
    Where now is a lofty dome was once, O neophyte in London, a howling desert enclosed by iron railings. There was no grass, but there was a feculent, colourless vegetation like mildewed thatch upon a half-burnt cottage. There were no gravel-walks, but there were sinuous gravelly channels and patches, as if the cankerous earth had the mange. There were rank weeds heavy with soot. There were blighted shrubs like beggars' staves or paralytic hop-poles. There were shattered marble vases like bygone chemists' mortars which bad lost their pestles, half choked with black slimy mould like preparations for decayed blisters. The earth seemed to bring forth crops, but they were crops of shattered tiles, crumbling bricks, noseless kettles, and soleless boots. The shrubs had on their withered branches, strange fruits- battered hats of antediluvian shape, and oxidised saucepan lids. The very gravel was rusty and mixed with fragments of willow-pattern plates, verdigrised nails, and spectral horseshoes. The surrounding railings, rusty, bent, and twisted as they were, were few and far between. The poor of the neighbourhood tore them out by night, to make pokers of. In the centre, gloomy, grimy, rusty, was the Statue - more hideous (if such a thing may be) than the George the Fourth enormity in Trafalgar Square - more awful than the statue of time Commendatore in Don Giovanni.
    There were strange rumours and legends current in Leicesterian circles concerning this enclosure. Men told, holding their breath, of cats run wild in its thickets, and grown as large as leopards. There was no garden, and if any man [-184-] possessed a key to the enclosure, he was too frightened to use it. People spoke of a dragon, a ghoule, a geni, who watched over the square, and for some fell purpose kept it desolate. Some said, the statue was the geni; but in 1851, when the Globe was proposed, he showed himself to the world, howled dismally, and did furious battle to keep his beloved Square intact in all its ruin and desolation. This geni, or dragon's name was, if I remember right, Vested Interests. He was vanquished.