Belgravia, Victoria and Pimlico
For years Westminster was contained on its western fringe, from Hyde Park Comer in a curve round eastwards down to where Vauxhall Bridge now it, by a broad strip, a green belt of marshy land and market garden and creeks from the Thames, Its desirability as building land for the westw ard expansion of the city had long been recognised, but what lifted it out of desirability into a prime urgency of fashion was the rebuilding of Buckingham House into Buckingham Palace in the 1820’s Belgravia was the natural extension of this, a provision of senior servants’ quarters. It had been in large part a clayey swamp, notorious for highwaymen and footpads and violence at dusk, and for occasional eccentric displays such as de Motet’s, who used it as a launching pad for balloons in 1784 (over towards Sloane Street, where it was built up already but he caught fire before taking off, the unruly mob avenging their disappointment by destroying the adjoining property). But in 1836, an Act of Parliament allowed the chief owner of the area (Lord Grosvenor, whose family names and titles still resound about Belgraviathe Dukes of Westminster are also Earls Grosvenor, and Viscounts Belgrave) to drain the site, raise the level, and exploit the building possibilities. The presiding genius of the plan was the great building speculator Thomas Cubitt; the clay was drained and much of it turned into bricks, and up on the firm base of the underlying gravel almost in a decade rose the stately homes of Belgravia, the finest flower of late Georgian.
The plan is ample large squares and crescents set in a near regular but relaxed grid (which is too mean a word for the scale); the roadways are broad and the pavements are expansrs. But though in its ample solidity (and it is solid Cubitt, unlike Nash, was no jerry builder) it looks forward to Victoria, architecturally its stucco is still essentially Greco Roman in flavour, and as such u aesthetic renown was swiftly eclipsed as the Victorians reacted with such fervour against monotony.
Augustus Hare in the 1870 s is typicalhe found Belgravia wholly devoid of interest, which none would think of visiting unless drawn thither by the daum of society wearily ugly. But society at least has indeed been there since it was built, though the pattern of their residence has now shifted radically. In i860, in Belgrave Square, there lived three dukes and thirteen other peers (excluding a small host of baronets) and thirteen m.p.s, each in his own vast separate establishment; the quality of this order is still to be found, but it has withdrawn from the Square which, the great handsome heart of the area, now lies organically extinct though activated artificially by the mechanics of the various embassies and institutions which alone can afford to occupy it.
The sought after private dwellings are now the smaller houses and the mews cottagcs where the forebears of the present owners housed their grooms, and the big houses are chopped into flats. It is in the mewses (if that be the plural) that the visitor may catch the most vivid impression of contemporary life in Belgravia; rows of irregular little garage cottage, bright with paint and window boxes and the odd potted shrub, strung along sometimes cobbled ways between the looming backs of their former parent houses.
It is hard to believe that anyone can ever, even in the 1870’s, have thought Belgravia ugly, even wearily so; but wearinessa nervous but contained restlessness of the imagination against the harness of strcct plan and dosed walls, an ennuihas become an integral part of the romance of any great city.
Ennui in Belgravia is handsome, and even, though it is so profoundly English, exotic. If you scull through the wide streets in an open car, on a warm summer dusk under the still and heavy trees, you may catch a whiff still of some slower time, a whiff opulent as cigar smoke in the thinner familiar reek of cigarettes; and the bland and glossy stucco facades shimmer like ghosts of their staid solid daytime selves.