London Monumental. Photo & text: David Secombe (4/5)

Cumberland Terrace, NW1. Photo © David Secombe, 1988.

From The Magus by John Fowles, 1966:

Beyond her stretched the grass, a quarter mile of turf to the edge of the park. Beyond that rose the Regency facade, bestatued, many and elegantly windowed, of Cumberland Terrace. 

A wall of windows, a row of statues of classical gods. They surveyed the park as if from a dress circle.

[…] The afternoon sun made them [the houses of Cumberland Terrace] gleam with light, that Olympian elixir of serene, remote, benign light one sometimes sees in summer clouds.

Although John Fowles’ epic and impossibly romantic novel about the power of myth and storytelling is mostly set on an isolated Greek island, he chooses to end his story in NW1. In the final chapter of the novel, Fowles’ rattled ‘hero’ and his girlfriend have an angsty scene in Regent’s Park, where Nicholas wonders whether they are being spied upon from the windows of John Nash’s Cumberland Terrace. This is a brilliant example of a novelist employing a real location to enhance the themes of his narrative: Fowles exploits the theatricality of Nash’s park-side architecture to suggest that his punch-drunk protagonist continues to be an unwilling player in a drama staged for an unseen audience.

It is a fitting conceit, as the glimpses of Nash’s terraces from the park bely the (relatively) prosaic houses behind the grandeur of the facades. This louche and rather endearing architectural trick led Sir John Summerson, the celebrated eminence grise on all matters Georgian, to stick the boot in thus:

It is magnificent. And behind it all – behind it are rows and rows of identical houses, identical in their narrowness, their thin pretentiousness, their poverty of design. Where the eye apprehends a mansion of great distinction, supported by lesser mansions and service quarters, the mind must interpret it as a block of thin houses, with other blocks of thin houses carrying less ornament or none at all. The sham is flagrant and absurd. The terraces are architectural whims; and though Nash was serious enough in his intention, the effect is an odd combination of fantasy and bathos which only the retrospect of a century can forgive*.

Summerson’s aristocratic disdain is a bit hard to stomach here, and I think we are entitled to give Sir John the bird on this one. Fowles seems to have a better idea of what Nash was up to, and what he succeeded in doing. Nash’s terraces are there to enhance the public space, they exist to ennoble the walkers in the park, they lend drama to the business of taking the air.  It is also at least possible, if not likely, that if they had been ‘dream palaces’ in a more concrete sense they would have gone the way of so many of the grand, inconvenient mansions of Piccadilly and Mayfair, swept away by ruthless economic imperatives well into the post-WW2 era. We can be grateful that the modest ambitions of the houses behind Nash’s palatial frontages have proved adaptable to changing circumstances, and so ensured their survival.

Unforgivably, Summerson also neglects to mention that Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who had to contend with an invasion of Cybermen outside Cumberland Terrace in 1968: although one could say that it fell slightly outside his brief.

… for The London Column. © David Secombe 2011.

(*Georgian London, Sir John Summerson, 1945/1969.)