Rhapsodies in Blue
Several years ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to the unveiling of a plaque to honour Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein and The Last Man), at 24 Chester Square, where she died in 1851. The Blue Plaque commemorative scheme, believed to be the oldest of its kind, began as far back as 1866 as a distinctive means of linking people who have made a significant contribution in their chosen field, to the places where they lived.
The area around the Folio offices in Holborn (or ‘east Bloomsbury’, as it is sometimes, more salubriously known!) in central London is awash with plaques, and we’d like to share a few of our favourites from here and further afield.
Crime-writer Dorothy L. Sayers had a long association with a flat to our east, at 24 Great James Street, where she lived in the 1920s while working as a copywriter and inventing her fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey. Great James Street runs alongside Doughty Street which, as well as being home (at no. 48) to the Charles Dickens Museum, also boasts a plaque to pacifist and World War I memoirist Vera Brittain, author of Testament of Youth, who shared no. 52 with her friend Winifred Holtby (best known for her novel South Riding).
Rudyard Kipling, whose ‘If––’ is consistently voted Britain’s best-loved poem, has a plaque at 43 Villiers Street, between the Strand and Embankment; and Bertrand Russell, whose seminal work was A History of Western Philosophy, is remembered in Bury Place. Another famous peacemaker, one Mahatma Gandhi, studied law at University College in 1889, and during this period he lived at 20 Barons Court in west London.
Right on Folio’s doorstep, in Red Lion Square, is a plaque to John Harrison, inventor the marine chronometer and, most famously, the subject of Dava Sobel’s bestseller Longitude.
Ho Chi Minh is best remembered as the founder of modern Vietnam but, perhaps apocryphally, he is said to have worked as a pastry cook under the great Escoffier at the Carlton Hotel – it’s all there on the plaque on the Haymarket near Trafalgar Square.
And let’s not forget rock royalty: Jimi Hendrix was the first rock star to receive a blue plaque, at 23 Brook Street, Mayfair – happily adjacent to the plaque for another musical legend, George Frederick Handel, at no. 25. This year saw the fortieth anniversary of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, the album that catapulted David Bowie to stardom, and the plaque to mark that historic recording is just round the corner at 10 Heddon Street. A modern Prometheus, indeed.