- Original design
- Henry Flitcroft, 1744
The 2020 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2021 programme mid August 2021
The size and scale of the surviving 18th century houses on three sides of Bloomsbury Square have a pleasing domestic aspect: intimate rather than intimidating, compared with showier squares. The exterior of Pushkin House, on the busy south-west corner, is a good vantage point from which to observe this. The façade on Bloomsbury Way suggests a large, but not huge, residence. The central section of the frontage – main doorway patrolled by metal railings; dormer windows peeping above a pediment two floors up – projects out slightly from the two “wings”. The building has been divided into two: the right-hand portion (5A) wraps round the corner into the square.
This division indicates how, in many once-residential central areas, houses have changed first in status, then in purpose. Built in 1744 for one family, at some point in the 19th century it was split up, internally, to accommodate two separate households. For at least the last 50 years, the house, situated where legal, literary and academic London intersect, has been offices. Now the Pushkin House Trust, a charity working to support Russian cultural events, leases 5A. However, the history of the site goes back to London’s passion for residential squares, which took off in the 1660s. Following the Restoration of the monarchy, Charles II granted building licences to aristocrats who wanted to develop, often speculatively, their landholdings in the capital. The trend continued into the 19th century with increasingly ambitious schemes: Bedford, Cavendish, Grosvenor, Leicester, Manchester, Portman and Russell were squares built by aristocratic owners.
Bloomsbury Square has the same noble pedigree. Initially, it was named after the Earl of Southampton, who laid it out in 1665. The Earl built a house for himself on the north side, but many of the other properties came later. This is the case with 5/5A, built in rather dark brick and designed by Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769) who favoured the Palladian style, emphasising classical features of order and symmetry. His best-known commission, designed on a monumental scale, was Woburn Abbey, stately home of the Duke of Bedford. Flitcroft was much more modest in Bloomsbury; those street-front railings have a touch of class, but the panelled front door, with two narrow “attendant” windows, looks slim and spare. Again, on the first floor, two narrow lights flank the main round-headed window. The second floor has a Diocletian window, semi-circular, with two vertical mullions, continuing the tripartite theme.
Inside the house, the striking feature of the uncluttered entrance hall is the pair of classical pillars marking off the stairwell. The hall is exactly the same width as the central section of the façade. Some of the ground floor rooms have original woodwork and plaster decorations.
The main stone staircase (balustrade restored to its original design) leads to the showpiece – an elegant reception room with sash windows and wooden shutters, where the walls are panelled and the original plaster cornices have been restored. Above this, the main low-ceilinged chamber on the second floor is dominated by that Diocletian window. From the street, it seems small, but here it becomes a big eye, overlooking a much-changed Bloomsbury.
Pushkin House is the UK’s oldest independent Russian cultural centre. It was founded in 1954 in a house in Notting Hill by a group of émigré Russian friends, led by Maria Mikhailovna Kullmann (Zernova). Their aim was to create a welcoming meeting-place “for the enjoyment, understanding and promotion of Russian culture in all its forms, and for the exchange of views in a lively, informal atmosphere, with freedom of speech a core principle”.
Today, Pushkin House remains true to its original mission as home to Russian culture in London. It hosts a varied programme of Russian literature, poetry, art, cinema, music, theatre and dance, history, philosophy and current affairs. Events include lectures, exhibitions, films, concerts, readings, panel discussions, debates and its celebrated annual Book Prize.
Pushkin House is a politically independent, Registered UK Charity, owned and run by the Pushkin House Trust. While the original endowment set up more than half a century ago ensures its independence, Pushkin House relies on ticket sales and unconditional donations from the public to maintain quality programming.