When I walk up Bury Place on my way from Little Russell Street and the London Review office, I get the same view of the British Museum that Vilhelm Hammershøi recorded in 1906. Sometimes it’s hard to see what’s really there and not the painting. The row of buildings – now mostly hotels – that runs down Montague Street to the east of the museum is unchanged, the railings are the same, down to their gold tips, and though in the painting there’s no tree where a large plane tree ought to be, the scene looks just as it does now, in the thinnest light of the year. The museum is mottled still, and there are moments when everything seems to emerge in purple and brown, and the thin branches of the trees make a haze against the blank sky. The sensation – of the painting imposing itself on reality – must be like Wordsworth’s experience of two consciousnesses, or like the turn, as John Sturrock describes it in The Language of Autobiography, that occurs when the autobiographer sees their written self suddenly cohere. The place condenses into the image; nothing more can be seen now.
My view of the British Museum is unlikely to change, though had Colin St John Wilson’s designs for a new British Library south of the BM been realised I wouldn’t be able to approach it as I do now, up to the spot where Hammershøi painted from his rooms above 67 Great Russell Street. Today it’s Celia Paul who has a studio opposite the museum: ‘When I lie in bed, I am eye-level with the frieze above the door.’ She paints its façade shrouded in blackest brown and electric yellow, a dark imposing monolith from the days of gaslight, dripping with sulphurous rain.
Things that don’t change unsettle as much as those that do. Great Russell Street marks one edge of a forgotten zone, a square mile or so south of the museum where people only end up by accident, or on their way somewhere else. A few years ago banners suddenly appeared on lampposts introducing Midtown, a name given to a place no one had quite realised didn’t have one. Its namelessness and its insignificance were happily, unthinkingly aligned. The business coalition behind the banners had noticed it, though, and weren’t any longer satisfied with describing themselves as the bottom of Bloomsbury, the end of Seven Dials, or the space between Holborn and St Giles. The marketing man did his best, and borrowed from New York.
The coalition doesn’t mention that Pevsner called it ‘an area of much character’. It has a peculiar assortment of coin shops and Korean grocers, ice cream parlours, language schools and camera shops. James Smith and Sons’ Umbrellas is the only one people remember. The area has never become obsolete, or not quite – there are shifts with changing tastes – but it has remained undefined: a little shabby, a little trashy, bordered by the genteel to the north and the commercial to the south. The cafés are nearly all bad, the pubs close too early, the restaurants have been here for ever without much improving (sometimes declining).
The architecture, in its variety, attests to changes made long ago. The thoroughfare of New Oxford Street sliced through the St Giles slums, the infamous rookeries, in 1847, joining the West End to the City. Here the streets retain a few Georgian houses from the days when Bloomsbury was first fashionable: the five-storeyed pastel buildings of Museum Street, with their decorative wreaths, and the dark London-stock brick terraces. The Swedenborg Society is one, Pushkin House has moved to another. The bricks, like the plane trees, seem to thrive on pollution; it gives them a more uniform colour. The great beasts are the late Victorian red brick mansions: Tavistock, Russell, and Museum Chambers (where Frank Dobson, Holborn’s long-serving former MP, lives), as well as Frederick Pinches’s 1887 College of Preceptors with its cascading staircase, and the slightly younger Sovereign House, the other side of New Oxford Street – a turreted fortress in red and gold.
In among these there is much that’s newer and nondescript; opportunistic buildings that have risen over the last century as the pedlars, fish-women and newscriers gave way to businesses and respectability. Although High Holborn and New Oxford Street have made wide incursions, the little streets – spared various planning proposals, and much of the Blitz – have kept their irregularity. Holborn, to the east, was bombed quite badly: there’s an amazing photograph from February 1945 of Buckea’s Bakers, a mock Tudor building on the corner of Theobald’s Road and Boswell Street. Buckea’s is the only thing standing – and only just – for blocks and blocks. A woman is peering into the window surveying the loaves as though nothing had happened. St George’s Church survived too, awkwardly hemmed in – against the rules of Hawksmoor’s commissioners – with its portico to the south and its steeple ‘stuck on like a wen to the rest of the building’, as the journalist James Ralph wrote shortly after its completion. The ‘execrable conceit of setting up the king on top of it’ (George I in Roman dress) inspired a rhyme:
When Henry VIII left the Pope in the lurch,
The Protestants made him the head of the church,
But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people
Instead of the church, made him head of the steeple.
Three great building projects are underway. Almost complete, the triangular 10 Bloomsbury Way, built in 1947 for the MoD, has been gutted and reclad and extended upwards. It looks too clean: even the British Museum is kept a bit dirty on purpose. The long abandoned, not very attractive Post Office building next to it is due to be refurbished too, for homes and shops and offices, and a roof garden. Change comes from above – the Midtown group provides funds for roof gardens and beekeeping (I haven’t seen any hives yet) – and from below too: the former car park space under Bloomsbury Square is now London’s largest cycle vault, where commuters can stash their bikes for £20 a month. Closer to Holborn, the new Hoxton Hotel, in a concrete former BT building, has introduced an unexpected, and not entirely agreeable, sense of being a place where things happen. The shops of Commonwealth House are boarded up: the most beautiful modern building in the area is to get a facelift. Its brown-brick and cream-tiled façade, which complements the nearby Georgian rows and Portland stone so nicely, will emerge with glossy green tiles (as Henry de Lafontaine originally intended) and a rooftop extension. The new ground-floor shops, for better or worse, will have to conform to its Art Moderne aesthetic.
Such grand plans have consequences – intended ones. Money comes in, and the feel of a place alters. Something is becoming less mine: not just because it is changing, but because the changes interrupt a well-worn familiarity. Renzo Piano’s St Giles Central, towards Tottenham Court Road, is no less disconcerting than it was six years ago when it first went up. In a scene otherwise sepia, where the buildings seem to fade as the light dies, its robust orange and lime veneer almost illuminates itself, refusing to weather. It only makes sense on the sunniest of days. Ivan has closed his hairdressers’ on Little Russell Street after forty years, taking away his ancient apparatus: the blow-driers that looked like alien heads, the little blackboard of prices.
Perhaps the familiar in Hammershøi’s painting is bound up with Vergessenheit, or forgottenness; he’s seeing what’s not there. This isn’t a place that announces itself. Hammershøi painted what he saw from his window with the affinity of someone who knew it well and could still claim it for his own. Sometimes I feel as though, by walking the same way every day, I’m going backwards; that I’m drifting into the picture. The view, the light, become so familiar that memory makes a shorthand: not this day but every day, not this winter but winter itself.