BELGRAVIA AND KNIGHTBRIDGE
Harrods Department Store
This walk begins at Harrods Department Store on Brompton Road, reached by any Knightsbridge-bound bus.
Belgravia and Knightsbridge are synonymous today with elegant living and shopping, but prior to the nineteenth century, this was an unkempt village outside London, a place for cattle markets and slaughterhouses. Then a small grocer named Harrod took steps to assure the area's future by anticipating a farsighted developer, who was establishing Georgian-style residential squares there. By 1905 Harrod had prospered enough that he could dominate his block by building the terra-cotta brick store crowned with towers and cupolas that is a landmark (and focus) for London shoppers today. Its food halls, once so dear to Harrod's heart, are showplaces of art nouveau tile decoration as well as sumptuous food and not to be missed.
After tearing yourself away from Harrods, continue west along Brompton Road and cross to Brompton Square.
1. Residence of Stéphane Mallarmé
6 Brampton Square
Mallarmé, the French poet best known for his "L'Aprés-Midi d'un Faune," came to London in 1862 to learn English. He met a German governess, Marie Gerhard, whom he married, and they remained in London for two years. Mallarmé was influenced by the English romantic poets, particularly Keats, Shelley and Coleridge, but following their footsteps in England didn't spawn inspiration, as he had hoped. Instead he found it a constant struggle to compose poetry in the conditions of poverty he saw around him. After leaving London, he taught English in Paris for the rest of his life. Wilde met him in Paris and attended two of the poet's famous mardis.
By 1890 the decadents among French writers were moving toward symbolism, and Mallarmé was a leader. His influence on Wilde is evident in the preface of Dorian Gray, which Wilde was writing at the time of his Paris visit: "All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril."
Both Mallarmé and Wilde saw literature as the supreme art, one that could transform a painting into words. And both were somewhat obsessed with the theme of Salome. Mallarmé's central work, Herodiade, based on the theme of Salome, was still unfinished when Wilde embarked upon his Salomé, written in French. Whether or not Wilde intended it to compete with Mallarmé's epic poem, it did. In a futile effort to complete Herodiade, Mallarmé was forced to recognize Wilde's effort, saying that he would retain the name of Herodiade for his work in order to differentiate it from the other Salomé, which he described as "modern."
While Wilde grieved in prison, Salomé was finally produced in Paris in 1896 and well received by audience and critics. "It is something that at a time of disgrace and shame I should still be regarded as an artist: I wish I could feel more pleasure; but I seem dead to all emotions except those of anguish and despair," he wrote to his friend Robert Ross.
- Brompton Oratory
The huge dome you see further along Brompton Road south of Brompton Square rises above the Brompton Oratory, an Italianate Roman Catholic church built during the mid Victorian period, when English Catholics and vacillating converts were emerging into the light of tolerance.
Wilde wavered most of his life between the Catholic church, the Protestant church of his parents, or no church at all. The latter won, except on his deathbed, when he finally opted for Catholicism. Earlier, however, during a fit of sickness at Oxford in 1878, he had experienced an attack of anxiety about his soul. A month after having been confined to his bed, he went to speak confidentially to the fashionable priest, Reverend Sebastian Bowden, at the Brompton Oratory in London. Bowden was well known for his conversions among London's social set.
After Wilde's confession the priest wrote a letter urging him to "obey God's call promptly and cheerfully," promising that his difficulties would disappear after his conversion, and that true happiness would begin. An appointment for another meeting was set for the following Thursday. At last Wilde was forced to the point of decision. On Thursday, when Wilde was to be received into the church, in lieu of Wilde, a large package arrived addressed to the priest. In it was a spray of lilies, Wilde's polite way of "flowering over" his renunciation.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde's character, Lord Henry Wotton, is more cynical, but Wilde may have drawn from his own experience. "Religion consoles some," Lord Henry says. "Its mysteries have all the charm of a flirtation . . . . Besides, nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner."
From Brompton Square cross to Ovington Square on the opposite side of Brompton Road.
- Residence of Lady "Speranza" Wilde
1 Ovington Square
When her tenants in Dublin failed to pay their rent on her properties, Lady Wilde and Willie, Oscar's older brother, came to join Oscar in London. After settling at Ovington Square, she inaugurated her Saturday afternoon salons, at which she presided over a tea table that dispensed more Irish whiskey than tea.
Although Oscar was the chief drawing card, Willie, who worked off and on as a journalist, gave him enough competition to build a little tension. Once, when asked what he was working at, Willie responded "at intervals." He was an inch taller than Oscar's six feet, two inches and closely resembled him. Oscar, however, was very resentful when acquaintances confused them.
Most of Lady Wilde's guests were Irish newcomers, like George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats, who gathered here to meet people and were grateful for Lady Wilde's hospitality. Others came to laugh at the eccentric lady but stayed to marvel. Lady Wilde, wearing a black wig topped with exotic headdresses, and garbed in costumes of the 1860s, with large flounces, beads and pendants, was a delightful, if quixotic, hostess, always ready with a quip that would bear repeating and spread her name around town. In an oracular mood she once announced, "I have come to the conclusion that nothing in the world is worth living for except she paused before hissing out the last word ."sin!"
When Wilde's fame was at its Zenith in the nineties and he could no longer find time to attend his mother's functions, the celebrities disappeared, and Lady Wilde seemed to exhibit greater dignity. She no longer painted her face, and her manner became somewhat aloof, but she spoke with pride of her successful son. "The world will not leave him alone," she said, explaining his rare visits. She and Willie then moved to Oakley Street in Chelsea.
At the south end of the square, cross over to Pont Street.
4. Residence of Sir George Alexander
57 Pont Street
This impressive building, now the Executive Hotel, was once the home of Sir George Alexander, manager of the St. James's Theatre, inspiration to Wilde and neighbor to Lillie Langtry. His long association with the St. James's began in 1890. Until Alexander took over, English playwrights had been ignored in favor of continental or Scandinavian writers like Ibsen. In contrast one of Alexander's first actions at the St. James's was to request a play from Wilde. Wilde offered him The Duchess of Padua. Alexander feared that the scenery would be too costly, so he asked Wilde to write on a more modern subject. The result was Lady Windermere's Fan, which Wilde wrote in less than three months.
For the opening night Wilde instructed some of his friends to buy green carnations at Goodyear's in the Royal Arcade, where he said they grew them. When they all arrived at the theatre with green carnations in their buttonholes, it provoked much curiosity, as Wilde had anticipated, until Wilde exposed the ploy by appearing for his curtain call wearing one himself. A typical "Wildeism."
Walk south from Pont Street and enter Cadogan Square.
5. Residence of Arthur James Balfour and Mary Elcho
62 Cadogan Square
Both members of the Souls' group of intelligencia, the couple who shared this large red‑brick house was a prime example of the fact that the Souls had bodies. Although the Souls had an exalted opinion of their own mental gymnastic abilities, there were those who scoffed. One of them described Balfour as "the only quick mind in an ill-bred crowd. "
Balfour's cold attitude toward friends' misfortunes was once explained as a defence against his own unstable emotions. As the resigned Mary once wrote to her lover, "You love me as much as a man can love a woman he has loved for ten years." To carry on an illicit affair in those days of Victorian morality demanded enormous diplomatic finesse.
Possibly Balfour's stature helped to preserve his reputation. A fellow Soul, Herbert Asquith, described him as having "an advantage over the rest of us insomuch as he is half a head higher than we are, both physically and intellectually."
In 1902 Balfour served for three years as prime minister and later, as foreign secretary, he drew up the Balfour Declaration, assuring British protection for the Jewish settlement of Palestine.
6. Residence of Arnold Bennett
75 Cadogan Square
This four-story red-brick house overlooking the elite square's lush, iron-gated park was where Bennett wrote most of his novels, even though his most famous were set in the "Five Towns" of the Midlands pottery district. He was greatly influenced by de Maupassant and specialized in sympathetic depiction of everyday life among the lower-middle classes. The Old Wives' Tale is best known today.
He was plagued with a stammer that was torture to him. One of his friends commented that had it not been for the stammer which forced him into introspection, Bennett might never have become a writer.
7. Residence of Lord Blandford
55-57 Cadogan Square
George Charles Spencer Churchill - Lord Blandford - was the eldest son of the Duke of Marlborough, brother to Randolph Churchill, and first in line to take over the title. He had been educated at Oxford, was an officer in the Horse Guards and was married to the daughter of the Duke of Aberdeen. Lord Blandford succeeded to his title in 1883 at a time when he was involved in one of the most scandalous and long-lasting trials of his century. And it was not even his first. Here was a man who could not escape trouble, nor women.
in 1878, while her husband was on a mission to India with the Prince of Wales, Lady Aylesford succumbed to an affair with the lascivious Blandford. Aylesford heard about it, hurried home, and came to a separation agreement with his wife, in which she promised not to see Blandford again. However before long they were staying together at the Hotel Rivoli in Paris as Mr. and Mrs. Spencer, whereupon Aylesford obtained a divorce, His former wife then faded into ignominious obscurity, while Lady Blandford forgave and forgot - momentarily.
In the bliss of reconciliation, the Blandfords purchased property and made plans for a new home to be built on this square, which was being developed by architect Norman Shaw for super-rich landowners who also owned country homes; hence there was no fenced resident's garden typical of most city squares. The Blandford home on the southeast corner was the most luxurious, with six windows facing the square on each of its five floors.
Perhaps all might have gone well had not an acquaintance of Blandford's, the enigmatic Lady Colin Campbell, been in the process of readying a new house for herself and her semi-invalid husband a short two blocks away on Cadogan Place. The two new home owners met, perhaps while posting letters at a corner mailbox. To quote a line from Wilde, Blandford's "aim in life was simply to be always looking for temptation." Characteristically he offered to inspect the work in progress at the beauteous lady's house. She, in turn, eagerly agreed to help him supervise his.
We shall leave the two neighbours now and pick them up again later at Lady Colin Campbell's house.
Return to Pont Street and turn right.
8. Residence of Lillie Langtry
21 Pont Street
Once her earning power as an actress was assured, Lillie Langtry acquired this towering, turreted, red terra-cotta house that so resembles a small castle, perhaps a subconscious manifestation of an unfulfilled wish.
Her stage career had enjoyed immediate success in London, and a year later American producers were begging for her. She arrived in New York in time to be met by Wilde, who was still there on his lecture tour and, like Wilde, she toured the entire country, performing at every major train stop. When she returned to England flushed with success, she moved into this Victorian confection and formed her own acting company, which toured the British Isles while she prepared for another prolonged U.S. tour.
Lillie Langtry's house on Pont Street.
Meanwhile Jeanne Marie, who called Lillie ma tante, was growing up. Accompanied by her guardian, Lillie's mother, she joined Lillie in America to travel in Lillie's private railroad car during her extensive second American tour. They were also accompanied by Freddie Gebhard, an American millionaire seriously in love with Lillie. The shadow of the drunken Edward Langtry still lurked in her background, however, and the threat he posed should he learn of her daughter. Lillie loved Freddie, but she couldn't risk marrying him.
In 1891, with Jeanne Marie at age ten, Lillie again returned to her Pont Street house in London. It was here that Wilde came to call with a play he had written for her. Its plot concerned a woman with a grown-up illegitimate daughter. Lillie was indignant at Wilde's allusion to the secret they shared. However she decided not to make an issue of his impertinence and instead retorted, "Now really, Oscar, do I look old enough to have a grown daughter of any description? Don't open the manuscript and don't read it to me. Put it away for twenty years." The play was Lady Windermere's Fan. Nothing to compare with it had been seen on the English stage since Sheridan's The School for Scandal over a century earlier. It brought Wilde fame and money, but it wreaked havoc with an old friendship.
Lillie had never been enthralled with theatre; for her the stage was simply a means to an end. On her tours to the West in America, she had bought land near Carson City, Nevada upon which silver was discovered. In Salt Lake City, Utah, where she was fascinated with the Mormons' history of polygamy, she purchased land her agent later sold for a forty thousand-dollar profit. In rapidly growing Chicago she enjoyed another fruitful real-estate venture. In addition to her lucrative investments, her acting company was hugely profitable.
Lillie now returned to London to live permanently. Financially secure, she could retire from the stage and devote her full attention to a new pursuit - the acquisition of a stable of fine racing horses, an interest she shared with her old friend and lover, the Prince of Wales. Because it wasn't quite acceptable for an independent woman to be active in the racing world, she ran her horses under the name of Mr. Jersey. When her famous horse, Merman, won England's most important long-distance handicap, the Cesarewitch, on her forty-fourth birthday, the Prince of Wales escorted her into the sacrosanct jockey Club enclosure - the first woman ever allowed in there.
In 1899 Lillie's estranged husband, whom she supported with an annual allowance on condition he stay away from her, died of alcoholism. At last Lillie was free to remarry. Her romance with the American Freddie Gebhard had ended. Louis Battenberg, Jeanne Marie's father, had already made a family-approved marriage, and Lillie's most recent lover (who had contributed to her stable) had suddenly died. Considering all of the men who now courted her, she married the most unlikely - Sir Hugo de Bathe, a bon vivant nineteen years her junior with little wit, but great physical appeal. Moreover he stood in line for a title. At last Lillie could become a lady!
Turn right off Pont Street into Cadogan Place.
- The Cadogan Hotel
75 Cadogan Place
This charming Belgravia hotel, still popular with discerning travellers, stands hardly a block removed from Lillie's Pont Street house. It was in a room here that Oscar Wilde was arrested with his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he called "Bosie." The unfortunate episode inspired a poem by nineteenth-century journalist John Betjeman that pretty well tells the story the way it happened:
Wilde's friends, Reggie Turner and Robbie Ross, were with him –
When the knock came on the door.
He sipped a weak bock and seltzer
As be gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?
To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As bard as the morning gaslight
That shown on his unmade bed
"I want some more bock in my seltzer
And, Robbie, please give me your hand -
Is this the end or the beginning?
How can I understand?
"So you've brought me the latest The Yellow Book
And Buchan has got in it now;
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.
"One astrakhan coat is at Wdlie's -
Another one's at the Savoy,
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.
A thump, and a murmur of voices -
(Ob, why must they make such a din?)
As the door of the bedroom swung open
And TWO PLAINCLOTHES POLICEMEN came in;
"Mr. Woilde, we `ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel."
He rose, and be put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered - and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the palms on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.
The police did permit Wilde to leave a note for Douglas, who at the time of his arrest was on an errand. The note requested him to contact friends for bail and to ask a barrister to call on Wilde at the Bow Street Police Court.
The exposure and the trial that ensued came about largely as a personal vendetta on the part of the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, when he suspected that his son, Lord Alfred Douglas, already a known pederast, was involved with Wilde. Wilde had opportunities to escape to France, and was urged by solicitors and friends to do so, but he insisted upon seeing the case through to the end. It was an unpleasant episode on all counts - as much in relation to the laws of the time, the outdated cultural mores of the era, and the vindictive rage of an unbalanced personality, as on the part of the apologetic defendant, who once explained himself thus: "Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search of a new sensation."
10. Residence of Sir Charles Dilke and Sir Herbert Tree
76 Sloane Street
A politician with a lightning brain, Sir Charles Dilke cultivated both the Marlborough set and the artists. He was a republican-minded radical of the Liberal party, and many considered this lucid humanitarian to be the obvious successor to Gladstone.
In 1881, while under secretary for foreign affairs, Dilke attempted to negotiate with the queen to effect some minor participation in government by the Prince of Wales, but the queen, hinting that she "deprecated the discussion of national secrets over country-house dinner tables," refused to give any responsibility to her lively son and heir.
Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the actor and theatre manager whom we met on the St. James's walk, was the half brother of the notorious Punch writer, Sir Max Beerbohm. Tree successfully managed the Haymarket Theatre some ten years before building the imposing Her Majesty's Theatre across the street from the Haymarket. He liked playing character parts and was praised as a hilarious Joseph in Sheridan's The School for Scandal, in which he performed with Lillie Langtry playing Lady Teazle - a professional replay of her performance in the part many years earlier.
In an interview after Wilde's death, Tree said, "Oscar was the greatest man I have ever known - and the greatest gentleman." As Tree knew pretty well every notable of his time, his tribute is not without significance.
Sloane Street runs along the west side of Cadogan Place, forming a square which was developed in 1877 as London's first big square. Its two iron-gated gardens offered a peaceful, prestigious woodland setting for its illustrious residents. The grand mansions on its north end have been replaced by the Carlton House Hotel, but the five-story mansions with white pillars, Tuscan porticoes and iron balconies on the east side are much as they were in 1881, when Lady Colin Campbell moved into the neighbourhood. Other residents then included the Marchioness of Queensberry (Lord Douglas's mother), General Henry James Barre, the Lord Bishop of Derry, Admirals Sir A. L. Montgomery and George Willes, and Lord Bromwell, to name just a few. All of the then single-family dwellings contained the usual servants' quarters below the stairs and five floors above ground with fourteen rooms.
- Site of Last London Residence of Lillie Langtry
Cadogan Place (now the Carlton House Hotel)
After the wedding the new Lady de Bathe and her husband, whom she called "Shuggy," moved into a grand mansion at this address, not far from her old Pont Street home. She filled the new house with racing trophies from her winning horses, a fine collection of silver and old china, and rare period furniture. The big conversation piece was Rameses, a great grizzly bear from the Rockies weighing a thousand pounds, which had been shot by her brother on a visit to the American West. Now it stood erect, some seven feet high, in her wide entrance hall, scaring people with its lifelike appearance. Lillie loved being photographed clutching one of its huge paws. She considered the trophy a good-luck charm and carried it in a special trunk on all of her trips to America.
Her boudoir had several walls lined with a continuous wardrobe featuring hundreds of dresses. The bathroom walls were turquoise–and-blue mosaic with starlike glints of gold, and her tub was marble. Off the dining room was a formal room with a minstrel gallery, where a small orchestra played for dinners. She had one of the first telephones in London, and a ticker tape to give her the results of various race meetings on which she had placed bets.
She lived here until her retirement to the south of France in 1919.
12. Residence of Lady Colin Campbell
79 Cadogan Place
On November 26, 1886 began the longest, most sensational divorce trial in British history, Campbell v. Campbell. Lady Colin charged her husband with cruelty, while he accused her of having sex with a duke (her neighbour, Blandford), a general (William Butler), a surgeon (Tom Bird), and London's fire chief (Captain Shaw).
Both parties had grounds. Following a lengthy engagement, Lord Colin had entered into marriage in July of 1881 with an innocent girl, telling her that they would not be able to live as man and wife until his doctor advised him that it would be safe. He did not admit to her, nor to her suspicious father, that the mysterious ailment for which he was under treatment was an advanced case of syphilis. A nurse lived with them, and even accompanied them on their honeymoon. When some months later, under Lord Colin's doctor's advice, Lady Colin finally lost her virginity, it was an unpleasant experience. As a result she acquired an infection, although one of a different nature from her husband's.
Meanwhile Lord Colin suffered a relapse. Discouraged with his Progress, he engaged a new surgeon, Tom Bird, who also treated Lady Colin during her illness. Bird was no more immune to her charms than was a family friend, Captain Shaw, who came to pay his respects to the new home owners.
Fully recovered, Lady Colin carried on a lively social life, often receiving her new neighbour, Lord Blandford, or Captain Shaw in the drawing room, while Lord Colin remained bedridden upstairs. This lady was more than just a social butterfly. She was talented, creative and brilliant at a time when women were not supposed to be talented, creative and brilliant. She had travelled widely with her parents, she had written a number of published articles, she was an accomplished vocalist who gave recitals for charity, and her paintings had been exhibited. (It was while she was studying painting with General Butler's artist wife that he fell victim to her charms.) She was beautiful, rode and swam well, and kept herself informed. Whatever she did, she did well.
So well, in fact, that Lord Colin's nurses and some of the servants started to suspect that her prowess was being exercised in the drawing room downstairs. This, of course, led to whispers which ultimately precipitated the lawsuits. During the trial reports from former servants, hansom-cab drivers and nurses reiterated that numerous clandestine visits had been made to her drawing room by the above-mentioned gentlemen, whom Lord Colin brought to trial. Due to his reputation as a rake established in the earlier Aylesford case, Blandford's name was pre-eminent. When he was asked during cross-examination why he had so often sought Lady Colin's company, the jury could hardly suppress its mirth when Blandford answered "her conversation."
The physician Bird also inspired incredulity when he explained that his visits to Lady Colin's boudoir had been conducted in the process of treatment. But most dramatic of all was the courtroom testimony of what a butler whom Lady Colin had previously fired had seen while peeping through the drawing-room keyhole. He had witnessed Lady Colin and Captain Shaw lying on the carpet.
"Did you see Lady Colin's face and head?" Lord Colin's attorney asked the butler in the witness box.
"Yes," answered the butler.
"And her feet?"
"No, I could not see them. They were toward the door."
"Did you see her bust?"
"I certainly saw more than that."
"What did you see of Captain Shaw?"
"He was over her, and I saw his head and body."
"How low down?"
"To the waist."
What a sensation! Lady Colin had actually been caught in the act by a witness!
Both she and Shaw denied the accusation during their turns on the stand, but their case looked dire until her brilliant barrister cross-examined the butler.
"Is it not a fact that if there is no key in the keyhole, on each side of the door a brass covering falls down?" the butler was asked.
"I guess you know. I don't," the butler responded.
"Do you not know that if there is no key in the door, the coverings fall down on both sides of the door?" the barrister persisted.
"I don't remember."
"And don't you know that it is the pressure of the key that keeps the covering up? And that if the key is in one side of the door, the covering will fall down on the other side?"
"Do you persist in swearing that you could see through the keyhole?"
"Not that I could, but that I did," the butler proclaimed.
Judge Butt, who himself lived on Cadogan Place in an identical house a few removed from the Colin Campbells, was convinced of what the jurors would find when they took the unprecedented step of visiting Lady Colin's house to look through the now-celebrated keyhole. They returned with the announcement that what they had found discredited the evidence of one of the witnesses. "Of course you mean the butler," the judge concluded.
"On the contrary," the spokesman responded, rendering the judge dumbstruck. After a few seconds of stunned silence, the judge directed the foreman to deliver his report.
The foreman rose. "We find the escutcheons of the keyhole are very stiff and will stay up at right angles, and we found it impossible to put the outside escutcheon in a perpendicular position at all."
The case went on for weeks with charges and counter charges. it ended with a hopelessly deadlocked jury. Whether Lady Colin had committed adultery beyond a doubt with all or none of the men appeared impossible to determine. After a second consideration the jury finally concluded that, since they couldn't prove that she was guilty, she was not. Lord Colin, on the other hand, was guilty of jeopardizing her health and not being honest in regard to his condition when they had married. He was forced to pay the legal fees, and her divorce was granted. His father paid the costs. Lord Colin disappeared to Bombay to practice law and died at age forty-two.
Although the stigma of this affair stuck to Lady Colin Campbell for the rest of her life, she enjoyed a successful writing career. In addition to several novels and a play, she wrote a weekly column under the pen name of Vera Tsaritsyn called "A Woman's Walk," that contained essays on places at home and abroad which she had visited - travel literature at its best.
Lord Blandford escaped the vengeance of the court, but not that of his wife. Soon he was in court anew, this time being sued for divorce - thus proving again Wilde's lines from Dorian Gray: "Those who are unfaithful know the pleasures of love; it is the faithful who know love's tragedies." Blandford remarried in 1888 and died four years later of a heart attack.
From Cadogan Place cut over to the north end of Eaton Terrace.
13. Duke of Wellington Pub and Nicholson's Wine Bar
63 Eaton Terrace
The wine bar, where lunch is served, is upstairs above the pub, overlooking charming Eaton Mews across the street. Both the pub and wine bar are attractive, cosy and friendly, with panelled walls and rafters hung with horse brasses. The food is good pub fare - lamb casseroles and cottage pies. Sandwiches on crusty bread, heaped with thinly sliced roast beef or a selection of cheeses, are also good.
The street at the corner leads into Eaton Square. At the turn of the century, the dignified Georgian mansions on this lushly gardened square attracted an imposing population of the peerage - Lord Chelmsford at number 7, Lord Hampton at number 9, the Marchioness of Headfort at number 11, to say nothing of Lord Beresford at number 100. In addition to the above, Eaton Square housed seventeen dukes, earls and viscounts; eight knights, one foreign count, nine titled ladies, a trio of admirals, the same number of generals, and nine members of Parliament. To live here called for an income of at least ten thousand pounds a year, ten servants and a first-class cook.
14. Residence of Lord Charles Beresford and Nancy Astor
100 Eaton Square
A celebrated lover, dashing admiral and sometime friend of the Prince of Wales, Beresford's amorous adventures were prone to surprise endings. One of his romps occurred at a country-house party. The hostess had sagely billeted certain married couples in separate bedrooms conveniently far apart, but had neglected to provide a room plan. During the evening's festivities Lord Charles surreptitiously arranged a midnight assignation with a lovely lady, rumored to be Lady Gladys de Grey. At the appropriate time, exalted over having successfully sneaked unseen down the hall, he burst into the lady's chamber and leaped into her bed crowing, "Cock-a-doodle-doo!" When trembling hands finally got the paraffin lamp going, he found himself deposited between the Bishop of Chester and his wife.
Ever prone to frustrations in his love life, the dashing Lord Charles found himself at a later date embroiled in a legal hassle when his wife intercepted a letter from one of his more serious inamoratas, whom he recently had deserted. This lady, the Countess of Warwick, called Daisy, had exasperated him by indiscreetly marching into his wife's room at another country-house party and recklessly announcing her intention of eloping with him - an act which had resulted in Lady Beresford immediately packing him up and taking him home. This had proved a wise move on her part, since after the exposure, Beresford had lost interest in the illicit romance.
The lady, on the other hand, had not. A renowned beauty, Lady Daisy was not accustomed to being spurned. When she heard a few months later that Lady Beresford was pregnant, her anger turned to rage; she was infuriated that her lover had jilted her for, of all people, his wife! Daisy wrote him a blistering letter, asserting that he had fathered one of her children and demanding that he leave his wife and join her on the Riviera. This was the letter Lady Beresford intercepted and sagely delivered to George Lewis, an attorney who had a monopoly on cases where the sins and follies of aristocrats threatened exposure.
Lewis immediately sent Daisy a warning. Any further annoyance to his client on her part would result in actions detrimental to her. Alarmed over this unexpected turn of events, Daisy demanded the return of her letter. Lewis refused on grounds that the letter was now legally the property of Lord Charles Beresford.
Incensed that her hated rival might in the future threaten her with the letter, Daisy then turned to the Prince of Wales, a close friend of Beresford's, knowing that Bertie would do anything to avoid a scandal involving a member of his set. Bertie also would do almost anything to comfort a lady in distress. As Daisy later wrote in her memoirs, "He was more than kind, and suddenly I saw him looking at me in a way all women understand."
Within weeks Daisy's influence with the prince became evident. Lady Beresford found herself banned from Marlborough House social functions. Spurred on by his slighted wife, Lord Charles called on the prince. Harsh words passed between the erstwhile friends, which resulted in Lord Charles suddenly receiving orders to take command of a ship destined for foreign ports. By this time the Prince of Wales was deeply immersed in a serious love affair with the distressed Lady Daisy.
The Beresfords were not through yet, however. To accommodate his nagging wife, Lord Charles dispatched a letter to Prime Minister Salisbury threatening public exposure of all sorts of princely peccadilloes, as well as Daisy's letter, if his wife was not reinstated socially with a public apology from the prince. He also demanded that Daisy be ostracized.
There followed days of negotiations so frantic that Lord Beresford returned from overseas and Queen Victoria became involved. Lord Salisbury finally effected a settlement. For a brief period Daisy was restricted to entertaining the prince privately on her own Easton Lodge estate.
With peace once again restored, Daisy became the prince's second officially recognized mistress, following Lillie Langtry, until she eventually overstepped her bounds and made way for the bridge-playing Alice Keppel. Beresford, meanwhile, continued to prove Wilde's premise that "experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes."
Many years later in 1958, Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman member of the House of Commons (whom we met on the St. James's walk) retired to 100 Eaton Square. By then it was a flat, but enormous, formed by the first floor of number 100, as well as that of the next house and the one after it. "I don't like having to live in an apartment," she complained, however. "What's my butler got to do without his own front door? I see people coming in at the door from the street or meet them on the stairs and I have no notion who they are, but can't ask them, 'Who are you?' I believe some are even Italians!"
Turn right at the end of Eaton Square onto Belgrave Place and follow it in an easterly direction to Chester Square.
15. Residence of Sarah Bernhardt
77 Chester Square
Sarah Bernhardt lived in this charming house tucked into the corner of the square when she came to London for her first appearance at the Gaiety Theatre. She was amazed upon her arrival to find invitations from titled individuals awaiting her, since in France at that time, theatre people were not socially accepted by the upper crust. Later she learned that her old friend, Marshal Canrobert, a former diplomat, had written to Lord Dudley asking him and his wife to look out for the young artist. Lady Dudley, lively and witty herself, considered it rather a lark to introduce Sarah to the Marlborough set, especially since the Prince of Wales, who had seen Bernhardt perform with the Comédie Française, had asked her and her neighbours, the Rothschilds, to extend their hospitality to her. The aristocrats appeared on demand, but remained aloof. Bernhardt, indifferent to their snubs, preferred to spend her time with Wilde and his arty friends anyway.
After witnessing the divine Sarah's performance, her neighbour, Matthew Arnold, declared her "a fugitive vision of delicate features under a shower of hair and a cloud of lace," while Ellen Terry wrote, "She was as transparent as an azalea only more so; like a cloud only not so thick; smoke from a burning paper describes her more nearly."
Needless to say Bernhardt was a greater hit in the theatre than in the drawing room. A dowager, upon hearing Bernhardt speak of her son, said, "Why, I didn't know you were married."
"I am not, Madame la Comtesse," Bernhardt answered sweetly, "My son was un petit accident d'amour."
Neighbours on Chester Square next to the private garden adjacent to Bernhardt's house complained of her "zoo." She kept four dogs, a parrot named Bizibouzon, and a caged monkey called Darwin. She also travelled with seven chameleons, which she wore one at a time, attached to a gold chain, to match her gown.
Bernhardt was well received by London's theatre audience and returned for future appearances until she became disenchanted with Victorian restrictions, such as the fiasco when she attempted to produce Wilde's Salomé at the Palace Theatre.
- Residence of Matthew Arnold
2 Chester Square
On a cold day in February 1858, Arnold wrote, "We have taken a house in Chester Square. It is a very small one, but it will be something to unpack one's portmanteau for the first time since I was married, now nearly seven years ago." The Arnolds remained here for ten years, during which time he was recognized as one of the leading poets and humanists of his day.
In spite of the philosophical differences between the brilliant scientist Thomas Huxley, who publicly defended Darwin against the clergy, and the scholarly Arnold, who advanced the importance of a classical education as opposed to a scientific one, the two men were friendly rivals. Arnold eventually sacrificed poetry in favour of lecturing on education, both in England and America. Wilde had been greatly influenced by his lectures when Arnold was professor of poetry at Oxford.
- Residence of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
24 Chester Square
Mrs. Shelley, widow of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, died here in 1851. After running away with Shelley in 1814, she married him two years later. While they lived in Italy, she wrote Frankenstein. Although Wilde at one time referred to her famous husband as a boy's poet, engraved over the doorway on a heavy beam in his Chelsea house, he had the following lines from Shelley inscribed in gilt, red and blue:
Spirit of Beauty! Tarry still awhile,
They are not dead, thine ancient votaries.
Some few there are to whom thy radiant smile
Is better than a thousand victories.
Ebury Street, where George Moore lived, runs perpendicular to the end of Belgrave Place, south of Chester Square, but is not in a particularly interesting neighbourhood. Instead we suggest that you return to Eaton Square and follow Belgrave Place northwest to Belgrave Square.
- Residence of George Moore
121 Ebury Street
Of Moore's novels, Esther Waters, influenced by Èmile Zola, was the most popular, although in Wilde's view, "He leads his readers to the latrine and locks them in." The plot is an exposé of the Victorian attitude to illegitimacy among the working class and the existence of "baby" farms.
For a short period Moore was the centre of London literary life and gossip, and his various love affairs were well publicized, especially by himself. One lady complained, "Some men kiss and do not tell; some kiss and tell, but George Moore told and did not kiss."
Another contemporary wrote, "George was licentious in mind and collected photographs of his women adorers, and told racy little anecdotes with the idea of appearing more of a rake than he was. I think he was really an old monk, living in the wrong century, and it pleased him to play the rake."
It has been said that the Irish dislike one another with fervour, which might have accounted for the antipathy that existed between Moore and Wilde. On the other hand Moore was mean in his habits, coarse in his language, and narrow in his interests. Wilde was generous, refined in language and had broad interests. Moore acquired his style painfully; Wilde's came by instinct. Once when asked if he knew Moore, Wilde answered, "I know him so well that I haven't spoken to him for ten years."
Follow Belgrave Place westward to Belgrave Square, one of the most impressive in London, with opulent mansions angled across its corners, giving the effect of a stately circle around an immense garden centrepiece.
- Residence of Reuben Sassoon
1 Belgrave Square
Reuben was the first member of the Sassoon family (called the "Rothschilds of the East") to arrive in London. He came in 1858; others followed. Within a few years the family boasted two baronets and was sending its sons to Eton and Oxford. Silver, gold, silks, spices, gums, opium, cotton, wool and wheat - whatever moved over land and sea felt the hand and bore the mark of the Sassoons from Bombay.
Reuben Sassoon gave up his first mansion in Lancaster Gate and built this even grander one in Belgravia on the corner of Belgrave Square and Wilton Crescent. The house was so oddly constructed that his carriage and horses had to be carried up by lift to stables on the roof. You can still see the iron fence that contained them. The house also boasted a spacious conservatory for exotic plants. Sassoon frequently entertained the Prince of Wales and kept a good, spicy, oriental table. He selected only the finest of pink champagne, which the prince was making fashionable at that time.
Reuben had an unattractive wife who disappeared when his sporting friends came to call, so although he played cards at the Marlborough Club, he was not quite one of the Marlborough social set. He was, however, a great friend of the Prince of Wales and accompanied him on his annual pilgrimage to Marienbad, an Austrian spa where they went to lose weight. One memorable year they were entertained there by Maud Allen, who danced for them wearing only two oyster shells and a tantalizing five-franc piece (the same Maud Allen whom Margot Tennant Asquith later brought to dance at number 10 Downing Street).
- Residence of the Earl of Shaftesbury
5 Belgrave Square
Among the embassies on the square is the former home of the philanthropic Earl of Shaftesbury (the one honoured by Eros on Piccadilly Circus). He died here in 1885. It was this gentleman who made rescuing fallen women fashionable. Cartoons of the time often depicted ladies in prim bonnets, armed with tracts and stout umbrellas, pursuing prostitutes through the streets. The purpose of the umbrella was to ward off pimps while the well-meaning ladies begged the unfortunates to repent and enter "homes of hope" founded by Lord Shaftesbury. Even Gladstone was an enthusiastic worker for this cause, at some cost to his reputation. There were those who unjustly believed that his preoccupation with prostitutes was not a wholly disinterested one.
Follow Wilton Crescent to Wilton Place, and then the short distance north to Knightsbridge. There, on the north side of the street adjacent to Hyde Park at Albert's Gate, stand two grand white mansions. The one on your left is number 2.
21. Residence of Arthur Sassoon
2 Albert Gate
Arthur Sassoon, Reuben's brother, married Louise Perugia, a young niece of the Rothschilds whom he had met in Vienna on a tour of Europe. When they moved into this majestic house overlooking Hyde Park's Rotten Row, the elegant Louise decorated it in the French manner with brocade upholstery and white painted walls. Margot Tennant, a wheel in London society who later married Prime Minister Asquith, praised Louise as "one of the most tasteful women I've ever known." Among Louise's guests were such socialites as the Duchess of Devonshire, Millie Sutherland and Lady de Grey. It is said that her white-gloved footmen were even taller than those of the Rothschilds, where wages were reputedly scaled by the inch.
Louise and her friend, Hannah Rosebery (a Rothschild), went in for matchmaking. Hannah's cousin, Leopold de Rothschild, immensely rich with several estates and a mansion at 5 Hamilton Place in Mayfair, had everything except a wife. Louise had a younger sister. Leopold had always said that he would never marry until he found someone as beautiful and accomplished as Louise Sassoon, so they produced her sister Maria, who was on a visit from Italy. Leopold was fanatically interested in horses. Maria didn't ride. But the girls coaxed her into taking lessons, and one day introduced her to Leopold at a meet. He was predictably fascinated, and soon they were wed in the Central Synagogue in Great Portland Street, with the Prince of Wales and Disraeli both attending. Among the newlyweds' treasures was a letter from Disraeli congratulating the bridegroom on his choice and confessing, "I have always been of the opinion that there cannot be too many Rothschilds." (They produced three.)
22. Rotten Row
Extending alongside Knightsbridge on the south side of Hyde Park runs the bridle path known affectionately to Londoners as Rotten Row. Its name is a derivation of route du roi, taken from the time when King George II lived in Kensington Palace and took this route to and from Whitehall. It was along this sand track that the notorious Skittles made her first inroads into society. And it was here that London newcomers Lillie Langtry and Oscar Wilde strolled together and plotted their entrées into the social whirl.
Horsemanship on display at route du rois, or "Rotten Row" in Hyde Park.
The scene that impressed Lillie most when she came to London was the exciting spectacle of Rotten Row between twelve and two, when fashionable society congregated here to ride, drive, walk, see, and be seen. Everyone dressed to the teeth: women in the latest mode, and men in frock coats, pearl gray trousers, varnished boots and, of course, top hats. For two hours the crowds pushed and jostled slowly up and down each side of the Row, bowing and smiling, and watching the four-in-hand coaches, pony carriages, tilburies, broughams and dignified barouches with handsome, high stepping grays, blacks or whites; their coachmen and footmen rigid in flashing livery.
Rotten Row was also a showcase for outstanding horsemanship. When one of her admirers, Moreton Frewen, presented Lillie Langtry with a fine horse named Redskin, she could match the best, having acquired riding skill as a girt in Jersey. Later, crowds in the park used to trample one another just to catch a glimpse of the famous beauty, mistress to the king.
Busses passing along Knightsbridge connect with transportation in most directions, which will carry you to your destination.