During the Second World War, landowners across the country ripped out their handsome iron railings to provide iron for British munitions and aircraft. Tragically, most of those railings were dumped – some of them, it’s said, in the Thames Estuary – because the demand wasn’t as great as anticipated.
The prettiest of those railings were designed in 1817 for St James’s Square, off Piccadilly, by the great John Nash. Nash was the architect of the age, designing Buckingham Palace, Regent Street, the Nash Terraces in Regent’s Park and Brighton’s Royal Pavilion for George IV.
Nash’s joyously delicate railings were torn out of St James’s Square in 1941. The Ministry of Supply paid a measly £22 in compensation for the 18 tons of iron the railings produced. They were replaced by dull, utilitarian railings in 1974. But now, copies of Nash’s original railings have been restored, all round the square.
And how elegant they are, with little, Neo-Georgian urns topping the railings in pairs all round the square. The four entrances to the square are now flanked by wrought iron pillars with roundels and curlicues, topped with electric lamps that look just like Georgian gas lamps. And the black railings, resplendent after three coats of paint, now slot into the freshly carved, white Portland coping stone.
At the bottom of the railings are little “dog rails”, 18-inch-tall, curling mini-railings that look so fetching – and keep dogs out of the square. Look very closely at the hundreds of new dog rails and you’ll see one that’s very slightly crooked. This is the only original dog rail, dug up by the square’s gardeners several years ago. Along with period photographs, it was used to recreate the new railings, installed by the Metalcraft company and Susan Walker Architects.
The scheme, costing half a million pounds, has been paid for entirely with private funds from the freeholders of the houses around the square. Since 1726, thanks to an Act of Parliament, those freeholders have paid for the upkeep of the square, open to the public on weekdays.
Among those freeholders today are the London Library, BP and the East India Club. Over the years, the square has been lived in by dukes, ambassadors, 15 prime ministers and Nancy Astor, the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament. In 2013, the current freeholders got together and came up with the inspired idea of recreating Nash’s railings.
Robert Player, the square’s head gardener, says, “The old railings were bland but these ones are absolutely amazing. The new railings are a foot taller – which makes a big difference with security.
“There’s no need to change the technology of railings. They allow us to have a tropical corner, with bananas and rare plants, where the sun shines on them all day – and you can see the plants from both sides.”
Player has also introduced a parterre with hedges, delicate flowers and a woodland walk on the square’s shady side. Of the 28 garden squares he looks after, St James’s Square is the only one open to the public.
St James’s Square has been one of the smartest parts of town ever since the virgin fields, owned by Charles II, were built on by Henry Jermyn (as in nearby Jermyn Street, the upmarket shopping street) as part of his “West End” development in 1661. Along with Bloomsbury Square, also founded in 1661, St James’s Square is Britain’s earliest garden square, with Christopher Wren’s St James’s, Piccadilly closing off views on its north side. In 1817, Nash was called in to redesign the garden. He installed curving walks and a shrubbery around the edge, built a charming little summerhouse (which survives) and erected those doomed railings, costing only £130 then.
Ever since the first terraced houses rose in London in the early 17th century – and these first garden squares were created in the late 17th century – railings were crucial: for security and to mark out the confines of your landholding. Railings stopped people climbing into your garden or basement but also, unlike a wall, allowed you to see the beauty of your garden or house through them.
In the 18th century, advances in cast iron manufacture made it easier to mass-produce ever more elegant railings. The Victorians made them even more elaborate with twisted railings, connected by ornate panels with rosettes and over-the-top crests. Under the Edwardians, the Arts and Crafts movement and the swirling curves of Art Nouveau took magnificent effect on railings.
As a result, take a look around any British city lucky enough to survive the derailing of the war, and you’ll see a rich cornucopia of railing shapes. How delightful to see them rise once more in the ultimate garden square.
Harry Mount is author of How England Made the English (Penguin)