Before the current Warburg Institute building was built in the late 1950s a strip of Georgian houses used to occupy the land. The surrounding area underwent a transformation during this time, as the university grew and occupied an area of land that had previously been residential. Historian Mark Amies, who also works as the Warburg Library’s Scanner Operator, shares with us his knowledge of the history of the area.

In my last blog, I wrote about my observations on the current Warburg Institute building in Woburn Square, in this blog I am going to have a look at the immediate area that surrounds it. In particular, I want to have a look at the changes that have happened, before and after the Warburg arrived in the late 1950s.

This area of Bloomsbury has an interesting history, with its garden squares and genteel rows of terraced homes, certainly not a poor area, but you don’t need to travel far to see local authority housing estates.

No 1 Gordon Square

The site chosen for the Warburg Institute was once occupied by numbers 1 to 6 Gordon Square South, and if you wish to get an idea of what this block of houses looked like you just need to cast your gaze over to the other side of Woburn Square, at numbers 55-59 Gordon Square South. There is an interesting feature at No 55. If you look at what was once presumably an entrance onto Gordon Square, you will see some decorative ironwork, displaying the name ‘Carbide House’. I have as yet not been able to pin down the history on this, but I assume it would have once been the offices of a ‘Carbide’ company, whether it be the Union Carbide Company of America or another one, but the style suggests early Twentieth Century.

The block of houses were built, like many of the homes in the vicinity, by Thomas Cubitt, who was believed to be the first builder in London to employ a permanent skilled workforce. I do not have an exact date of the build but it is around the 1830s. If you look at the illustration below, you can see the side of No 1 Gordon Square. This is the side that the Warburg Institute has its entrance onto Woburn Square. I did read somewhere, (but sadly I cannot recall where now!), that the last incumbent of number one was an architect, one wonders what he would have thought about the building that replaced his home.

Carbide House | Photo by Mark Amies
No 1 Gordon Square illustration by Mark Amiez
No 1 Gordon Square illustration by Mark Amies

In the illustration, you will note that there is a formal entrance with a doric-columned porch, and then further back what is probably either a garden entrance or a service entrance. This part of the building housed the frieze of the nine muses, which is familiar to anyone entering the Institute, as it was saved from destruction and mounted into the wall in the lobby area. The frieze is made from a material called Coade stone and apparently is a copy of a Greek sarcophagus decoration that is now part of the Louvre’s collection.

frieze of Mnemosyne
The frieze of the nine muses which now sits in the Institute’s foyer

The use of Coade stone

Coade stone is one of the earliest artificial stones, composed of clay, terracotta, silicates and glass. It was first marketed in the 1770s and named after the founder of the company, Eleanor Coade. It became incredibly popular with leading architects of the late eighteenth century, because it could be moulded into intricate shapes, and was extremely strong.

One of the best and well-known examples of the material is the Coade stone lion that sits proudly at the south side of Westminster Bridge. It originally sat on top of the Lion Brewery on the South Bank and was similarly saved from destruction. The Late King George VI was apparently a fan of the lion and requested that it be kept. It was taken down before the Lion Brewery was demolished, (to make way for the 1951 Festival of Britain site), painted red by British Railways and sat outside Waterloo station as part of an entrance to the Festival site. Given that the British Railways then symbol was a lion astride a railway wheel, it’s clear why they liked it.  When Waterloo station was extended in the mid-1960s, the lion was taken back to its original Coade finish and moved to its current site.

There is a rather interesting word link between the Warburg Institute and the Coade Lion. Before the stone lion was made, a wooden prototype was carved and sited somewhere in Cambridge. It eventually was unearthed in the 1970s at Woburn, (my source didn’t indicate exactly where, but I assume at the safari park on the estate). There was the link if you missed it, tenuous as it may be! – the Woburn Estate is owned by the same people who owned the land the Warburg is built on. To draw a close to this meander, the wooden lion was plated with gold leaf, and eventually re-sited to its current location outside Cambridge University Rugby Club’s ground at Twickenham.

The transformation of Woburn Square

The Warburg Institute is fortunate to have two sizeable parks on its doorstep, Gordon Square and Woburn Square. The former is named after the second wife of the 6th Duke of Bedford, Lady Georgiana Gordon, who was the daughter of Alexander Gordon, the 4th Duke of Gordon – that’s a lot of Gordons!! Interestingly enough, the Duke’s first wife was Georgiana Byng, the daughter of George Byng, the 4th Viscount Torrington, and Byng Place which sits on the other side of the Warburg is named after her. The Duke of Bedford is the principal landowner in this part of Bloomsbury and is responsible for its development.  The smaller, and perhaps less attractive, Woburn Square park sits right next to the Institute and was named after Woburn Abbey, which was the country seat of the Duke of Bedford.

Since the Warburg Institute was built and opened in 1958, Woburn Square has seen some dramatic changes. Clearly, the first change came in the form of Institute itself, however, the second was to be far greater.

Since the late 1920s, the University of London had wanted to create a large campus that would run along Malet Street and Bedford Way.  The scheme originally chosen was to be designed by Charles Holden, and finished in brilliant white Portland stone. In the end, only the Senate House section was completed, before World War Two interrupted progress.  The years after the war saw the work continue, but in a very different style, along the length of Malet Street, and including the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes.  By the late 1950s, the proposals to build the Institute of Education and SOAS Library would see more changes to Woburn Square and Bedford Way. In the end, despite much protests, (see this excellent SOAS article for more detail), the two structures designed by the Modernist architect Denys Lasdun were commenced. The construction of the Brutalist style Institute of Education meant the demolition of an entire terrace of Georgian homes, but it would also see the end to a rather splendid church that stood in Woburn Square.

Postcard of Christ Church , Woburn Square

Christ Church and the Church of Christ the King.

The Christ Church sat in the space at the end of the row of Georgian houses opposite the Warburg Institute. It was designed by Lewis Vulliamy and built between 1831 and 1833 in a gothic style with a tall spire. By the time of the impending University development in the late 1960s, attendance levels were apparently very low, and this was used as an argument for its demolition. It seems almost unimaginable now that such a grand structure would be sacrificed, however, Christ Church eventually succumbed in 1974. The tragedy is that the plot of land that it sat on was never fully developed, and so you can now sit on a patch of grass where it once stood. 

Another religious building near the Warburg Institute that is worthy of a mention is the Euston Church, or to give its correct, original name the Church of Christ the King. The building sits majestically in Byng Place, opposite the Institute. Designed by the architect Raphael Brandon, and built between 1850 and 1854, this neo-Gothic building adds a real air to the surrounding area. On many evenings when I leave work at the Warburg, I will cast my eyes over toward the church and think that I am very much in a University campus. The colour of the Bath Stone in the sun is glorious and for a moment it is like being in an episode of ‘Inspector Morse’. The building was constructed for the Victorian movement called the Catholic Apostolic Church, also known as the ‘Irvingites’, after Edward Irving, a Scottish Minister, although his connection to the movement is not clear.  It is worth pointing out that this church is incomplete. Its western end is unfinished, indicated by a brick end. It was also to have a 150-foot spire, added to the base of the tower which is visible.

 The Church of Christ the King. Gordon Square, London | Creative Commons

Of course, the history of the immediate area around the Warburg Institute is far deeper than I have spent on this blog. When I originally set on the piece, I had desperately wanted to start by saying “Imagine, if you can, a misty swamp, prehistoric vegetation surrounds us, and then the sound of a huge dinosaur approaching, this is the site of the Institute 230 million years ago” – but given this might be read by serious academics, I thought it unwise!

Mark Amies

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