16 OCTOBER 1953, Page 10

Sloane Street, Sloane Square, Sloane Avenue

By JAMES. POPE-HENNESSY ONE of the myriad profound contrasts between London and Paris lies in the matter of street names. In Paris the name of a street is either a tribute to some national figure (permanent or temporary) or the commemoration of some national event. In London it indicates on whose property a street is built. This banal custom of calling streets and squares by the subsidiary titles, surnames or country properties of noble landlords was already current in London in the seventeenth century, and with the Georgian expansion westward it was continued. Sometimes the new " suburban " streets were chris- tened after a member of the Royal Family. A few great. men such as Nelson and Wellington gave their names to squares and terraces, but on the whole public tribute to popular heroes was confined to the naming of taverns and pubs. One of the few cases in which a really remarkable man is adequately com- memorated in London is that of Sir Hans Sloane, whose surname figures in a square, a street and an avenue, while his Christian name has given us Hans Crescent and Hans Place.

This year is the bi-centenary of the death of Sir Hans Sloane, who expired at Chelsea on January 11, 1753, at the age of ninety-two. It is equally the bi-centenary of the foundation of the British Museum by an act of Parliament which imple- mented Sloane's last testament and authorised the acquisition of his famous collections for the nation. The British Museum is celebrating this event by two exhibitions of Sir Hans Sloane's treasures—one, in the Bible Room, and presided over by the Rysbrack bust of Sloane in his full-bottomed wig, is of the choicest of the. illuminated manuscripts and early medical works; the second, in the Department of Prints and Drawings, assembles his collection of the drawings of Diirer and Holbein, which reveal that as well as doctor, botanist, collector of curios and bibliophile, Sloane was a serious and gifted art con- noisseur. In the Natural History Museum at South Kensington —which, as one often forgets, is in fact only a department of the British Museum moved here from Bloomsbury in the eighteen-' eighties—there is a fascinating display of all that now remains of Sloane's actual collection of natural specimens—sea-shells, dried plants and leaves and pieces of bark, crystals and minerals, as well as those oddities—a Roman lady's skull found in the Tiber—for which smart-alecks like Lord Hervey would sneer at the wise, studious and acquisitive old man. The Keeper of the. Natural History Museum, Mr. G. R. de Beer, has moreover published a new book, Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum, in which all available facts about Sloane's life as well as the details of his elaborate will are conveniently marshalled, and which forms a suitable commemorative volume. To find traces of Sloane himself it is -necessary to go to Chelsea, for though he lived most of his life at No. 3, Bloomsbury Place, it is in Chelsea that his memory lingers, along the sunny pathways of the Physic Garden, in the grave- yard of Chelsea Old Church, and in the names of some of Chelsea's main thoroughfares. Sir Hans Sloane purchased the manor of Chelsea, a country house near a village and usually approached by water, in 1712. Although he did not settle there until 1742, when aged and infirm in body but intensely alert in mind, he always spent a great deal of his time there, working in his house and in the Physic Garden, in which he had studied as a young man, and which he now, as landlord, let to the Apothecaries for a nominal annual fee. The manor house, built by Henry VIII and later inhabited by Catherine Parr and by Anne of Cleves, was the chief dwelling on his new property; but there was also Beaufort Manor, where Thomas More had lived and had welcomed Erasmus and Holbein. This house, which he judged uninhabitable, Sloane, rightly or wrongly, pulled down. After Sloane's death Chelsea manor house was in its turn demolished to make way for part of Cheyne Row; the houses now num- bered 19 to 24, at the corner of Cheyne Row and Oakley Street, are said to cover its precise locale. The' Chelsea Physic Garden, surrounded by a high brick wall and with gates which give on to the Embankment on the south, on to Swan Walk on the east, is one of the most peaceful and secluded places in London. Here, in the midst of old trees, of formal paths and formal beds of herbs and plants, the fine white marble statue of Sir Hans in his robes and wig, a deed in his hand, stands on its plinth in the sunshine. The ,garden is only open to bona fide students who wish to work there, bat it is constantly used, as Sir Hans Sloane intended for teaching, botanical and research purposes. The four cedars of Lebanon which were planted in Sloane's time have gone; the last sur- vived until 1904, when it too succumbed to the lack of the Thames water to which it had been accustomed, and of which the construction of the Embankment had deprived it. By narrowing the river, the Embankment did indeed do much to ruin Chelsea : in Lysons' great book there is a charming engrav- ing of the Physic Garden sloping down to the river's edge, two of its cedars overshadowing the water, and a little boat sailing by. It' was by rover that many of Sloane's friends would set out to visit him from Westminster and London.

It is completely satisfying to contemplate the career of Sir Hans Sloane, and to read the account of his erudite and suc- cessful life. Already noticed as a prominent young doctor in the reign of James II, he was chosen by the Duchess of Albe- marle to go as her physician on her husband's fatal expedition to take up the Governorship of Jamaica (where the Duke, after twelve months, died). The work he did in Kingston in studying and classifying tropical flora revealed the full extent of this subject to European botanists for the first time, and formed the basis of his huge two-volume illustrated work, A Voyage to Jamaica, which is still consulted to this day. On his return to Europe he took up a fashionable practice in London, and began that career of scholarship and research which led him finally to the Presidency of the Royal Society as well as of the Royal College of Physicians, making him a by-word for medical and botanical learning in his own day. In manner Sloane was affable and " free of access," always ready to treat patients rich or poor and to show his collections to anyone seriously interested—and even to a few great ladies who came out of pure curiosity. As Sloane grew older, and the famous collections grew more and more extensive, he began to be exercised about their future. No existing British institu- tion seemed worthy of them—the Royal Society poor and factious, the Ashmolean badly run—and so he settled down to draw up the scheme which makes all of us his debtors, his plan for a public museum. In his will he ordained that the collections, which he estimated had cost him nearly one hundred thousand pounds, should be offered to the nation for a fifth of that sum. Failing purchase, they were to be offered on the same terms to a succession of foreign Royal Academies of which Sloane was a corresponding member. Largely owing to the efforts of Speaker Onslow the bequest was accepted. Sloane's great library, his manuscripts, his drawings, his medals, coins, jewels, minerals, animals, shells, plants, reptiles in spirits of wine were purchased for the nation, and were soon joined to the Cottonian and Harleia'n manuscripts and books in what is now known as the Foundation Collections of the British Museum. , Sloane had envisaged his museum remaining in the manor house at Chelsea, but it was naturally deemed best to move it into London. Montagu House in Bloomsbury was bought for the purpose of sheltering it. The Chelsea manor house was pulled down by Sloane's son-in-law, but the essential wishes of the old doctor had already beep executed. It is no mean achievement to have imposed his public-spirited bene- volent plans not only on his own generation but on posterity, and to have ensured that his Physic Garden and the collections of his life-time should survive the centuries in exactly the manner that he wished.

The above is the seventh in a series of articles by Mr. Pope-Hennessy on post-war London. These articles are to be collected and published in book form by Messrs. Constable.