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Peter York’s family have lived in London’s most charming corner for a century. He has watched the bankers come and the artists go

Features | By Peter York

Constable lived at 40 Well Walk

Rise and fall of arty Hampstead

My involvement with Hampstead started in the 1890s.

My grandmother Lizzie Whittington, a London girl, and a talented pianist, ended up in a deeply unhappy marriage in South Africa.

She hated South Africa, not because of any awakening sensitivity about race but because it wasn’t a patch on London or Paris. She negotiated a life where she could go back to get the children brought up in England; my grandfather sort of commuted. Two of her daughters were then remorselessly drilled in classical music as the core of a future string quartet – violin and viola – and later went off to London to study. And, inevitably, unstoppably, they migrated to Hampstead.

Hampstead in the late 1930s was the obvious place for young classical-music students who wanted to do the new things – play new work from new composers such as Elisabeth Lutyens, play difficult music from memory, go to music camp and meet Benjamin Britten.

England – accused of being ‘a land without music’ by the German critic Oscar Schmitz in 1904 – had been the recent beneficiary of a large group of German and Austrian composers and musicians, many of them leftists and many of them Jewish, who came to Britain as refugees from the Nazis – and ended up in Hampstead.

They came along with a rich tide of writers, architects and painters (plus Sigmund Freud who spent his last year in Maresfield Gardens, where the Freud Museum is now).

My mother followed her sisters later – and returned after leaving and getting married. My grandmother rented a house nearby – 1830s, four square and long since demolished – to keep an eye on the girls. Eventually they all piled into one road in Hampstead.

Fifty per cent of what they always say about Hampstead was true then. It really was chock-full of a certain kind of mostly – not only – leftish intelligentsia, attracted by the 19th-century history of Hampstead artists of all kinds. The familiar keystones are Keats (1795-1821), commemorated by Keats Grove – and Constable (1776-1837), whose big grave is in the churchyard of Hampstead Parish Church.

The 50-per-cent lie is to suggest that those people still live there, or that they were all stinking rich when they did.

Hampstead lured the aesthetic crowd because of its 17th- and 18th-century houses, built when the place was a spa, rich in supposedly health-giving, iron- rich chalybeate waters. Thus the Flask pub and the Wells Tavern on Well Walk.

What’s more, those houses survived because Hampstead was so difficult to get to. With its steep hill and winding streets, the trams couldn’t get there. The Tube didn’t arrive till 1907.

It’s true that this absurdly charming area had become distinctly richer in the later-19th century, as pleasant houses – not wholly unlike the kind you find in Wimbledon or Richmond, but with more Arts and Crafts fribbles – were built for successful bourgeois and the occasional serious plutocrat such as Lord Leverhulme or the Beechams.

By the thirties – post-recession, post the motorised flight into the Home Counties – many of those nice big houses were being divided into flats. A lot of Hampstead was – and remained until well after the war – affordable for stablished 18th-century and early-19th- century terraces in the old Hampstead Village core.

The finest of them is Church Row (1720s), leading to Hampstead Parish Church (1747), where all those relations of mine were dispatched – and I will be, too.

Round this, there’s a ring of large later Victorian houses and then, on the lower slopes, mansion blocks from the next round of building. There isn’t much that’s later than Edwardian – just a few rows of rather nice ’30s mock-Georgian villas. It’s all low-rise and there are no Forsytean cream stucco cliffs like Kensington’s. There’s very little that seems designed to be impressive or oppressive. But Hampstead does have individual early Modernist houses by European masters who’d settled there. There was one small Modernist house on our road (13 Arkwright Road, 1939, designers Harding and Samuel, members of the radical Tecton Group founded by Lubetkin) and a big one built for himself on Willow Road in 1939 by Ernő Goldfinger – designer of the loved and hated Trellick Tower (1972) in North Kensington.

You found those Modernist houses and small blocks only in Hampstead and Highgate – and not in Wimbledon or Richmond – because of the local artistic tribes and especially because of the refugees.

The singular Isokon block of small flats in Lawn Road (1934), designed by Wells Coates, housed Bauhaus émigrés Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy; architects Egon Riss and Arthur Korn; Agatha Christie (between 1941 and 1947) and her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan; art historian Adrian Stokes; and author Nicholas Monsarrat.

In Circles and Squares: The Lives of the Hampstead Modernists, Caroline Maclean describes the riveting between- wars interlinked relationships of Henry Moore, his wife Irina Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and his wife Winifred, all played out in a few roads in Hampstead and Belsize Park. Look up any 20th-century artists, writers, actors and politicians you’ve admired and you’ll often find they’ve lived in Hampstead. Ian Fleming (Pitt House, North End Avenue) and John le Carré/ David Cornwell (Gainsborough Gardens) did, and so did the ‘lost’ Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell (Frognal). And Edith Sitwell (Keats Grove).

There’s never been such a concentration of ‘artigentsia’ in one place at one time in this century. It was more even than in early Bloomsbury.

By the millennium, commentators were saying that people in the clever, new, highly-paid ‘service industries’ – from City money men to pioneering IT entrepreneurs – were taking over; people who might be socially liberal but were economically very dry.

Hampstead’s charm has failed to deliver in the 21st century. As it’s got richer, it’s become decidedly less hot artistically.

Back in the ’50s and ’60s, right-wing humorists in national newspapers – their doyen was Peter Simple (actually Michael Wharton) in the Telegraph– dreamt up the everlasting folk tale that not only was everyone in Hampstead filthy rich, but the richest amongst them were the socialists. His hugely rich creation Mrs Dutt-Pauker is doing everything to be modishly lefty (not unlike what’s called virtue-signalling now). Peter Simple suggested that the East German Communist leader Walter Ulbricht had been her lover and that she had a Maoist grandchild!

But the real leftists one knew in Hampstead in their nice big untidy flats, badly converted out of big old houses, weren’t usually rich and weren’t hypocritical.

The leftish Jewish refugee intelligentsia who’d had to leave Berlin or Vienna were running for their lives. We had Jewish friends and neighbours, particularly from music land – the culture celebrated in the Royal Academy of Music’s recent exhibition about postwar refugee musical culture around the Finchley Road.

Two of my best friends at my Hampstead school (progressive co-ed) were half-Jewish and completely secular.

I remember some Home Counties cousins visiting and saying something a bit sarky about people whose names ended in ‘Berg’ or ‘Stein’ (nobody would do that today). I remember thinking surely everyone knows people with those names – but on the Sussex/Hampshire borders they probably didn’t.

In our road, there was a large and hideous house (1874) with a ballroom and a plaque to owner Sir Joseph Beecham, Bt, of the immensely rich Beecham patent-medicine family and father of Sir Thomas Beecham the conductor. It had been bought in 1921 by Aslef, the train drivers’ union.

It also housed Tribune, the socialist quarterly magazine, which meant you saw Michael Foot at book-signings there. Nothing is too good for the people!

This century, it’s been converted into a block of ‘luxury flats’ and the plaque has disappeared. That’s 21st-century Hampstead for you.

This story was from December 2023 issue. Subscribe Now