In the heart of London’s Theatreland lays a small street, the size of which is inversely proportional to its history. It links Charing Cross Road and St. Martin’s Lane. It also links London’s present with its past. First appeared on Richard Horwood’s map of 1799, it is thought that it had already started taking shape as early as the 1670s.
Cecil Court is still owned by the family from which it takes it name: the Cecil family, descendants of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury (c. 1565–1612) who served both Queen Elizabeth I and King James I as Secretary of State and was a renowned Spymaster. The street has been associated with aristocracy, celebrity, the world of literature and music, arts and filmmaking, politics and scandal, arson and – according to Tim Bryars’ notes on ” A brief history of Cecil Court” – even murder. It was destroyed by fire, demolished, rebuilt and re-aligned without ever losing touch with its long, intriguing history.
In 1735, a certain Elizabeth Calloway, owner of a Brandy Shop where clients were “drinking, smoaking, and swearing, and running up and down Stairs till one or two in the Morning” , over-insured her goods and set the place on fire. While her, and a few of her neighbours’ houses were being destroyed, she sat smoking her pipe over a pint with friends, a few streets away. There could have been a number of reasons the fire had started, like from the cook’s shop next door, and there were witnesses vouching to Mrs Calloways’ honesty, confirming that they had not ”heard any ill Character of her before, and did not think she would set Fire to a House”. That and the fact that her lodgers barely escaped with their lives just before the building collapsed, was enough for Ms Calloway to be acquitted (Proceedings of the Old Bailey).
Thirty years later, in 1764-5, the family of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) found digs in Cecil Court when they first arrived in London and it was apparently here that the eight-year-old child prodigy composed his first symphony.
A series of redevelopment plans in the 1880s gave Cecil Court its present shape, largely unchanged for over a century. Amongst the first tenants of the new buildings completed in 1894, were early film distributors that played a central role in the burgeoning British film industry and inspired one of Cecil Court’s nicknames: ”Flicker Alley”.
Another nickname, ”Booksellers’ Row”, was inspired by the publishers and booksellers that have made it their home since before the First World War. Rare and antiquarian books, beautiful leather-bound first editions, maps and prints, stamps and banknotes are still to be found in the lines of shops on both sides of the street. Amongst them, Christopher St. James offers some really spectacular vintage jewellery of theatrical proportions. Watkins, the oldest esoteric bookshop in London – established in 1901 – is still a leading institution in mysticism and spirituality, offering alternative healing, counselling and divination services too. I can’t vouch for his efficiency personally, but watching the diviner working in concentration, at a table strategically placed close to the front window, made me think that his services may be rather popular.
In the 1930s Cecil Court became a well known meeting place for Jewish refugees; one of R.B. Kitaj’s favourite haunts which in 1983-4 inspired him to paint Cecil Court W.C.2. (The Refugees). Kitaj himself is depicted reclining in the foreground, and to the left (holding flowers) is the Cecil Court refugee bookseller Ernest Seligmann, for whom he was a regular customer:
Today, Cecil Court is still illuminated by a pair of original Victorian gas lamps*; for a glimpse of nostalgia for bygone times, you may wish to arrive after dark.
*Westminster Council still maintains over 1600 gas lamps, casting their soft light at iconic locations including Pall Mall, Buckingham Palace, Covent Garden and Cecil Court.
*Some shops are closed on Mondays or open by appointment only. For opening times, please check their website.
Images not otherwise credited, by Konstantinos Implikian
London, 22-25 March 2014