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Square Life

By Altair Brandon-Salmon

Square Haunting: Five Writers in London between the Wars

Francesca Wade, Random House, 2020

Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists

Caroline Maclean, Bloomsbury, 2020

Mecklenburgh Square lies on the edge of Bloomsbury. It stands on the border between Clerkenwell and the capital’s university quarter—built between 1804 and 1825 on land owned by the nearby Foundling Hospital, it was designed by Samuel Pepys Cockerell as a pair alongside Brunswick Square. Despite aspirations of attracting wealthy bankers working in the City, they were lured evermore westwards and by the end of the century, the Foundling Estate began turning the neoclassical mansions into flats and then later, cheap boarding houses. The grand, brick and pilastered façades looked onto a private two-acre garden square, yet even within the Victorian period, the area had developed a queasy reputation for itinerant salesmen, students, foreigners, and independent, unmarried working women.

The London of our own time is in continuity with its past. This is one of the fascinating, ancillary insights of Francesca Wade’s book Square Haunting: Five Writers in London between the Wars, which explains this dialogue between over-ambitious building projects, peripatetic living, and, on the margins of places, subversive bastions of creativity frowned upon by the respectable. For Wade, it is the psychogeography of London and, in particular, of Mecklenburgh Square, which allows access to the flourishing artistic productivity in England during the interwar period. London was a place of liberation, especially for the five women writers she profiles, who all, at different points in their lives, lived in the square: Virginia Woolf, the poet H.D., the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers, the medieval and economic historian Eileen Power, and the classicist Jane Harrison.

Wade’s sharp focus on these major writers and academics contrasts with the more expansive vision of Caroline Maclean’s Circles and Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists, which chronicles the interlocking lives of the sculptors Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Henry Moore; the Bauhaus designers Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Marcel Breuer; the critic Herbert Read, the poet Louis MacNeice, and the architects behind the modernist Isokon Flats, Wells Coates, and Jack and Rosemary Pritchard.

Bloomsbury and Hampstead: each distinctive areas of the capital, both briefly centres of modernism for a few decades before they were finally swept away by the catastrophe of the Second World War. But why these specific places, at these specific times? Indeed, even by 1939 Bloomsbury was being historicised as a cultural moment and the Hampstead modernists were moving out of the capital due to the impending war (Hepworth famously making a home in Cornwall for the rest of her life).

Maclean doesn’t attempt to answer the question: she just takes this conglomeration of artists and designers in Hampstead as a fact and moves on. In some ways, the most illuminating part of the book is the opening map, which shows how close together everyone lived, their flats and houses just off Haverstock Hill, south of the Heath, with much of the centre of activity focused on 7 Mall Studios, where Hepworth worked and lived and which soon became a revolving door for other modernist artists. Nearby was the significant architectural experiment, the Isokon Flats (also known as the Lawn Road Flats.)

Maclean’s description of the machinations behind the development of the sleek, futurist Isokon Flats makes up her strongest chapter. The building was the first concrete block of flats that was built in Britain and constructed between 1933 and 1934 according to Bauhaus principles. Inspired by the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart, it was supposed to be a model of communal living, where neighbours’ lives would overlap. Coates, the driving force behind the design of the project (although it was the Pritchards who had bought the land and brought him in to design it), centred the Isokon around his utopian ideals on revolutionising how people would live. Coates derided the idea that ‘this little garden is for you m’dear and this tweeny little whisky bit is for me so there! —[it] is dead, dead, dead.’ Instead, the Isokon was meant to embody the creative, collaborative spirit which seemed to suffuse certain circles in London during the period (Maclean is exhaustive in her detailing of the overlapping love affairs, friendships, and collaborations between the dozens of figures she profiles in the book; indeed, the Pritchards themselves were in an open marriage and Rosemary had an affair with Coates.)

The Isokon ploughs through space like an ocean liner, all graceful curves and shining white paint. The flats are reached by external walkways, with a flight of stairs at one end and the entrance block and garage at the other. At only five stories, it is actually self-effacing, in comparison to the much larger postwar developments at the Barbican and Golden Lane Estates, which attempted to embody Le Corbusier’s notion of ‘cities in the sky.’ The Isokon was intended to be on a human scale, with only 30 flats in total.

The Pritchards and the Coates initially wanted to build flats for families, but rising costs forced them to reorientate their marketing towards young, middle class professionals, offering extensively serviced flats. The project was beset by money worries for the Pritchards, and their relationship with Coates decayed over the course of the two years. Even when it was finished, doors wouldn’t close properly, hot water was intermittent, paint peeled, plaster bubbled up, the boiler room flooded, and a ‘dark, coloured liquid’ dripped out a light socket. All the calamities that in time would come to be expected from experiments in modern living.

Still, the Isokon filled up quickly and it was officially ‘launched’ on 9th July 1934 by the Conservative MP for Islington East, Thelma Cazalet. A hundred fifty guests enjoyed, amongst other delicacies, egg-and-anchovy and cheese-and-gherkin sandwiches. The bourgeois tenants, though, lived side-by-side with a variety of immigrants fleeing rising anti-Semitism in Europe: the Austrian ethnomusicologist Professor Erich von Hornbostel, the German architect Arthur Korn, and most gratifyingly of all for the Pritchards, the founding director of the Bauhaus himself, Walter Gropius.

Gropius stayed only three years, leaving for the US in 1937. Like many other migrants fleeing the Nazis, Britain was a staging post on the longer onward journey to America. Maclean reads this moment as extinguishing ‘the brief possibility of a British Bauhaus.’ Yet this flickering of Bauhaus was really a London Bauhaus (a mooted project in Manchester collapsed before it even began) and London, like New York, like Paris, was and is a city of transients, of creative talents passing through, restlessly searching for somewhere else.

It is not surprising that most of the authors Wade writes about in Square Haunting only stayed in Mecklenburgh Square for a few years: Dorothy L. Sayers was there for a year, between December 1920 and December 1921; Virginia Woolf, from August 1939 to October 1940; H.D. stayed for two years, 1916 to 1918, virtually the same as Jane Harrison, who was in the square from 1926 to 1928. Eileen Power is the one exception: between 1922 and 1940, she resided in the square after having taken a lectureship in economic history at the London School of Economics. Power, despite being internationally known for her radio broadcasts and public lectures , remained an elusive public figure due to her sisters burning her private papers after her death (Jane Harrison’s papers were also destroyed.) As Wade comments, ‘though both these women were dedicated to recovering forgotten histories, and lived bold and fascinating lives, they allowed their own pasts to be expunged, for reasons unknown.’ It is part of the challenge of writing women’s history that sources remain scattered or even non-existent (and Wade is dealing here with literate, widely published writers with established reputations in their own lifetimes).

Both Maclean and Wade, though, are keen to centre the voices of their large cast, and letters are quoted at length and frequently, capturing the texture of informal speech. Here is Sayers writing to her parents in December 1920 about her new lodgings in Mecklenburgh Square:

It is the room Mrs. McKillop saw and liked so much—a lovely Georgian room, with three great windows—alas! would that I could afford curtains to them!—perhaps I shall in time—and a balcony looking onto the square. There is an open fireplace, and the last tenant has thoughtfully left some coal behind, which I can take over at a valuation—and there is a gas-ring. The only drawback is, no electric light, but I shall get a little oil-lamp, which will look very nice. It is a beautiful big room, far larger than the one I am in now, and costs less money. The landlady is a curious, eccentric-looking person with short hair—the opposite of Miss Latch in every way—and thoroughly understands that one wants to be quite independent. That is really all I want—to be left alone, and I can’t think why people won’t leave me!

Beyond the not-inconsiderably-ethnographic interest in learning about the precarious nature of Bloomsbury flats (no electricity!) and the turns of phrase, it points towards Wade’s central thesis: ‘That is really all I want—to be left alone.’ To think, to write, in peace, to have, as Woolf put it, ‘A room of one’s own,’ was central for anyone who wished to be creative. What Mecklenburgh Square symbolised to these in some ways disparate women was the independence and freedom made possible by having such a room, even if only illuminated by a little oil-lamp.

Romanticised? Yes, of course; Sayers' subsequent life didn’t have much room for romance, especially after she found she was pregnant and was then abandoned by the man responsible, a duplicitous used-car salesman who was secretly married already. The child was taken into care by Sayers’ aunt and cousin and her pregnancy remained a secret except to a few close figures, with even the child not being told of his true parentage until, in much later life, he found out Sayers was his mother after applying for a passport. A room of one’s own came out at a high price. For a female writer with an illegitimate son, there were few options available in 1920s England, particularly if you did not come from aristocracy. If she had chosen to raise her son, perhaps Sayers would never have written her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries.

These five writers were able to enjoy the first flush of legal emancipation for women: they attended and taught at universities, they supported themselves with their writing and lecturing, they seized the things they could do and did them. It is perhaps unsurprising that they gravitated towards the metropole, not only because they could afford it on their often lowly salaries (Power was paid £500 per annum for her lectureship at the LSE, for a job which was advertised at £800 per annum for presumed male applicants), but also because London, in the disorientated cultural milieu after the Great War, seemed briefly to be a capital of modernity, where poetry, painting, architecture, and the other arts were just as experimental as in Paris. The next war would put an end to this brief blooming, the European immigrants moving on to New York or Los Angeles (Maclean includes an interesting chapter on Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder’s stay in Hampstead, Mondrian escaping to America from London on 23 September 1940, his cruise liner attacked by a U-boat en route).

What remains, then, of this flourishing of interwar modernism? Woolf’s novels of course, and Hepworth’s sculptures and Henry Moore’s monuments and, oh, H.D.’s poetry and Sayers’ thrillers and Nicholson’s abstracts. It is a rich legacy in the arts, but what of the spaces themselves, the streets and squares these people lived in?

Mecklenburgh Square had a bad war. A ball in the summer of 1938, where the east side of the square was lit up with coloured lights and lanterns were hung in the trees, was put together by the stage designer Oliver Messel and perhaps represents the final ‘moment’ of Mecklenburgh Square, before it fell to the depredations of German bombers. Indeed, it was the bombing of the Woolfs’ house on the square which precipitated her final spiral into suicide.

Already by 1930, three houses on the south side of the square had been converted into student halls for London House (which would after the war become Goodenough College), for Commonwealth students studying at the University of London. With the square full of shattered roofs and skeletal houses from the Blitz, in 1950 the north side of the square was taken over by an expansion of Goodenough College. Today, Mecklenburgh Square has been transformed from a residential square on the disreputable fringes of Bloomsbury into one of the centres of the university quarter of central London. Across Coram’s Fields is Brunswick Square, with the Foundling Museum and the Thomas Coram Centre. All worthy institutions, but the homes and their histories have been squeezed out in the past 75 years. Nowadays, private residences make up only the east side of Mecklenburgh Square, although one of them is now a hotel and others are offices. Wade writes: ‘there are pockets of the city where we can still recall a radical past, even if its traces now lie hidden. Mecklenburgh Square is one of these.’ While true, the Mecklenburgh Square Harriet Vane looked over in Sayers’ Gaudy Night—where ‘the late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically calling the score of a rather erratic and unpractised game’—has long since ceased to exist.

Ironically, it is the Isokon which has most lived up to its initial aspirations. After having passed through a number of different owners (including the New Statesman), it was eventually bought by the Notting Hill Housing Association, who paid for it to be restored and then rented out the majority of the flats to teachers and police officers who otherwise would not have been able to afford to live in Hampstead. The Pritchards had been forced to bend to commercial consideration to bring the Isokon into being and in doing so, created one of the most beautiful housing blocks in Britain. It would take a further seven decades until it became, as they dreamed, a model for living.

ALTAIR BRANDON-SALMON is studying for a PhD in Art History at Stanford University. He is often found in ruins.

Art by Kathleen Quaintance

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