I have been visiting Upper Street in Islington ever since I was quite young. When I was a child, my parents used to take me to performances of opera in English by the Sadlers Wells Company, which performed in a theatre (one of the many reincarnations of today’s Sadlers Wells Theatre) near to Upper Street. Before the performances, we often ate a dinner in a no longer existing Italian restaurant in Camden Passage which runs parallel to Upper Street. Since then, I have made many visits to the Upper Street part of Islington to eat, to see theatrical performances (at the Almeida,The Old Red Lion, and The Kings Head), hear a concert at the Union Chapel, and watch films (at The Screen on the Green). Yet, I have never liked this bustling, and now quite trendy, part of Islington. On the other hand, nearby Canonbury delights me.
In the middle of Upper Street, there is a statue of Hugh Myddelton, a seventeenth century worthy to whom I shall return below. It stands at the southern end of Essex Road that heads straight in a north-easterly direction.
Both Upper Street and Essex Road eventually intersect St Pauls Road. The three thoroughfares enclose a roughly triangular area of London that is known as ‘Canonbury’. This tranquil, attractive, largely residential area is the subject of this essay.
Until the 18th century, there were very few buildings in Canonbury except for Canonbury House, which existed in the 14th century and the Canonbury Tavern with its popular tea gardens, which was already in place by 1730. It was a largely rural area. The name of the area derives from the fact that it was land granted to the canons of the Priory of St Bartholomew’s Priory (in Smithfield) in about 1250.
A map (stored in the British Library) shows that by 1850, Canonbury was becoming urbanised. Although much of it was still rural, new streets were being laid out and buildings were being erected. This urbanisation began at the beginning of the 19th century. For example, by 1805 building plots were being let around what is now Canonbury Square. By the middle of the second half of the 19th century, Canonbury had become a largely urban (as opposed to rural) area. Its convenient proximity to the City and other parts of central London made it a desirable suburb.
The houses in the streets surrounding the Gardens (and, also, many others in Canonbury) often have picturesque front doors, many of them painted in different colours. One of the joys of walking about Canonbury is looking at the wonderful variety of front doors of the houses lining the streets. Many of these doors look to me as if they were the originals installed when these 19th century homes were built.
“A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 8, Islington and Stoke Newington Parishes”. published by Victoria County History, London, 1985, mentions some of Canonbury’s now famous culturally inclined residents:
“Canonbury Square and Place had several residents prominent in literary and artistic spheres between and after the World Wars, including Evelyn Waugh in 1928, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and Eric Blair (George Orwell) 1944-5.” The architect Basil Spence also lived on this square, as will be described later.
According to the above-mentioned source, the ‘gentrification’ of the area (Canonbury/Islington) commenced in about 1960; it became populated by professional and other higher earning people.
One of my mother’s cousins was amongst the first of the ‘gentry’ to live in Islington. His family was the first of the ‘pioneering’ higher income families to live in a street whose name I never knew. Their house was close to a pub. On many occasions, the locals threw stones at the windows of their ‘posh’ neighbour on their way home from the pub. This upset my mother’s cousin’s family so much that they felt forced to leave Islington and buy a home somewhere more genteel. Today, most of Canonbury’s residents would be classifiable as ‘posh’ enough to be able to afford their homes in the area.
This exploration of Canonbury begins on Essex Road, at a building with a fantastic art-deco façade. Today, it houses ‘Gracepoint’.
A number of former cinemas in London have been renovated and re-used as venues for religious meetings or other purposes. The old Coronet Cinema in Notting Hill Gate and Gateway House in Woolwich are fine examples of this. For years, the Coronet was a cinema, then it became a church meeting hall as well as a cinema, and now it is a theatre again (it was originally built as a theatre before it became a cinema!). Gracepoint is yet another former cinema that has been converted to a new use.
The facade of Gracepoint on Essex Road is a fine example of art-deco neo-Egyptian architecture. Built in the 1920s, designed by the architect George COLES, it was formerly the Carlton Cinema. After being abandoned for a while, it has been fully restored and is used both as a religious meeting place and a 'venue' for hiring. I was not able to enter, but I have seen photos of the interior, which has been restored to its former glory. It is worth stopping to look at!
Leaving Gracepoint, River Place leads away from Essex Road towards the small Canonbury Gardens. Along this street, one can see the rear (eastern) end of St Stephens Church. From this vantage point, the church looks as if it has been converted to some new use, maybe apartments. This is misleading, because the church is still being used for worship. The modern bit is part of a new extension to provide space for church and community events. The church was built between 1837 and 1839 to the designs of Messrs Inwood and Clifton. It was erected at the same time as Canonbury was becoming urbanised. The main façade of the church is on Canonbury Road.
Canonbury Gardens, a small almost triangular park is built above a section of the New River, where it begins flowing underground.
For me, the New River is the ‘star’ amongst Canonbury’s attractions. It is a wonderful surprise for first-time visitors, and a joy to return there. Here, you can escape from urban life without ever being more than a few metres from it.
Surrounded by houses (mostly residential), you can almost imagine that you are in the heart of the countryside. Between St Pauls Road and Canonbury Gardens, the waterway runs in the open-air, and is lined by luxuriously planted parkland. A pathway alongside the stream, the ‘New River Walk’, for walkers (no cyclists) was opened in the 1950s.
The New River is neither new nor a river. Created at the instigation of Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631), whose statue stands where Essex Road and Upper Street (Islington) part company, this canal was opened in 1613. The canal was constructed to bring fresh water for drinking into London from various sources such as the River Lea and springs along its course. A walk has been designated along the New River from its ‘source’ in Hertfordshire to where it terminates in Islington. Full mapping of the walk is available at: http://www.shelford.org/walks/newriver.pdf. The New River walk in Canonbury is a part of it.
The waterside gardens along the Islington/Canonbury section of the New River were first laid out in the 1950s. If you look carefully, you can find a small plaque commemorating their opening by the Labour Party politician, Herbert Morrison(1888-1965) in May 1954.
The New River has undergone many changes in its course over the years. One original section remains in the gardens in Canonbury. It is the short curve that runs around a small brick watchman’s hut, which was built in about 1820. The watchman’s job was to prevent fishing and swimming in water that was destined to become drinking water.
The Walk winds its way along the gently curving stretch of the New River. Weeping willows dangle their foliage in the water, ducks and moorhens swim past, local people walk their children and dogs, and an air of peace prevails.
The gardens along the water's edge are beautiful, containing a wide variety of different plants. In spring, the blossoms add to the charm of this wonderful place. This is a park worth going far out of your way to see and enjoy.
If you get hungry or thirsty, I would recommend popping into the excellent MARQUESS TAVERN. I have visited Islington too many times to remember, and never eaten a memorably good meal (only one exception: Ottolenghi) or even enjoyed the ambience of any of its eateries. At last, I have found a place, The Marquess, that I like. Located at the Canonbury Road and Douglas Road, very close to the New River Walk, the pub was built and opened in 1850. It is not far from Marquess Road, and its construction coincided with the building of new ‘villas’ in the neighbourhood. I am not sure to which if any marquess the name of the pub refers. It is now the only pub named ‘Marquess’ in the area. However, there used to be a pub, which was built in the 1970s, called ‘The Marquess’ on the nearby Marquess Estate, but this closed at least ten years ago.
The pub is beautifully and somewhat quirkily decorated. Look up at the lampshades, for example. On one cluster of lamps, the shades were made to look like the horn-shaped speakers that emitted sound on old-fashioned clockwork gramophones. The pub is spacious with plenty of places to sit down inside, and also outside in the garden. There was a small range of beers and lagers on offer, and a good range of harder drinks including sloe gin. The menu offers a wide range of food including vegetarian dishes. Not being particularly hungry, we ordered starters only: mussels in creamy white wine sauce and wild mushrooms with poached egg. Both dishes were top-class. We intend returning to try some of the other tempting things on the menu.
Canonbury Square was our next destination in Canonbury. Ill-named like the New River, it is not really a square, but an elongated rectangle. Although building began around it in about 1805, it was not fully surrounded by buildings until the early 1820s. Amongst the many fine buildings around the ‘square’, I will focus on Northumberland Lodge.
Once the home of Basil Spence (1907-1976), the architect of Coventry Cathedral, and the less successful (in terms of aesthetics) Hyde Park Barracks, the Lodge now housed The Estorick Collection.
This contains a wonderful collection of artworks created by Italian artists in the early to mid-twentieth century. It is a must for those interested in this body of work, but of scant interest if Italian twentieth century art means little to you. Of course, if you are undecided about it or know little about it, the collection provides a superb opportunity to help you explore it.
Eric Estorick (1913-1993) married his wife Salome (née Dessau) in 1947. They met, and became engaged while crossing the Atlantic in the “Queen Elizabeth” liner. Salome was artistically inclined, an art student daughter of a Nottingham textile manufacturer. During their honeymoon in Switzerland, Estorick discovered a book by the Italian futurist Boccioni, and this helped to trigger his fascination with modern Italian art. According to an article in “The Independent” newspaper, dated 25th February 1996 :
“A former teacher at the Bauhaus, Arturo Bryks, introduced to the young couple by Stafford Cripps’s daughter Peggy, gave them the idea of visiting Milan and meeting contemporary artists. Estorick became a friend of Sironi, Campigli, Morandi and de Chirico.
Two years after the war, Italian paintings still carried a taint of fascism, so they cost little. With Salome's help, Estorick was able to buy on a significant scale.”
Incidentally, Eric published two books about Sir Stafford Cripps (1889-1952), whom Churchill sent to India in 1942 to try to gain Indian cooperation in the Allied war effort. Eventually, the Estoricks settled in London. Eric began collecting art just after WW2, when he was already a dealer. He and his wife settled in London, where they founded the still extant Grosvenor Gallery.
The Estoricks, whilst carrying on their business of art dealing, collected the works of twentieth century Italian artists, and this became the collection, some of which is on display at the gallery/museum in Canonbury. There are two galleries on the ground floor. These are dedicated to temporary exhibitions, often containing artworks not in the Estorick Collection. There is also a café and a gift/book shop on the ground floor.
Steep steps lead up to the first and second floors where works from the Estoricks’ collection may be viewed. And, these paintings, prints, and sculptures are very fine. As the Collection’s website explains, the Estorick Collection:
“...brings together some of the finest and most important works created by Italian artists during the first half of the twentieth century, and is Britain’s only museum devoted to modern Italian art.”
This is no exaggeration.
This place is a must for lovers of twentieth century ‘modern art’, and especially for those who are interested in the Italian Futurist Movement. While the Estorick is more esoteric than, say, the Tate Modern, its collection though small certainly rivals it in quality.
The Estorick is close to bus stops on the route number 271, which will take you to a variety of useful transport nodes including Highbury and Islington station and Old Street station. As its route transverses Canonbury, this is a useful way to reach places mentioned above in order to begin your own exploration of this delightful area.