Chronicle of Gloucester Crescent

A book by Michael Dowd

In the December issue of On The Hill, we published this postcard of a house on Gloucester Avenue in our ‘Postcards from Primrose Hill’ series, courtesy of @old_primrosehill_postcards. The postcard was recognised by local resident Michael Dowd, who contacted us with more information.

The house was leased and built by George Bassett senior, who later bought the freehold at Lord Southampton’s land auction in 1840. His son, Henry Bassett, acted as architect for the villa. The building’s parapet wall, at pavement level, had a ‘cross’ motif which was a regular Bassett family signature. The house was demolished in the late 1960s and replaced by Darwin Court in the 1970s.

There were three villas in that location, all built by George Bassett with son Henry as designer. Just opposite was a grand one with two towers, named Tower Building. This was also eventually demolished, and Cecil Sharp House now standing in its place.

George Bassett was a surveyor to the Southampton Estate. The land was bought as a speculation, probably at a reduced price, as the railway to Euston would eventually run behind the villas. There was a caveat at the bottom of the auction catalogue to include ‘screening of the building from the railway to be included in the lease’.

His son, Henry Bassett (1803−1846), was a pupil at London’s Royal Academy of Art; he died at a young age, shortly after completing his most renowned work on Gloucester Crescent.

Michael Dowd has written a book, Chronicle of Gloucester Crescent, which is an account of Henry Bassett’s architectural designs and dedicated to his memory.

Gloucester Crescent, as Michael explains, has a reputation as being a ‘discreetly chic enclave for its many famous, accomplished, and generally understated residents’. It has variously been described as ‘Britain’s cleverest street’, ‘the most spectacular street in London’ and ‘the trendiest street in London’. Michael’s extensive research into the Crescent’s 200-year-old archives suggests that its reputation didn’t occur by accident. He goes on to tell how Henry Bassett realised his dream of building an affordable, urban, friendly community, which was also an outstanding piece of architecture.

Henry Bassett would have been familiar with a piece of land known locally as Britannia Field, where on cool summer evenings balloon ascents were a popular pastime. The Royal Botanical Gardens, opened in 1826, were located there. Known as one of London’s ‘lungs’, it was a place to escape the dirt and smog of the city.

At the time, there were significant developments in the area, especially with the advent of the railways; and Henry Bassett had an association with Robert Stephenson, the civil engineer and locomotive designer. Britannia Field was divided up into housing and railway land, and it was there that Henry built his Italian-style houses, inspired by travels in Tuscany. The houses can still be found on the east side of what is now Gloucester Crescent.

Henry Bassett decided to raise the social standing of his housing and invite celebrities and artists to take up residence. This was an attractive proposition as the houses had relatively low rents. One of the first such residents was the artist Lionel Percy Smythe, who moved into number 36 in 1843. Then the estranged wife of Charles Dickens came to number 70 in 1858. She was followed by other members of the Dickens family, and eventually other renowned artists and dramatists.

Many books have subsequently been written in Gloucester Crescent, but the first was by Catherine Dickens, entitled What Shall We Have for Dinner? and published under the pseudonym Lady Maria Clutterbuck.

Henry Bassett’s designs, especially his Gloucester Crescent Italianate houses, have since become the subject of international architectural attention.

Active in the fight against HS2, Michael Dowd occasionally publishes items in the Camden New Journal. He has edited a book on the Pompidou Centre in Paris, for which he was one of the architects.

The book will be available from the Postal Office, 33, Parkway, Camden; all proceeds will go to the charity Street Child.

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