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Local history expert Averil Nottage writes:

Tucked away between Parkhill Road and St Dominic’s Priory are the Mall Studios.  It was here in the 1930s that a “nest of gentle artists” pioneered the British Modernist movement.

Pierced Form Barbara Hepworth 1932

In 1927 the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her husband moved into studio no 7.  Barbara had studied at Leeds School of Art and the Royal College with Henry Moore, so in 1929 when Henry, and his new wife Irina, were looking for somewhere to live, Barbara suggested that they rent a studio and flat at 11a Parkhill Road.  

In September 1931 Barbara Hepworth fell in love with artist Ben Nicholson whilst on holiday with the Moores and other friends.  Barbara returned to London to ask her husband for a divorce.  Ben announced to his wife that he was leaving her and their three children, although he continued to visit them frequently.  Soon after, Ben moved into the Mall Studios with Barbara.

The 1930s were particularly productive for all three artists.  Hepworth’s and Moore’s work became increasingly abstract.  In 1931 Hepworth first pierced a hole in a sculpture and after that, revealing the interior space became a central motif for them both.  Moore later suggested that the hole “can itself have as much shape-meaning as a solid mass”.

In 1932 Ben Nicholson’s wife moved with the children to Paris and whilst visiting them, Ben met Braque, Brancusi, Picasso and Mondrian.  Under their influences he developed his distinctive white wooden reliefs on different planes.

In the early 1930s Herbert Read, a well-established art writer and critic, became a strong exponent of Moore’s and Hepworth’s work.  After leaving his family and job in Edinburgh he settled, with his new partner “Ludo”, at 3 Mall Studios in 1934.   Herbert and Ludo enjoyed hosting parties and became the social glue of the Modernist movement by bringing together people of different ages and nationalities.  Ben Nicholson later said that no-one who hadn’t lived in Mall Studios could understand the excitement of the new ideas generated there.  Herbert Read provided a public voice for the artists as they rejected figurative art and negotiated around Surrealism and abstract-constructivism to shape British Modernism.

Composition Henry Moore 1934

The discussions were enriched by the arrival of eminent European refugees. Walter Gropius, the architect who set up the Bauhaus School in Germany, fled to England with his wife in 1934.  They were invited to live in the new cutting-edge Modernist flats in Lawn Road, (now known as Isokon), around the corner from the Mall Studios.  Other Bauhaus teachers, including architect Marcel Breuer and the Hungarian artist Laslo Moholy-Nagy were also given refuge there and became frequent visitors to the Reads’ soirees.  It was hoped to establish a British Bauhaus, but it never happened.  When Piet Mondrian arrived from Paris in 1938, Ben Nicholson found him a room in Parkhill Road overlooking the Mall Studios.  He had his walls painted white and added patches of primary colours, reminiscent of his grid paintings.  The British Modernists saw his work as the logical conclusion of abstract art. 

Herbert Read believed the foreign artists came to this area because the way had been prepared for them.  Hepworth said that they made England seem suddenly “alive and rich”. For a few years it seemed that London was becoming the international centre of Modernist art, but with the threat of war the “nest of gentle artists” dispersed.  The British artists moved out of London whilst the refugees travelled on to the States, which later became the Modernist art centre.  Read said: “Such a feeling of unanimity was never to exist again after the war, but English art had come of age.  Within the next decade it was to become, what it had not been for more than a century, an art of international significance.”   

Averil will lead our autumn walk on “Artists, Refugees and Spies” which will include more about the artists living around Parkhill Road in the 1930s.  An article about local spies will appear in the August edition of the newsletter.

Howitt Close – a hidden history in Belsize Park 

Committee member Barbara Abraham has been researching the history of a Belsize building too often taken for granted: 

Howitt Close is a mansion block, in Art Deco style, that has nestled comfortably and rather unassumingly at the curved southern end of Howitt Road for almost a century. Last autumn a most unwelcome planning application to add a fourth storey and mansard roof brought it into the limelight.  The Belsize Conservation Area Statement of 2003 mentions Howitt Close as a building making a positive contribution to the special character and appearance of the conservation area but little other information about the flats was readily available. Establishing its heritage was important in opposing the planning application and so began a rather frantic search for historical information, which brought to light both Howitt Close’s significant architect and some interesting comparisons and contrasts with the Isokon Building. 

A careful look at Howitt Close reveals that it was designed with considerable architectural skill to suit its specific location. The L-shaped block of flats was evidently intended to make optimal use of the available space, but without dominating its prominent situation at the junction of Howitt Road and Glenilla Road. Aesthetically it was designed to blend with the earlier Edwardian terraced housing in the neighbourhood, whilst proclaiming its era of construction through its overall form and Art Deco flourishes. The building comprises two red brick storeys topped with a white roughcast one, with both the red brick and white roughcast mirroring the materials of the Edwardian houses across the street. The pale storey above two darker brick storeys appears to diminish the height of the block. “Setbacks” and tripartite main windows are used to divide it visually into vertical sections that approximate to the width of the houses in the vicinity so that, from afar, the mansion block can be mistaken for a terrace of houses. 

A day spent in London Metropolitan Archives yielded some background information but not the date of construction of Howitt Close. But a visit to Camden Local Studies & Archives Centre proved more fruitful as one of the archivists unearthed a “Notice of new buildings, drainage works, and apparatus in connection therewith”, filed with the Borough of Hampstead in October 1932. The notice was signed by Henry F Webb & Ash, an architectural partnership that also owned the site. 

Subsequent research established that the same partnership was responsible for the 1932 Ambassador Cinema at Hendon Central, and that Henry Frederick Webb (1879-1953) was the architect behind other significant north London buildings. He went on to design Elm Park Court, Pinner, constructed in 1936 and now Grade II listed. Elm Park Court is considered one of the icons of the modernism characteristic of 1930s “Metroland”, a form of modernism that owes more to Art Deco than to the later “brutalist” strand of modernism. Despite Elm Park Court’s very distinctive character, its Art Deco heritage is apparent and the development has a number of features reminiscent of Howitt Close.

Howitt Close was built 1932-1934 and the General Rate book for Belsize Ward shows that its 46 flats were fully tenanted at April 1934. Its construction dates between 1932 and 1934 mean that it was contemporaneous with the Grade I listed Isokon flats on Lawn Road. The Isokon design was developed 1929-1932 and the building was officially opened in July 1934, shortly after Howitt Close was first occupied. Volumes have been written about the Isokon flats: a project “to design an apartment building and its interior based on the principle of affordable, communal and well-designed inner-city living… aimed at intellectual, working middle class people” ( The Howitt Close flats were also intended to provide compact living spaces for the middle classes. The original plans for the building were titled “Proposed Block of Small Type Flats,” and it had a restaurant from the very beginning on the lower ground floor, whereas the famous Isobar restaurant in the Isokon building was not opened until 1937, when the block’s communal kitchen was converted into a restaurant. The impetus behind Howitt Close was similar to that of the Isokon building and, with its contrasting architectural style, it provides context for the modernist Isokon flats. Without good comparable examples like Howitt Close the significance of the Isokon flats cannot be fully understood. 

In contrast to the well-publicised and dramatic history of the Isokon Building with its celebrity tenants – “Very few pre 1945 tenants do not have a Wikipedia entry” – Howitt Close has had a quiet history, and remarkably little has been written about it. It is understood that it was used as residential accommodation for civil servants at some point and further research may reveal an interesting story of this early example of inner city, partly communal living for the middle classes. Whilst the Isokon Building fell into an appalling state of disrepair and required total refurbishment, Howitt Close has remained in a reasonable state of repair over the past 90 years, partly because it lacks some of the structural design faults that contributed to the Isokon’s deterioration.

It is fair to say that Howitt Close, as a pleasing presence in its location, has been taken for granted over the best part of a century, at least until the threat to its architectural integrity posed by the current planning proposal. It is surely only a matter of time before this building becomes highly valued and rightly appreciated for its distinctive architecture and well-preserved authenticity, and achieves listed status – unless the proposed development succeeds in violating the block before then.

And what of the planning application? The development proposal generated over 100 objections, including from The Belsize Society, Belsize Conservation Area Advisory Committee (BCAAC) and the Twentieth Century Society, and no expressions of support. As at April 2022 we still await a decision from Camden Planning Committee. 

Note: the author continues researching the history of Howitt Close and welcomes information/reminiscences about the building and its occupants. She can be contacted via

Plant a Tree for the Queen’s Jubilee

Barbara Abraham, our Committee’s tree expert, writes:

We announced in last August’s Newsletter that the Belsize Society was hoping to participate in the tree planting initiative marking Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 and plant some extra trees in public areas in Belsize. We drew up a shortlist of four possible locations and put the proposals to Camden tree department and to our three Belsize Councillors. Our Councillors are enthusiastic and supportive of the project and have suggested that we apply for Local CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) funding for the tree planting, and we have begun the application process.

A spot at the junction of Eton Avenue, Lancaster Grove, Lambolle Place and Eton Garages

In discussion with Councillors Steve Adams and Tom Simon, we have narrowed down the shortlist to a single location: the triangular-shaped island at the junction of Eton Avenue, Lancaster Grove, Lambolle Place and Eton Garages. This island currently has one medium-sized mature tree and a bench but its main use is as a dumping ground for Christmas trees once a year. BelSoc is proposing planting a cluster of native fruit trees (cherries, apples or pears) with a view to transforming this under-utilised site into a small green park – a mini-orchard. The existing mature tree and the bench would be retained, and an additional bench or two added. As well as providing a more environmentally attractive space, the grouping of trees would improve air quality in the vicinity and create a wildlife habitat.

We are excited about the project but it is at an early stage. Crucially, a survey needs to be carried out using detecting equipment to identify the presence of any underground infrastructure, such as pipes and cables, and determine if space is free to plant a tree. The successful locations are then marked and the second phase of the survey, involving trial excavations, can take place to ensure that the proposed locations for tree pits are in fact free of services and other obstructions. Until we know the results of the surveys we cannot be sure that the tree planting project is feasible – but we are optimistic!

Focus on Hampstead Theatre

What’s coming up at Hampstead Theatre?

Next on the Main Stage – The Forest
At this turning-point of his life, Pierre finds himself tormented by the conflicting demands of family, career and sexual desire.

The World Premiere of Florian Zeller’s uncompromising and mysterious play is translated, as ever, by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jonathan Kent, who re-unites with Zeller after his production of The Height of the Storm, which was critically acclaimed in London and on Broadway.

Next on Downstairs – The Animal Kingdom
Sam is struggling. Being a human has never been simple for him. Sam’s family don’t understand. But then they barely understand themselves.
The world premiere of Ruby Thomas’ The Animal Kingdom, directed by Lucy Morrison, is an observation of family dynamics told with wit and compassion. Ruby Thomas returns to Hampstead Theatre, following the premiere of her first full-length play Either in 2019.

Coming soon
The Fever Syndrome, 19 March – 23 April

Alexis Zegerman’s vivid, new play directed by Hampstead Artistic Director Roxana Silbert is a thrilling portrait of a brilliantly dysfunctional family.

Some Old Street, 2 April – 7 May

Lisa Hammond and Rachael Spence are an artistic partnership, known collectively as Bunny. Expect interviews with real people, homemade songs and double act comedy antics.

Folk: Hampstead Theatre Production with Belsize Connections

I’ll tell you one more thing. I got more songs in my head than I ever told you. I got enough to sing for days…

Readers may well have seen Nell Leyshon’s play Folk at Hampstead Downstairs. Louie and Lucy are sisters whose mother has recently died. They live in South Somerset and make just enough to live on as glovemakers. The two sisters have been handed down an abundance of songs which they know by heart and which they sing in homage to the traditional rural life to which they feel bound. The songs are an inheritance from their mother and help them to temper their grief and reflect on their loss.

When Louie takes a job as a maid in a large house, she meets Cecil Sharp who has come to Somerset to record folk songs. Louie sings to him and he writes down the songs which are published. Louie regards the publication as a betrayal: the songs are not commodities but part of the very essence of the community which owns them and passes them down. The physical act of singing is an emotional reflection of the fields, gates and landscapes of the countryside. Better to lose the songs than to tie them into a world that excludes those who are their true guardians.

A Blue Plaque marks Cecil Sharp’s house in Maresfield Gardens

A play about Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) has a special resonance for Belsize residents. In 1896, he was appointed as the Principal of the Hampstead Conservatoire of Music at 64 Eton Avenue. The building was later the Embassy Theatre and is now part of the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama – right opposite the Hampstead Theatre. The Principal’s job came with a house: Sharp lived in Maresfield Gardens as marked today by an English Heritage Blue Plaque. Sharp stood down as the Principal in 1905 to concentrate on collecting folk songs. His life and work is now celebrated at Cecil Sharp House at 2 Regent’s Park Road in Primrose Hill. He died at his home in Hampstead and is buried in Golders Green Cemetery.

Louie and Lucy are based on real women: Louisa Hooper (1860-1946) and Lucy White (1849-1923). Sharp collected songs from them in 1903. The play includes ever-more evocative singing, dancing and piano playing from its small, multi-talented cast. Louie is played by Mariam Haque whose voice is a real treat.

For further information on Cecil Sharp, visit: For information about Louisa Hooper and Lucy White, visit For the BBC’s coverage on Front Row, visit Folk is directed by Roxana Silbert; details at

Helping our Newsletter to Thrive

We would welcome help to maintain our popular Newsletter. Do you go to concerts, exhibitions or plays in the Belsize area? If so, perhaps you would like to write a review? We would then complement your review with details of other forthcoming related events, helping to publicise the wonderful arts in the area as they emerge from lockdown.

And we are dependant on our trusty Newsletter deliverers to make sure that you get your copy delivered to your front door. Do please let us know if you are able to help with delivery – which involves a pleasant walk around a small part of the area covered by BelSoc four times a year.

Do you have desktop publishing experience or other IT skills? We would like to hand over the layout of the Newsletter to new blood. Please volunteer if you are interested.

For further information, please contact

Celebrating 50 years of the Belsize Society and its predecessors

We asked Averil Nottage, former Chairwoman of the Belsize Residents Association, to address our 50th anniversary event.  Here is what she said. 

As we celebrate 50 years of the Belsize Society and its predecessors, it seems appropriate to remind ourselves of our key achievements.  So here is a whistle stop tour of 50 years in five minutes.

Our greatest achievements were usually secured through campaigns.  Our first campaign, in 1971, was probably the most significant.  There was a plan to build a London Motorway Box that would cut through Belsize, destroy swathes of Victorian houses and St Peter’s Church, and split the community in two.  Fortunately, faced by widespread opposition, the plan was dropped.

Amongst other successful planning campaigns, we helped to:

  • conserve six significant houses in Haverstock Hill as co-operatives to house local homeless single people
  • preserve Hampstead Town Hall, St Stephen’s Church and the Spence-Webster houses in Belsize Park Gardens
  • save public spaces in Belsize Wood and Swiss Cottage
  • persuade Camden to ban estate agents’ boards in the Belsize Conservation Area.

Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t stop planning permission being granted for the 24-storey tower block in 100 Avenue Road.

Our campaigns have also had a significant impact on traffic and parking in Belsize.  We argued forcibly, and successfully:

  • to stop a complicated one-way system being introduced
  • for parking controls to stop people from outside the area parking near the local underground stations
  • to pedestrianise Belsize Terrace and so block a busy rat run and create a peaceful oasis in Belsize Village
  • to support the introduction of green travel plans for local schools
  • to improve pedestrian crossings
  • to reduce the planned impact of HS2 traffic in the area.

We hope that the results of our recent survey of air pollution will help to inform future traffic policy.

Taking part in campaigns about public services has had mixed success.

  • The first four campaigns to save Belsize Library as part of Camden’s Library service were successful although the opening hours were reduced.
  • The fifth campaign in 2012 failed, but we are fortunate that the Winch stepped in to run the library as a community resources.
  • Sadly, we were unable to save the sub post offices in Belsize Village and England’s Lane.  We were very pleased to regain a sub post office in Budgens on Haverstock Hill.
  • Campaigns to save local police and fire stations unfortunately failed.
  • Wheelie bins were introduced despite our protestations.

When the Society was formed 50 years ago, it was called the Three Roads Association. Shortly afterwards, it became the Belsize Residents Association.   In 2019 the Belsize Society took over its role, structured in a way that is better suited to the contemporary world.   It is impossible to count the tens or hundreds of thousands of hours that committee members and other volunteers have devoted to conserving and improving Belsize over this time.

Alongside conservation we have always seen it as important to organise social activities to bring people together.  Some key events were:

  • the Belsize Festivals that were held annually from 1973 to 1989 until a series of washed-out events dampened the organisers’ enthusiasm
  • annual garden parties and carol singing
  • historic, architectural and tree walks
  • new members’ lunches and local neighbourhood get-togethers.

Apart from the Belsize Festivals, the most popular event was the jointly sponsored premier of David Percy’s first Belsize Story film at St Stephens.  Although nearly 300 seats were available, we still had to turn more than a hundred people away! 

But that is probably enough history for now.  I hope you’ll agree that after fifty years we have plenty of achievements to celebrate.

For our account of “Shaping Belsize and the BRA campaigns” see our website at


Fiftieth Anniversary Event: The Story of Moll King’s Belsize Houses

On 4 November, we celebrated our 50th anniversary with a very special event, hosted at the Belsize Community Library. David Percy presented his illustrated production about Moll King’s Belsize Houses. It was our first indoor event for many months: it was wonderful to see our members face-to-face again and within Belsize Library. 

Projected onto a big screen, David’s production is a mix of historical analysis and images with a series of readings from David’s book “The Harlots of Haversack Hill”. It starts with the early origins of Moll King as she begins to develop her businesses including running houses of disrepute. The story of Moll is brought to life, most vividly by a series of readings by Dame Janet Suzman from the text of David’s book.

The presentation charts decades and centuries of a part of Belsize, the stretch of Haversack Hill as it climbs towards Hampstead, particularly between Chalk Farm and Belsize Avenue. The film’s careful consideration of the history of the area, drawing in the evidence from maps, paintings and photographs, is as strong as David’s past studies of Belsize history. By focusing in on the changes in Haverstock Hill, the production has a different richness, introducing us to the cluster of buildings (Dawsons Villa, Field Cottage), and to a history of the people (Tom King, Moll’s son, through to to the modern owners). 

In questions after the screening, David explained how the production was a development of his book, and his own pleasure at seeing the character of Moll King voiced so perfectly by Dame Janet Suzman.

After the event, wine and nibbles were served. We were treated to a speech by our former chairwoman Averil Nottage who gave us a poignant history of BelSoc and its predecessors over the years.

Streaming “The Story of Moll King’s Belsize Houses”, 20 Dec-6 Jan 

David Percy’s presentation will be available to stream online over the seasonal period, in case you would like to see this excellent presentation again or were unable to go to the recent screening. David has kindly allowed his illustrated production to be available for a limited period, streaming from 20 December to 6 January. We’ll email the details and provide links online nearer the time.

Society’s Historical Walk around Belsize

We were delighted to be able to resume our hitherto regular historical walks in September, having been prevented for so long by events from organising these. On the day the weather seemed distinctly unpromising, but the rain happily relented in the afternoon. We were rewarded with a large attendance. 

On this occasion, our former Chair Averil Nottage conducted a stroll through parts of Belsize that gave an insight into some representative aspects of our locality’s rich social and architectural history, dating back 1,000 years. Starting in Belsize Terrace and taking in Belsize Square, Lambolle Road, Eton Stables, Eton Avenue and finally Chalcot Gardens, we learned how the name “Belsize” came about, how what was originally forest became farmland and then, with London’s expansion over the centuries, its transformation into a middle-class suburb, with reference in particular to the changing fashions in housing that we still see. 

It was very apparent afterwards (over tea and cakes!) how pleased everyone was to able to participate after so long in a collective event of this kind, and one which was so informative and instructive. We owe our sincere thanks to Averil and to those of our members who made and served the tea and cakes. Some very good news is that Averil is planning a further walk for May next year, this time centred around the artists, refugees and spies (!) who lived in the Parkhill and Lawn Roads areas of Belsize (off Haverstock Hill, round the corner from the tube) in the 1930s. Watch this space….

From the archives: celebrating 50 years


Over the last 50 years, we have aimed not only to contribute to the amenity of Belsize Park but to bring residents and supporters of the area together. The summer garden parties – hosted in the gardens of our members – have proved enduringly popular with legendary cakes baked by members and enjoyed by everyone.  There was a Jubilee Garden Party in Mary Shenai’s garden at 1 Belsize Park in May 2002 which featured a brass band.  We are hugely grateful to all our hosts over the years and to our loyal bakers and servers without whom we simply could not hold this event.  

A highlight of the calendar has been community carol singing in Belsize Village.  This started as a last minute idea in December 2003 under the talented leadership of Handley Stevens, BRA Chairman.  Over 100 people attended, joining in the singing, eating mince pies and giving money to the local Marie Curie hospice. This set the pattern and tone from then until now.  The weather has not led to any dampening of spirits!  In December 2012, it rained non-stop but Belsizers simply raised their umbrellas and carried on.

Handley and his family continued to lead the carols until 2017.  Choir leader Matthew Watts led the carols in 2018 and 2019 in great style before the pandemic led to the cancellation of this event in 2020.  We will be celebrating Christmas again this year with carols in Belsize Village on Saturday 18 December.  The generosity of everyone in giving donations to Marie Curie has been consistent.  For instance, over £300 was raised in 45 minutes of singing in 2019.  

Although the annual meetings with Belsize Councillors are open only to Committee members, we have for many years held successful hustings in advance of local elections.  Candidates in the Belsize area from across political parties have spoken and been questioned by the audience on local issues.  Venues for our hustings have included Hampstead Town Hall on Haverstock Hill, Sarum Hall School in Eton Avenue and latterly Belsize Square Synagogue.

The archives cover hustings in location elections in the 2000s. In 2002, the hottest issue was the proposed market at the end of Eton Avenue, which the meeting overwhelmingly supported. Other issues included the Belsize Library’s future and the proposal for a 20mph speed limit which was substantially supported by the audience. In 2014, questions from BRA members concerned 100 Avenue Road, HS2, local amenities and social housing.

TYCT over the years

The archives record how, in December 1993, a committee member “will really get it done soon”, with the “it” being a Tradesmen’s List. Updated regularly, TYCT has been very useful and always popular. During much of its history, it boasted illustrations by Tony Gollop (who also provided material for the newsletter), with earlier issues having images of Belsize House, in 1845.