Despite the march of modern development in north Clerkenwell, Jiff Bayliss manages to unveil many late Georgian architectural gems on his walk Lubetkin, Lenin and Bevin Court, which explores the impact of the Bolshevik modernist architect, Berthold Lubetkin on the area.
But there is also an intriguing tale of two disappearing busts is to be revealed and untangled. Jiff tells us more…
Berthold Lubetkin, a subject of the Russian Empire, was an art student in Moscow during the 1917 revolution.
He fervently believed in the promise of the revolution for improvement and as an “artist-engineer” became inspired by the idea of using his skills to transform lives.
He is perhaps most famous for his Penguin Pool at London Zoo, but he was also commissioned to design four buildings for the old Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury (now the southern part of Islington); the health centre in Pine Street and three housing estates.
The third of those estates, Bevin Court was completed in 1954 and is widely considered as one of Lubetkin’s masterpieces.
But it also hides the intriguing story of two busts once prominent on the site but now, sadly, long gone.
After Britain had stood alone against Germany for nearly two years of the Second World War, the Soviet Union was catapulted into the conflict by Hitler’s invasion in June 1941. Britain and the USSR became allies and there was pressure from the LCC, Finsbury Council and local left-leaning organisations to recognise that fact.
Vladimir Illych Lenin, first Secratary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had during 1902/3 lived in the Borough for a year at number 30 Holford Square whilst publishing his revolutionary newspaper Iska (“Spark”) from the offices of 20th Century Publishing in Clerkenwell Green (now the Marx Memorial Library).
After much debate, it was agreed a plaque to commemorate his residence should be placed on the building. Unfortunately Hitler’s Luftwaffe got there first and the house was partially destroyed by bombs just before the plaque was due to be installed.
Undeterred, the plaque went up on what was left of the building but was also complemented in the Square opposite the house by a bust of Lenin.
This was housed in a magnificent Lubetkin designed casing made of concrete, marble and granite, with a coloured-glass panel to bathe the head of Lenin in red light, and a broken chain at its base. Both the plaque and the bust were unveiled in 1942 by Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London at the time.
Although the Soviet embassy replaced the mass-produced bust, by 1944 it was necessary to afford it the embarrassment of a permanent capitalist police guard and in 1945 was removed “for restoration”, never to return.
As for Holford Square itself, it was was so badly damaged by bombing that it was decided to demolish and replace the Georgian square with public housing, a commission which Lubetkin won and duly designed an estate which utilised the Square with housing blocks on three sides and a school, community centre, a restaurant and concierge on the fourth.
Believing the estate was going to be called “Lenin Court”, Lubetkin assumed the concierge would guard the bust of Lenin.
Unfortunately Lubetkin’s designs fell foul of the Government’s imposed spending limits and a cheaper, although more dramatic, scheme consisting of only housing in a “Y” shaped block eventually went ahead.
However, by the time the estate was built, global politics had taken their own turn; the Cold War was at its height and it was deemed too politically sensitive to name a new housing estate after the revolutionary leader of our country’s main adversary.
Lubetkin was at the same time becoming increasingly disillusioned with the conservatism of British architecture and, possibly in a fit of pique, ordered the workmen on the scheme to uproot his casing and throw it into the rubble making up the foundations of his new estate, a rather prosaic fate for his proposed grand gesture.
After deliberating for six months, Finsbury Council finally decided in April 1954 to name the new estate “Bevin Court” after the recently deceased (and distinctly anti-Communist) former Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin.
An opening ceremony was planned which included the unveiling of a newly commissioned bronze bust of Ernest Bevin (at a cost of £102) by his widow Florence.
However, it unfortunately seemed that the local population area had about as much respect for Bevin as they had for Lenin and whether for political ends or just for the value of the bronze, it was purloined sometime in the last 60 years and its whereabouts or fate remain unknown.
END NOTE: The bust of Bevin is about to be replaced with a replica; the bust of Lenin (but not the casing) can still be seen in the Islington Museum, 245 St John Street, EC1V 4NB.
For more fascinating tales of Lubetkin’s legacy on the area – and a rare opportunity to see inside Bevin Court – join Jiff’s walk Lubetkin, Lenin and Bevin Court walk in the new year, dates and booking details on his walks page.