A brief history of Belgravia
Associate Director of Grosvenor’s London estate Timothy Jones looks at the legacy of the past as inspiration for the future
“Belgravia is celebrated today for its outstanding architectural, historical and social interest. Conceived for the Grosvenor family in the early nineteenth century as a sophisticated new westerly suburb, it was a highly fashionable place to live and has maintained its status under the stewardship of the Grosvenor estate. The statue to the first Marquess of Westminster, which marks the approach to Belgravia from Hyde Park Corner, is a fitting tribute to one of the most important exercises in early nineteenth century town and social planning in London.
The formal grid layout of Belgravia dates back to Covent Garden, laid out by Inigo Jones for the Earls of Bedford in the 1630’s.The eighteenth century continued to see fashionable London grow to the north and west and the terraces of Bloomsbury, Fitzrovia and Marylebone bear testament to one of Britain’s most significant contribution to the built environment, the London square. Thomas Cubitt built upon and transformed this architectural inheritance on a larger scale than previously seen in central London.
During the Regency of George IV, Sir John Nash created a new style of picturesque, classical architecture and landscapes and at the same time that Buckingham House became Buckingham Palace. One hundred years after the lands in Mayfair, brought as a dowry to the Grosvenor family by Mary Davies were developed, the same opportunity was presented on that part of the estate immediately adjacent to the new palace.
The stylistic precedent set by Nash at Carlton House Terrace, Regents Park and Buckingham Palace was taken up by Cubitt .What gives Belgravia its particular distinction is the scale of the development and its enduring cohesion. For the first time one individual, acting on behalf of one landlord, was able to create what was in effect a new town, responsible for every detail of its planning when even the most rudimentary aspects of development such as drainage and lighting were the sole responsibility of a landlord. Cubitt was also responsible for the location of the shops, pubs, mews and all the other services. These remain the staples of twenty first century urban living but were all created in a period of thirty years from the mid 1820’s onwards.
The architectural palette of Cubitt and his successors remains remarkably consistent. Stucco, brick, slate, painted timber sashes and joinery characterise the district and they clothe buildings, the use of which has changed remarkably little in nearly two hundred years. As Sir Charles Barry said of his contemporary Reform Club ‘it is a design which admits of no alteration.’ In a great metropolis which has seen so much alteration, this is a remarkable tribute to the original concept. This is also a tribute to the stewardship and dedication of all those who have the good fortune to live and work here, the Grosvenor estate and the planning policies of Westminster City Council. These combined forces have conserved the architectural heritage but managed it in a highly constructive fashion.
Developed as a residential district, Belgravia has few buildings of a public nature. The exceptions are the churches, without which no nineteenth century ‘suburb’ would be complete. St Peter’s Eaton Square is an outstanding example of a Greek revival, whilst St Michael’s Chester Square, St Paul’s Knightsbridge, St Barnabas and Clergy House are Gothic revival in style. Providing more profane services are the still numerous public houses, often tucked away in side streets. Belgravia has always been well served by shops of the smaller sort and has a rich legacy of historic shopfronts.
Two contrasting but very grand public buildings herald two very different approaches to the estate. The Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner occupies the imposing classical edifice of the former St.George’s Hospital. At the south west edge, Victoria Coach Station occupies a sleek and stream lined art deco building. It is one of the few inter-war buildings of architectural significance in Belgravia.
Belgravia is not only renowned for its architecture but also for the historic garden squares which provide the landscape setting for the terraces of houses. They provide a haven for locals, a wide variety of wildlife and boast some rare and exotic plants. The lush planting of Belgrave Square gives no hint that it was asphalted over during the last war as a carpark for military vehicles or that Eaton Square was given over to air raid shelters and Dig for Victory vegetables.
Belgravia has long been a mecca for famous and eclectic residents who have contributed to England’s social, political and artistic life, which is reflected in the high concentration of Blue Plaques in the area. They juxtapose such names as Neville Chamberlain, Vivien Leigh, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Peabody and Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
The ghost of Cubitt would be able to find his way around most of his legacy blindfolded. Where change has occurred, and inevitably in a two century history there has been change, it has been on the periphery. This is particularly true of the southern and south western boundaries of the area where Second World War bomb damage and subsequent redevelopment is most marked.
Most of Belgravia lies within a conservation area, recognising its importance as an ‘area of special architectural or historic interest, the character and appearance of which it is desirable to preserve and enhance.’ An unusually high proportion of buildings within this area are also listed, which puts them at the very top of buildings which are recognised and protected by the government as being of outstanding architectural and historic interest.
None of these designations are a barrier to the change and evolution which has always characterised Belgravia but they do help to ensure that change is constructive, creative and thoughtful. It is to be hoped that as Belgravia moves into its third century, the outstanding legacy of the past will provide an inspiration for the future.”