On March 19th, shortly before 11 am, about three dozen people gathered in the small garden of 1 Eton Villas, Chalk Farm, London NW3. We were there to witness the unveiling of one of London’s famous blue plaques at the former home of the architect historian, Sir John Summerson. The plaque was hidden from view by a pair of red velvet curtains with a white wood pelmet bearing the English Heritage logo.
There was John Cattell from English Heritage, the architectural historian Gavin Stamp, who had initiated the installation, Tim Knox, curator of the Sir John Soane Museum, and other colleagues and friends. There were also a number of Summersons, including yours truly (he was my first cousin once removed) and two of Sir John’s triplet sons. His wife, Elizabeth, was the sister of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who married the artist Ben Nicholson. Barbara had also had triplets, and members of her family were there, too.
John Cattell gave a speech on the blue plaque scheme, and Gavin Stamp spoke about Sir John’s distinguished career which included being curator of the Sir John Soane Museum. Then Sir John’s secretary, Patricia Drummond, stepped forward. Rather frail now but looking immensely elegant in black high-heeled boots, a smart coat and Russian fur hat, she said a few words, then pulled the cord and the curtains opened revealing the blue plaque. We all clapped.
It was inspiring, moving, ever so slightly dotty in the nicest possible way and very English. Then we were ushered into a waiting coach and taken to the Sir John Soane Museum for a celebratory drink. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
There are over 800 blue plaques in London. The first one, to Lord Byron, was set up in 1867 by the Royal Society of Arts. The idea was to celebrate the link between the house and the person. There were no listed buildings at that date and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings was yet to be founded, so a secondary aim was to encourage the preservation of houses of historic interest.
Nowadays, the scheme is run by English Heritage and the selection process is rigorous. The person commemorated must have been dead for twenty years or passed the centenary of their birth, and eminent members of their profession must agree on the importance of their contribution. They must have lived or worked in the house for a significant period, and the house itself must have survived.
There is more information at www.english-heritage.org.uk/discover/blue-plaques together with an article about Sir John Summerson under Plaque News.
Photos: top to bottom. 1. The plaque, 2. 1 Eton Villas, 3. Patricia unveils the plaque, 4. Party at Sir John Soane Museum. 1-3, courtesy of English Heritage, 4. by Elizabeth Hawksley
Labels: blue plaques, Elizabeth Hawksley, English Heritage, Sir John Soane Museum, Sir John Summerson