Friday 20 January 2012

Cecil Court London WC2N

Cecil Court, a tiny thoroughfare between Charing Cross Road and St. Martin's Lane in the heart of the west end is one of my favourite London streets. It transports me back several decades to how I imagine Charing Cross Road was in the 1950's and 1960's, with its selection of specialist book shops, art shops and antique dealers.

The street has quite a history. There is a blue plaque informing the passer by that Mozart lived here for a few months in 1764, renting from a barber, his family paying twelve shillings a week for three tiny rooms with no cooking facilities. The street was a bit of a gathering place for European Jewish emigrees in the 1930's and 1940's as illustrated in Kitaj's painting "Cecil Court". But this little gem goes back much further than that. The street  was established towards the end of the seventeenth century and was owned by the Cecil family, descendants of Robert Cecil, created the first Earl of Salisbury by James 1st.

Despite its links to the aristocracy, Cecil Court was not immune to the occasional scandals that Londoners love so much. In 1735, one Elizabeth Calloway, keeper of a shop in Cecil Court over insured her goods and set the place alight. She was accused of going off for the evening to drink beer with friends a few streets away leaving her lodgers to their own devices. Although no-one was killed it was a near miss and Calloway was tried for arson. She had bought kindling shortly before the fire but appears to have deflected suspicion to a neighbour storing particular items in her adjoining cellar and was acquitted.

The mistress Calloway had a bit of a reputation and it was said that in her shop people could be found "drinking, smoking, swearing and running up and down stairs till one or two in the morning". She sounds like my kind of girl. Also prosecuted at this time was one Eleanor Pickhaver who had taken advantage of the fire to rush into one of the adjoining properties and carry off a bed and three paintings. She pleaded that she thought they were hers (!) and was also acquitted. Court records show several other Cecil Court residents prosecuted at about this time for petty crimes but also for highway robbery, forgery and arson!

The Court has many links with the film industry. The 1961 Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Sims film "Victim" included a bookseller called Harold Doe who had a shop here and was blackmailed due to his homosexuality during the days before the Wolfenden Act. In 1987, several scenes of Helen Hanff's "84 Charing Cross Road" were also shot here.

Today the Court is highly respectable with its selection of independent, specialist shops. My absolute favourite is the interestingly named Witch Ball at number 2, owned and run by Rosslyn Glassman. The shop has been in Cecil Court since 1983 having located from Brighton where it opened in 1967. The name came from the original shop in Brighton where many shops had (and still have) bohemian names, especially in the lanes. Rosslyn reports that she often receives "interesting" phone calls as a result of the name!

She has a wonderful collection of antique posters, prints and paintings from all over the world. Many of the items are rare and Rosslyn travels the world sourcing them herself. The last time I visited she had posters from the 1950's from Mexico, Peru and Brazil as well as a large collection of works from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

She is extremely knowledgeable and friendly and can give fascinating background information to the items in her collection. The highlight of my last visit was a Mexican Tourist Board poster from the 1950's showing a little boy pondering whether or not to break into his piggy bank so that he could visit the fair shown in the background. Unfortunately for you, you won't see it if you visit now. That's because its hanging in my home as I am the proud new owner!

Other favourites of mine include David Drummond's shop at number 11 which sells all kinds of ephemera relating to the theatrical world (after all, Cecil Court is in the heart of theatre land). I also like Storey's Limited at numbers 1-3, where you can browse beautiful antiquarian prints and maps as well as delightfully camp old movie mags from the 1930's onwards - I was very tempted by one with a special feature on Esther Waters. And then there is the famous Italian Bookshop at number 5. This shop is extremely popular with London's many Italian residents, selling books both in Italian and translations of Italian writers into English. Nice to browse, but also great to just listen to so many people speaking Italian in a tiny shop in the centre of London.

Not exactly in Cecil Court, but on the corner of the Court and Charing Cross Road you can find Lipmans. For more than 75 years this shop has been hiring dinner suites and other formal wear to gentleman customers. The shop window features top hats, cravats, dinner jackets and tailcoats and although little changed since it opened, is still busy with customers with a special event to attend.

Cecil Court has no cafes or places to eat. However, the wonderful Gaby's Deli is just around the corner in Charing Cross Road and has been there since 1965. Owner Gaby Elyahou still does brisk trade in falafel, salt beef sandwiches, humous, salads and a range of other heart warming foods not easy to find elsewhere in the west end. Sadly Gaby's is under threat of closure as the building owner wishes to sell to a developer which will almost certainly mean closure. Always popular with actors from local theatres, a campaign is running to save this little piece of history. It would be sad to see another old friend disappear from the centre of our city. What would Elizabeth Calloway think?

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