Looking behind the blue plaque
Words by Jake Russell
We tour a Holland Park house that has been a literary and artistic centre for over a century.
23 Campden Hill Square is a house with a secret history. Stand outside and you will notice a blue plaque recording that the war poet Siegfried Sassoon lived here. But Sassoon is just one of the many artistic figures connected with this unique property.
The first of these figures is J.M. Barrie, playwright, novelist and creator of Peter Pan. This story was inspired by the Llewelyn Davies family, whose children Barrie befriended while out walking in Kensington Gardens. In fact, the characters of the Darling children and the Lost Boys drew on the five Llewelyn Davies sons: George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico.
In 1904, these characters were introduced to the world in the play, Peter Pan, which was a runaway success in London theatres. At that point the family lived at Kensington Park Gardens in Notting Hill, but after the death of the father Arthur in 1907, they relocated to Campden Hill Square. Soon Barrie was providing the family with financial support, and when their mother, Sylvia, died in 1910, he became the children’s legal guardian as well. During this period he also adapted his famous play into the beloved novel Peter and Wendy (1911).
Barrie continued to support the five children until they became adults. They remained at Campden Hill Square throughout their youth, with Barrie regularly visiting the house. Even when the family left the property, they remained fond of the area, with youngest son Nico living next door at No.22 during the 1930s.
In 1920 the house was bought by the artist Harold Speed, a successful portrait painter known for capturing many of the period’s eminent men and women. Speed also painted romantic landscapes and mythical subjects, as well as writing handbooks on practical methods of painting. He was the person responsible for the impressive studio that now extends from the back of the house, with the words ‘Beauty truth and love are one’ embossed above the architrave.
Speed was also responsible for the house’s second literary link. Soon after acquiring 23 Campden Hill Square, he began taking in lodgers, and from 1925 onwards Siegfried Sassoon occupied one of the upstairs rooms. By this point Sassoon was a well-known poet, but his most celebrated work dated from the First World War. While living at Campden Hill, he began to experiment with novels, creating fictional accounts of his idyllic childhood in Kent, and his traumatic experiences on the Western Front.
Sassoon was so nervous about this change of genre that he insisted his first novel, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), was published anonymously. But the book was a critical and commercial success, while its sequel – Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), also written at Campden Hill – was immediately recognised as a classical account of the war.
In 1932 Sassoon left the house, relocating to Wiltshire to marry and start a family. Campden Hill was his last address in London, while Harold Speed remained in the property until his death in 1957.
Its most recent owner was a successful newspaper editor, who likewise lived here for several decades. He was not only aware of the house’s artistic history, but also collected several of Speed’s paintings. In addition, with the framed front pages hung up throughout the property, recording pivotal moments in twentieth-century history, the owner left his own mark on the interior.
Walking round the property, it’s easy to imagine the famous playwright visiting his adopted family in the elegant drawing room, or the artist hard at work in the spacious studio, or the poet looking out from the top-floor rooms at the spectacular views of north-west London. Therefore, 23 Campden Hill Square offers not simply a home, but a chance to share in the capital’s rich cultural history.