The Artistic Life of Canonbury Square

Sit in the gardens of Canonbury Square – east or west – and, despite the din of the lorries heading down the Canonbury Road that divides it, something of the peace and quiet of a London square still remains. The attractive gardens, maintained by a dedicated band of local volunteers, with some unusual and exotic planting – for example vines and herbs, not your usual municipal offering – and with, in the east garden, an armillary sphere in the centre [photo] and in the west, two magnificent London plane trees. 

Canonbury Square gardens showing Sphere sculpture
Canonbury Square gardens with sculpture

Today, looking beyond the trees and flowering shrubs, the surrounding late Georgian terraces display an affluence that they would have shown back in the 1820s when they were built for the lawyers, doctors and City stockbrokers who the developers would hope to attract. But they were not always thus. 

For a large part of the 20th century, with the affluent residents having been tempted by better transport to move out to new, leafier suburbs, pressure on housing for working class families, allowed avaricious landlords of properties like these to fill them with as many tenants as they could and spend as little money on their upkeep as limited regulation required of them. And the Second World War, which brought nightly bombing raids to London, wreaked disaster on houses in the area, especially on the Square’s north-east side, some of which remained in a derelict, roofless state into the 1960s. And so in the middle years of the century, the Square offered cheap accommodation in an edgy, quaint district, which suited some of the artists and writers of the day.

George Orwell plaque in Canonbury Square
George Orwell Plaque in Canonbury Square

Writers like Evelyn Waugh, author of novels including Brideshead Revisited, who with his then wife, bizarrely also called Evelyn (friends dubbed them ‘he-Evelyn’ and ‘she-Evelyn’) lived for a while at number 17, where fellow author Nancy Mitford sometimes lodged with the couple. In 1944, bombed out of his Hampstead home, George Orwell came to live at number 27 with his partner Eileen and baby son Richard where he finished writing Animal Farm, and began work on his dystopian novel, 1984. Orwell’s stay until 1950 is recorded by a green plaque. 

Just a door or two away at number 26, Vanessa Bell, artist sister of Virginia Woolf, along with her partner Duncan Grant, also an artist, both refugees from the Bloomsbury set, moved here in the 1950s.  And before all of these, in the 19th century living at number 8, was Samuel Phelps, actor-manager of Sadler’s Wells, who had transformed a run-down music hall into a home for Shakespearean theatre.

Brighly coloured gates for Estorick Collection
Gates to the Estorick Collection

Today they are joined by the Estorick Collection gallery on the corner, and I suspect that these highly-desirable residences probably continue the tradition with a mix of film, TV and media folk amongst its denizens. 

John Finn

For more information


Evelyn Waugh

Vanessa Bell

Samuel Phelps