Survey of London: Volumes 31 and 32, St James Westminster, Part 2. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1963.
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Golden Square Garden
The 'modell' or plan (Plate 9) which formed part of the royal licence to build in Gelding Close did not include any design for a garden enclosure in the middle of the intended square. It is clear, however, that as the houses were being erected, provision was made for such an enclosure, for in the assignment of 1684 from Andrew Laurence to Richard Bings of the newly completed No. 22 Golden Square there was a covenant binding the latter 'to pay his share towards railing in the said Quadrangle … when thereunto requested'. The rails and posts were to be of good oak 'as large as the rail of the Quadrangle in Leicester fields'. Bings also had to pay to keep the railings in repair. (fn. 1) A year later a similar covenant was inserted in the building leases made by Isaac Symball to William Pye of the then vacant sites of Nos. 32, 33 and 34. Here the lessee bound himself 'to pay the rates and proportions with others interested in any other building fronting the place, for all charges in posts, rayles and other ornaments or materials fixed or employed … for dividing, distinguishing and adorning the same'. (fn. 2)
In 1688 Mathew Capell, the mortgagee in possession of No. 25, paid one pound 'towards Gravelling the Square', (fn. 3) which implies that a contribution was levied on all the householders. This impost was perhaps collected by Symball and the Axtells' representatives who, as joint freeholders, may have been responsible for the enclosure and adornment of the garden. Their intention was evidently to emulate the gardens laid out a few years previously in Leicester Fields. A comparison of the view of Golden Square reproduced on Plate 120a and a contemporaneous view by Sutton Nicholls of Leicester Fields shows that both squares were geometrically laid out with four square grass plots around a smaller central plot; both were divided by gravelled walks regularly set with trees and the garden gates and wooden palings in each case were of identical design.
No provision for the regular maintenance of the enclosure is known to have been made until 1750, when the residents obtained an Act of Parliament similar to that already passed for the upkeep of St. James's Square in 1726. The Act rehearsed that the existing garden had 'so greatly gone to Ruin and Decay that it will require a considerable Sum of Money to be raised to new fence and inclose the same'. It authorized the proprietors and inhabitants of the houses in the square to elect from amongst themselves thirteen self-perpetuating trustees, who were given power to 'inclose, pave, repair, enlighten, adorn, and beautify' (but not watch) the square, and to raise an annual rate not exceeding four shillings for every foot of frontage of each house. (fn. 4) This rate did not exempt the inhabitants from payment of any of the parish rates, as had the Act of 1726 for the upkeep of St. James's Square.
It has unfortunately been impossible to examine the surviving minute books of the trustees, and the later history of the square can therefore only be described from other sources. Sutton Nicholls's second engraving of Golden Square, dated 1754 (Plate 120b) shows that the formal layout of square plots and straight paths had been swept away in favour of a more fashionable design, but what had once been a leafy oasis had now become a bare and arid enclosure. The trees had been uprooted and a large circular lawn put down, with a gravel surround. The enclosure itself had been given an octangular shape and set within an iron railing with lamp standards at the corners.
The most noticeable feature of this new garden layout was the stone statue, which was set up in the middle of the grass plot on 14 March 1753. This statue has since been attributed to John Van Nost and said to represent the then reigning sovereign, George II. It came supposedly from the Duke of Chandos's seat at Cannons when the contents of that house were auctioned in 1747–8, and was erected in Golden Square by an anonymous bidder. There seems, however, to be no proof for any of these statements. Some confusion also exists between this figure and the equestrian statue of George I by Van Nost, also from Cannons and subsequently until 1872 in Leicester Square. Although it is clear from the Cannons inventories that a lead equestrian George I was numbered amongst the Chandos collection, there is no indication of a Portland stone standing figure of George II. There were, however, twenty-four statues of allegorical male and female figures in lead or stone, which stood on the roof balustrade at Cannons; they were the work of Van Nost and erected about 1723. In scale and costume there is little to distinguish the surviving illustrations of some of these figures from the statue in Golden Square. (fn. 5) It is therefore possible that 'the anonymous bidder' bought one of these figures from Cannons when the house was demolished in 1747–8 and that it was this hitherto allegorical statue, carved in the early 1720's, that was loyally erected in Golden Square as 'George II' in 1753.
Despite the provisions of the Act of 1750, the newly laid out garden had become by 1783 'more neglected than is usual in these places of ornament', (fn. 6) and by the 1820's more money was needed for its further improvement. A second Act was therefore passed in 1827, by which the trustees acquired additional powers for such matters as watering and macadamizing the roadways. (fn. 7) It was presumably at this time that the layout of the centre of Golden Square was again altered to form a square enclosure with gravelled paths, trees and shrubs. It was evidently not a great improvement, for ten years later Dickens, in the passage already quoted, described it as 'a little wilderness of shrubs' watched over by a 'mournful statue'. (fn. 8)
During the war of 1939–45 an air-raid shelter was dug under the garden and the enclosing iron fence taken for salvage. In this unfenced and derelict state the garden was taken over by the Westminster City Council on lease from the trustees of the square. Some £5500 were spent on restoration work and in the creation of the present layout. The garden was re-opened to the public in November 1952. (fn. 9) The reconstruction (Plate 121) has subsequently been criticized as barren and desolate, with 'simpering' flower beds and clumsy teak flower chests. (fn. 10)