Covent Garden – London’s first residential square, a short history

Covent Garden market

Covent Garden is home to the world renowned Royal Opera House, the Royal Ballet and the London Transport museum – as well as some of the best shopping, food & drink and street entertainment in London. This post is about the foundation of Covent Garden and, in particular, two painters that were attracted to paint London’s first residential square.

Covent Garden was originally a medieval orchard and garden, belonging to the Convent of the church of St Peter at Westminster (Westminster Abbey today), about a mile away. With the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536, King Henry VIII gave the land to one of his supporters (and the ‘n’ of Convent got lost along the way). The new owner of the land was the 4th Duke Bedford (John Russell).

In 1630 Inigo Jones was commissioned to build a residential square (probably following the fashion set in Paris ten years earlier at Place des Vosges). This was to become London’s first high end residential square. In 1670 a Royal Charter was given to the Earl of Bedford to open a fruit, vegetable and flower market – to ‘hold forever a market in the Piazza on every day in the year except Sundays and Christmas Day for the buying and selling of all manner of fruit, flowers, roots and herbs’. (Incidentally the wholesale market only closed in the 1970’s).

The market was very convenient in its early years, but sadly the area went into decline from the 1740s. It had become the heart of London’s artistic community and over time became the favoured haunt of drunks, destitutes and prostitutes – there was even a guide for the latter (1757-95) called Harris’s Covent Garden ladies!

The circle turned and regeneration started in 1830 when a Victorian market was built – and still stands today as the large stone central market.

The painting above is by Balthazar Nebot (1737). It records the activities and architecture of Covent Garden – still quite attractive at this time. Notice the men in wig, tricorn hat, frock coat and buckled shoes – the traditional gentleman’s attire of the day. There is a boxing match taking place on the right hand side. Notice too, the King Charles Spaniels popularised eighty years earlier by King Charles II. Then there is St Paul’s Church in the background.

Balthazar Nebot was Spanish and a painter of urban and genre scenes. He arrived in London in 1729 and was married in London in 1730. His family records are in St Paul’s, Covent Garden – also where five of his young children were buried.

St Pauls Church, Covent Garden was built by Inigo Jones in 1633 and consecrated 1638. The Duke of Bedford (not being a religious man) said ‘it should be no more than a barn’. Jones replied; ‘the handsomest barn in England’. In fact it’s modelled on a Roman temple – the first English church of that style, and only 100 years after the Reformation.
The church has seen the baptisms of JMW Turner and WS Gilbert as well as the burials of Grinling Gibbons, Sir Peter Lely (Court painter). It’s proximity to the acting ‘West End’ has earned it the nick name the ‘Actors Church’. The Portico was the setting for GB Shaw’s Pygmalion (My Fair Lady).

The artwork below is by William Hogarth. It is called ‘Morning’ (and is from the satirical ‘four times of the day’ series). It was painted in 1738. The series set out to expose the folly and vice of the city’s inhabitants over the course of the day. Here we have a reflection on morning. The paintings (on which Hogarth’s engravings are based) were probably commissioned by Jonathan Tyers (proprietor of the Vauxhall Gardens ‘amusement park’).

In the print we see the clock over the porch of St Paul’s Church showing 6.55am. There is snow on the rooftops and icicles hanging from the eaves of Tom’s coffee house – inside, a brawl is taking place, and a wig flies out the front door! There is an overdressed spinster with a cold servant boy carrying her Bible. Here prim appearance is in contrast to those around her. Two ‘rakes’ are embracing market girls. And a beggar sits beside a fire lit by the vegetable seller. There is a woman carrying vegetables, two boys lag behind on their way to school and a quack who is selling his panacea.

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) was a famous English painter. He championed British artists over foreign influences and received instruction from the painter Sir James Thornhill (whose daughter he married in 1729). Hogarth started painting his ‘modern moral subjects’ to great popular success and financial security (with the engravings). He was so popular that illegal copies lead to the passing (in 1735) of the Copyright Act (also known as Hogarth’s Act).

Other satirical work by Hogarth includes ‘A Rake’s Progress’ (1735), ‘Marriage a-la-mode’ (1743), ‘Gin Lane’ (1751) and ‘Beer Street’ (1751). His prints helped highlight the social evils that others would seek to eradicate in future years. But his failing health and attacks on his art and politics, left him defensive and embittered – and his final painting made the point that Time is not a beautifier of taste (but a destroyer).

Morning by William Hogarth
‘Morning’ by William Hogarth, 1738

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