Let's take a stroll along Curzon Street and explore its surroundings in Mayfair
I have been visiting Curzon Street in London’s Mayfair for many decades, usually to watch a film at the Curzon Cinema. For a long time, this was one of the most comfortable cinemas in London, but now, at last, many other cinemas are providing seating at least as comfortable as that in the Curzon. Many years ago, I visited Shepherd’s Market, which is close to the Curzon Cinema, to eat at Tiddy Dol’s Restaurant. The restaurant no longer exists, but the cinema is thriving. This essay explores some of the sights on Curzon Street, an interesting thoroughfare, which is, unusually, devoid of food shops (e.g. grocery shops, butchers, etc.)
Curzon Street runs from Park Lane eastwards towards Fitzmaurice Place, which runs south from nearby Berkely Square of singing nightingale fame. It is not named, as I have always believed, after Lord Curzon (1859-1925), a former Viceroy of India. The street existed long before the Viceroy’s birth. The street has not always been known by its present name. It began life as ‘Mayfair Row’. It was named ‘Curzon’ after its one-time landlord George Augustus Curzon, third Viscount Howe.
An 1862 map shows that Curzon Street then ran from ‘Seamore Place’, which is the site of the present Curzon Square (see below) to Half Moon Street, and then to the east of that, the street was then named ‘Bolton Row’. Bolton Row ran between Half Moon Street and where Fitzmaurice Place now runs. In 1862, the latter street did not exist, but where it is now, was part of the grounds of Lansdowne House.
A map published in 1750 shows that the former ‘Mayfair Row’ was already named ‘Curzon Street’, and ran from Park Lane to Half Moon Street where it became ‘Bolton Row’. At that time, only the southern side of Curzon Street had a few buildings along it. The northern side was devoid of buildings except for the boundary wall of the grounds of Chesterfield House (see below). Sometime between 1750 and 1800, the section of Curzon Street between the present Curzon Square and Park Lane was built on. To enter the west part of Curzon Street from Park Lane, it became necessary to enter Pitts Head Mews, which is currently bordered by the Park Lane Hilton Hotel, and then to pass northwards through a narrow alley way to reach Seamore Place (now ‘Curzon Square’). The northern end of Seamore Place was the western end of Curzon Street. And, this is how the road layout remained until after about 1930.
Number 1 Seamore Place and its grounds that extended to Park Lane (and therefore closed off direct access from Curzon Street to Park Lane). It was the home of Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918), the first Jewish person to be the Director of the Bank of England. Benjamin Disraeli, who became one of Rothschild’s neighbours, said of number 1 Seamore Place that it was:
“...the most charming house in London, the magnificence of its decorations and furniture equalled by their good taste”
And, he was well qualified to say that because in 1880, Rothschild had given him a suite of rooms in his house to use whenever he wanted (see: “Disraeli”, by R Blake, publ. 1966, and https://family.rothschildarchive.org/estates/46-1-seamore-place)
The house was demolished between the two world wars to enable Curzon Street to be re-connected with Park Lane. In connection with this house, the Rothschild Archive website records:
“Alfred bequeathed both the house and its contents to Almina, Countess of Carnavon, whom he acknowledged as his illegitimate daughter. The proceeds of the sales she made helped finance the excavations carried out by Lord Carnavon and Howard Carter in Egypt at which Tutankhamen's tomb was discovered.”
We begin our exploration of Curzon Street in Pitts Head Mews at the base of the Hilton Hotel. A short, narrow staircase leads up (northwards) from opposite the Hilton’s tea rooms into Curzon Square. The west side of Curzon Square (formerly ‘Seamore Place’, and then ‘Curzon Place’) consists of buildings that look more recent than what must have been there in the early 19th century. In addition to the Rothschild’s house, the west side of the former Seamore Place was occupied by homes belonging to people, whom the novelist Georgette Heyer would have described as being of ‘bon ton’. These houses had gardens extending to Park Lane.
Today, the square, which contains some slender young trees, is provided with attractive marble benches for public use. The eastern side of the square has buildings that are older than those on the western side. At least, they appear to be older. The building on the western corner of Curzon Square and Curzon Street has a fine sunken garden behind it. This is viewable from the square. The building was originally Georgian, but after suffering bomb damage in WW2, it was clumsily restored. It was in a flat inside this building that Keith Moon of “The Who” pop group died in 1978. Some years earlier, in 1974, another pop musician Mama Cass Elliot also died in the same building.
Entering Curzon Street, we find two long established clubs on its south side. One is Aspinall’s and further along there is Crockfords. Between them and Curzon Square is the former home of a Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881). He lived in number 19, which was built in about 1758, during the last year of his life. He bought the house using proceeds from the sales of his novel “Endymion”. He only lived long enough to be able to host one dinner party there, the last he was to hold before he died. Amongst the guests at this occasion was his neighbour and former host, Alfred de Rothschild, and also Lady Anne Chesterfield, with whom Disraeli had conducted a long and intimate correspondence (see: book by Blake).
Several of the houses in the row of buildings that includes number 19 have ironwork structures beside their front steps. Most of these have inverted metal cones attached to them. These cones were used to snuff out flaming torches that were used at night for illumination.
Further along the street, there is a plaque on number 32. This commemorates Rufus Isaacs (1860-1935), the Jewish lawyer and statesman who lived and died in this building. Between his home and that of Disraeli, there are two clubs: Aspinalls and Crockfords. Aspinalls, now ‘Crown Aspinalls’ is an elite gambling club founded in the 1960s by John Aspinall. It moved to its present premises in Curzon Street in 1992. There is a metal model of an elephant on the doormat of the entrance to Aspinalls’s. Rather inelegantly one of its legs is attached to the railings with a bicycle clamp. This elephant may have something to do with the fact that the club’s founder John Aspinall (1926-2000), who was born in British India, was the owner of several zoos in the UK.
Almost its neighbour, Crockfords, another gambling club, has a longer history than Aspinalls. It was established by William Crockford (1776-1844), the son of a fishmonger, as a ‘private members’ gaming club’ in 1828. It is said that even the Duke of Wellington joined this club, if only to be able to blackball his son, Lord Douro, to prevent him from becoming a member. Crockfords was originally housed in St James Street, but moved to its present location much later. This was after Crockford had bought a share in Watier’s gaming club that was in what used to be Bolton Row (now Curzon Street). Watier’s failed, but Crockford was able to continue in the gaming business, and died a very wealthy man.
Across the road from Crockfords, there stands a building owned by the Egyptian Government, a 19th century building on the corner of Curzon Street and Chesterfield Gardens. This building was bought from a Jewish banker shortly after the Egyptians had acquired Bute House (in South Audley Street, now the Egyptian Embassy) in 1925. This became the ‘Royal Egyptian Club’ for a while, and is now still used by the Egyptian government (see: http://www.egy.com/landmarks/95-02-04.php). In 2013, objects from University College’s Petrie Egyptological museum were temporarily displayed in this building (see: http://www.ai-journal.com/articles/10.5334/ai.1607/).
Chesterfield gardens is a cul-de-sac. It ends abruptly at an attractive, elegant brick wall decorated with bricked in arches and topped by a balustrade. Halfway along it, the wall increases in height and accommodates a second row of arches separated by Corinthian pilasters and surmounted by a triangular pediment. Maps drawn as late as 1862 show that Chesterfield Gardens did not yet exist, but its parallel neighbour to the east of it, Chesterfield Street, where both Beau Brummell (1778-1840) and Prime Minister Anthony Eden (1897-1977) once lived, did exist. The latter separated the grounds of Chesterfield House to its west from those of Wharncliff House (now ‘Crewe House’) to its east. Where Chesterfield Gardens runs today was, in the past, part of the grounds of Chesterfield House (built for Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield between 1747-1752), which occupied the (eastern) corner plot where South Audley Street meets Curzon Street. The house’s grounds were reduced in extent in 1869, when it was purchased by Mr Charles Magniac who created the street now known as Chesterfield Gardens. The elegant wall, which is now a protected structure, is believed to be a part of the northern wall of the former gardens of Chesterfield House (see: http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-702-1/dissemination/pdf/molas1-69250_1.pdf). The house was demolished in 1937. Incidentally, the 4th Earl of Chesterfield’s daughter-in-law was Lady Anne Chesterfield, who had attended the only dinner party that Disraeli held in his Curzon Street home (see above).
Whereas Chesterfield House no longer exists, its former neighbour to the east of Chesterfield Street still stands. Known as ‘Wharncliffe House’ prior to 1899 (when it was acquired by the Marquis of Crewe), Crewe House as it is now known, it is currently the home of the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Crewe House was built in 1730, but its interior has been much modified since then. Set well back from the street behind a large garden, this building is a now rare example of a central London mansion set in its own grounds. In 1918, during WW1, Crewe House became the headquarters of Lord Northcliffe’s department for producing and then distributing propaganda to attempt to change the minds of those fighting for Germany and its allies (see: “Secrets of Crewe House” by C Stuart, publ. 1920).
The Curzon Cinema (now ‘Curzon Mayfair’) is almost opposite Crewe House on the corner of Curzon Street and Hertford Street. This cinema, which is close to Shepherds Market (see below) is a masterpiece of 1960s architectural design, especially its largest auditorium. It was built beneath offices between 1963 and 1966 to the design of Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners, architects in collaboration with H G Hammond.
The luxurious foyer is divided into two parts by a sculptured wall screen. Tickets are sold at the long bar, which also serves drinks and snacks. Attractive abstract sculptural murals of fibre glass by William Mitchell and Associates line the side walls of the main auditorium. Its ceiling is a network of almost square recessed cells, each containing a light fitting. The seats in the auditorium are gently raked and very comfortable. The rake is slight but sufficient to ensure a good unobstructed view from each row.
The Curzon Mayfair is the original member of the Curzon group of cinemas, and probably the most elegant of the group. Given its expensive Mayfair location, ticket prices are no higher than average. The reason that I first became attracted to this cinema was that during my student days (in the 1970s) it did not show as many ‘run-of-the mill’ mainstream films as most other cinemas. Like the now non-existent Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, it showed what some people refer to as ‘art films’. Nowadays, the Curzon and its branches tend to show mostly mainstream cinematic releases. Nevertheless, the Mayfair Curzon is a lovely place to enjoy watching them.
Hertford Street leads into the complex of small streets known as ‘Shepherds Market’. The market’s name has nothing to do with sheep; it commemorates Edward Shepherd, who developed the ‘piazza’ named after him during the period 1735 to 1746. It was built on fields where once a traditional May Fair used to be held. A network of cute narrow lanes surrounds the elongated piazza, which one might easily mistake for a stretch of wide street. This area is full of upmarket prostitutes, cafés, pubs, and restaurants, many of the latter providing middle-eastern fare.
One restaurant, which closed in 1998, was a landmark in Shepherds Market. This was ‘Tiddy Dol’s’, which was named after a famous Georgian street-seller of gingerbread snacks (see: http://scrumpdillyicious.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/mayfair-memories-tiddy-dols-welsh.html?m=0). I remember entering this rather gloomy eatery with my Italian brother-in-law, who wanted to try ‘real’ English food. We ordered him Welsh Rarebit, for which the restaurant was justifiably renowned. He looked at the dish in front of him, prodded its cheesy topping, and then made an involuntary expression that conveyed ‘disgust’ to me. Tiddy Dols was in the ‘epicentre’ of the prostitution ‘business’. So much so that:
“…in the late Seventies, commissionaires in the grand hotels of Park Lane would tell families of tourists not to go to Tiddy Dolls, such was the gauntlet of girls they would have to run.” (see: “The Independent” newspaper, 14th March 1996.)
Regardless of what you want out of life, Shepherds Market is a very pleasant and surprising enclave in the heart of Mayfair.
An alleyway lined with eateries leads north from Shepherds Market past Da Corradi’s Italian long established (so long that it still displays its outdated 0171 telephone prefix code) restaurant to Curzon Street. To the left (west) of the alleyway on Curzon Street, you will find Maggs Bros. Ltd.
This bookshop, which was founded in 1853, specialises in rare books and manuscripts. For 80 years until 2015, it used to have its premises at number 50 Berkeley Square. The business was started by Uriah Maggs (1828-1913), and remains under the ownership of his family. Apparently, one of Maggs’s more unusual dealings was the handling of a sale (for £400 in 1924) of a collection of mummified parts of Napoleon Bonaparte’s corpse including his penis (see, for example: “Lucy’s Bones, Sacred Stones, & Einstein's Brain: The Remarkable Stories Behind the Great Objects and Artifacts of History, From Antiquity to the Modern Era” by H Rachlin, publ. 2013)
Almost opposite Maggs’s new premises on Curzon Street, there is another bookshop, Heywood Hill. The shop was opened by Heywood Hill in 1936, and has strong associations with Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), who was one of the famous ‘Mitford Sisters’. During WW2, Nancy, an accomplished author, worked at Heywood Hill, which, by then, had become:
“… a meeting place for London literary society and her friends.” (See: http://www.nancymitford.com/nancy/).
This bookshop, which helps the discerning reader (with ample income) to assemble collections of books for his or her library, is patronised by the Royal Family. It bears a ‘By Royal Appointment’ sign.
Neighbouring Heywood Hill, there is a shop, Trumpers, which has nothing to do with the USA’s current president. The shop houses the premises of George F Trumper, “Court Hairdresser and Perfumer”. Founded in the 19th century by George Trumper, this is an up-market barber’s shop. Given the heritage and exclusivity of this establishment, its prices, although not cheap, are not unreasonable (see: https://www.trumpers.com/services_pricelist.cfm). I have not made use of its services, but when I do go in there for a trim, I will join a host of well-known men, including King George V, Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Cary Grant and Michael Caine, who have all been groomed there (see: https://www.man.london/grooming/classic-barbershops-gentlemen/).
On the same side of Curzon Street but east of Trumpers and Heywood Hill, there is the magnificent façade of the Third Church of Christ Scientist. And, it is truly a façade nowadays because it covers up the recent construction behind it. The building, of which only the façade remains, was designed by the architects Lanchester & Rickards, commenced in 1908, and opened for use in 1911. The original building had sufficient space to seat 1000 people.
The architectural writer Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) remarked that the façade resembled that of a highly successful insurance company. In 1984, the Church decided to make a smaller place of worship on this site, and to develop the rest of it for use as commercial property and flats. These are tastefully arranged around a landscaped central courtyard.
The Church of Christ Scientist faces the beginning of Half Moon Street, which leads from Curzon Street to Piccadilly. The building of this street began in 1730. It was home to notable figures such as Dr Johnson’s biographer James Boswell, King Ludwig the First of Bavaria’s mistress Lola Montez, and Sax Rohmer, the creator of Dr Fu Manchu. This elegant street was also the location of Algernon Moncrieff’s ‘pad’ in Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Ernest”. In fact, one scene is set in the: “Morning-room in Algernon’s flat in Half-Moon Street”.
Before reaching the eastern end of Curzon Street, let us take a detour by entering Clarges Mews. This place is at the northern end of Clarges Street which crosses Curzon Street just east of the Church of Christ Scientist. Clarges Mews used to be called ‘Lambeth Mews’, so I discovered on an 1862 map. It still bore its earlier name on the 1891 Census. The mews runs parallel to Curzon Street and has a narrow pedestrian passage at its western end joining it to Queen Street. In “Lockies Topography of London…” published in 1810 (see: https://archive.org/stream/lockiestopograph00lockiala/lockiestopograph00lockiala_djvu.txt), it is stated that the mews also connected with Charles Street (this can be seen on Cross’s “New Plan of London” dated 1850), but now it does not do so.
This pleasant mews has one building, number 37, that captured my curiosity. It is a redbrick building with mansard windows and some white stone facings. It looks as though it might have been transported from a chic suburb of Paris. In between two of the first-floor windows there is a crest which looks like an interlinked ‘V’ and ‘R’. Above it, is the date 1890.
An aerial photograph revealed to me that this building is at the rear of the courtyard of a building on Charles Street (numbers 37 and 38), Dartmouth House, which is now the English Speaking Union and is built in the same ‘French rococo’ style. Originally built in the Georgian style in the middle of the 18th century, it was modified to imitate the French style in 1870 by the banker Edward Baring (1828-1897).
In 2009, Clarges Mews hit the headlines when a group of squatters was eventually evicted from properties on Clarges Mews (see: “The Guardian” 28th January 2009). The squatters were a group of young artists that were sometimes known as the ‘Da! Collective’. According to “The Guardian” they were:
“…squatting under the banner of the Temporary School of Thought at their latest address, where they held weeks of workshops and activities. They invited members of the public into the sumptuous property to learn new skills – there were free classes on everything from Hungarian folk singing to treehouse building and how to dance the Charleston.”
At the same time as the squatters in Clarges Mews were evicted, so were others in properties along nearby Park Lane.
The eastern end of Curzon Street, where it meets Fitzmaurice Place, is occupied by the Lansdowne Club. This private club was established in 1935 in Lansdowne House. The construction this house to the designs of Robert Adam (1728-1792) was slow, lasting from the early 1760s to the early 1780s. Looking at the outside of the building (once a private mansion with grounds extending to Berkely Square), you would never imagine that this was originally a Robert Adam building. This is because in 1933:
“Lansdowne House is radically restructured. Adam’s façade is cut back forty feet. The First Drawing Room and Great Eating Room are dismantled and shipped to America” (see: https://www.lansdowneclub.com/about-the-club/history/).
Two years later, the Bruton Club, which was housed in this building, was re-named the Lansdowne Club. In 1964, the building was further curtailed when Westminster Council demolished Lansdowne Steps to allow the extension of Curzon Street eastwards to join Fitzmaurice Place, which became a public thoroughfare in 1935.
Before becoming a club, Lansdowne House had been a private residence. Its owners had been the Marquesses of Lansdowne, members of the Shelburne family that included some Fitzmaurice ancestors. The Fifth Marquess of Lansdowne rented the house to Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947), the American owner of London’s Selfridge department store. In 1929, the Sixth Marquess of Lansdowne sold the family home to an American property developer, who, in turn, sold it to the Bruton Club.
I have been lucky enough to have been invited to dinner by a member of the Lansdowne Club. Many of its common areas, corridors, entrance hall, and dining room, are decorated in the art-deco style, and very well-maintained. Incidentally, the food in the dining room was excellent. On that cheerful note, we reach the end of my amble along Curzon Street, a thoroughfare that certainly does not lack in interest.