Berkeley (or Berkley as it is often spelled on early maps) Square was built on the farmland owned by John, 1st Baron Berkeley of Stratton, a Royalist military commander in the English Civil War and close friend of James, Duke of York (later James III) who did very well for himself after the restoration of Charles II . Amongst other things he was a co-founder of the Province of New Jersey. Berkeley acquired extensive farmland to the north of the Exeter Road in London, now Piccadilly, and in 1665 he had a mansion built there. Today it would occupy the block bounded by Piccadilly, Stratton Street and Berkeley Street, with its gardens (partly designed by John Evelyn) stretching northwards. In the map below of 1682 ‘Berkley House’ can be seen just above the ‘ETC’ of The Road to Exeter Etc.’ (The area marked ‘St James Park’ is now known as Green Park.)
Evelyn records that it cost “neare 30,000 pounds” and called it a “palace”. After Lord Berkeley’s death in 1678 his widow sold off strips at the side of the grounds to create Stratton Street and Berkeley Street, much to Evelyn’s disgust. Princess (later Queen) Anne occupied the house 1692-5 during a spat with her sister Queen Mary and in 1696 it was sold to the Duke of Devonshire and renamed Devonshire House. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1734/7 and this is the house that can been seen in Horwood’s map of 1799/1819. The reservoir in Green Park mentioned in a recent post can be seen at the bottom.
One of the conditions of the sale was that view over the land to the north of the gardens should be unobstructed and this is one reason why, when the area was developed, that Lansdowne House is set to one side with its gardens respecting the view from the rear of Devonshire House and there was no building along the south side of Berkeley Square.
The square was laid out in 1730 with houses on the east and west sides.The east side was the first to be built and was finished about 1738 and the west side was completed in 1745. Of these houses only the western side remains intact – the 1930s saw the replacement of the eastern side and the garden wall of Lansdowne House – and the site of Mr Gunter’s famous establishment in the south-east corner is now under a branch of Prêt. The customers still take their refreshments outside to eat under the plane trees – although rather less elegantly than Mr Gunter’s patrons would have done. It was originally the shop of Dominicus Negri, an Italian pastrycook, who set up there in 1757, trading as The Pot and Pineapple.
In the centre was an equestrian statue of George III – a not very successful effort whose legs soon collapsed. It was replaced by the little pump house with a Chinese roof which has survived. The famous plane trees are perhaps the most striking survival of the Georgian square and were planted in 1789.
Ackermann’s Repository featured the square in September 1813 with this view which appears to be the south-west corner with the wall of Lansdowne House’s gardens in the background.
According to the text “This square is distinguished from all the others in the British metropolis by its situation on the side of a hill, which gently slopes from north to south. the houses on the north side are, upon the whole, rather mean; those which form the east and west sides, though many of them, individually, very good buildings, do not, from the want of regularity, appear altogether to such advantage as where greater attention is paid to that point, and where the site is more favourable to it… The area, which forms an oblong square, containing about three acres, is inclosed by an iron balustrade; and the inhabitants, after the example of their neighbours, have, of late years, caused it to be planted extensively with shrubs, which have thriven very rapidly, and give a rural air to the whole.”
This late Victorian print shows the southern end of the square, looking west with the Lansdowne wall on the left.
Nowadays it needs some care to recapture the Georgian spirit of the square, but it can be done, especially when sitting in the shade of the plane trees and looking at the wonderful ironwork of the western side. But don’t expect to hear a nightingale singing in Berkeley Square – they probably flew off in the 1730s when the builders moved in!
You can visit Berkeley Square on the Mayfair walk in my Walking Jane Austen’s London.
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