24th June 2019
by Peter Coles
An old mulberry tree in an unexpected place can be the starting point of a trail full of surprises. This is what got me interested in mulberries in the first place, way back in 2011, and one of the reasons for setting up Morus Londinium. I call such trees ‘Lost Angels’, which, like the line in Shelley’s poem Adonais, sometimes point to a ‘ruin’d paradise’ (disappeared garden) from which they have been separated by years, decades, or even centuries of change.
Infrared image of the black mulberry in Avenue Close
This Morus nigra (black mulberry) in front of 1930s flats in Avenue Close, St John’s Wood, led me to a 19th century mansion and its illustrious owners, a bust on a wall in Millbank and, eventually, the grand staircase of King’s College, London.
Resurrecting The Poplars
According to the 25” OS map for 1894-96, the Avenue Close mulberry tree stands on the edge of what were then the grounds of a mansion called The Poplars, next to some glass-houses. The exact spot also coincides with the rear boundary of the garden of a smaller detached house, which then stood next door at no 18 Avenue Road. Both houses were demolished to make way for the present flats, which were completed in 1933.
The Poplars was no ordinary house. It was designed by John McKean Brydon, a Scottish architect who built mansions for the well-off all over London (and beyond), and public commissions such as the arch over Charles Street in Westminster. Its dining room, also designed by Brydon, even featured in the pages of The Building News in 1873.
Originally built for a well-to-do French family, the house was bought by Ludwig and Frida Mond in the 1880s. Ludwig Mond became an internationally celebrated industrial chemist and was one of the founding directors of the chemical giant I.C.I. A bust of him (and another of his son) still stands above a window of Imperial Chemicals House on Millbank. Mond and his assistants accidently discovered a way to purify nickel, in a make-shift laboratory at the end of the garden in The Poplars (see note 1).
Sophocles and Sappho
Meanwhile Frida Mond developed her talents in the world of the arts. The Monds became prominent collectors and patrons of the arts, both in London and in Rome. In Rome they bought another extravagant mansion, Palazzo Zuccari, where they entertained artists, musicians and literati.
It was in Rome that the Monds befriended two sculptors, Ferdinand Seeboeck (an Austrian) and Constantin Dausch, from Germany and commissioned them to make sculptures of Classical figures – the Greek poetess Sappho (630 – c. 570 BC) and the tragedian, Sophocles (497-406 BC).
Dausch's Sophocles (left) and Seeboeck's Sappho (right) at King's College London
Dausch’s work was a new copy (i.e. not a cast) of the Lateran Sophocles in the Vatican. Seeboeck’s Sappho is an original composition, carved to match the Sophocles. They were obviously intended to be a pair. Made in Rome around 1893-4, they were shipped to London, where they stood in the hallway of The Poplars for the next 30 years.
Ludwig Mond died in 1909. On Frida Mond’s death in 1923 the two statues, as well as a valuable archive on the German writers Goethe and Schiller, were bequeathed to Kings College London. The statues now have pride of place either side of the main entrance hall of the old building, each at the foot of a flight of stairs.
A decade later, The Poplars was demolished and replaced by the flats that stand there today – complete with an old mulberry. Today’s grounds are admirably tree-covered, but none of the trees looks to be more than 80 years old, so they could all, including the mulberry, be part of the 1930s development, rather than survivors of The Poplars. But it still has a good story to tell.
Note 1: J M Cohen The Life of Ludwig Mond, Methuen, London, 1956.
Article and new photography (c) Peter Coles (2019).