Site Unseen: Soho's "Tudor" potting shed
Friday 20 January 1995
Why? Because Soho seems to offer a world of possibilities, a world turned gloriously upside down. Once you turn into that self-contained district bounded by Oxford Street, Charing Cross Road, Shaftesbury Avenue and Regent Street, you feel that you are venturing into mysterious and exciting territory.
Is this the night when, eating in a restaurant, you are discovered by a film producer at the next table, or offered a contract by a music tycoon, or asked to star at the Raymond Revuebar or Madame JoJo's? Stranger things have been known to happen - afterall, it could be you.
In Soho, appearances are often deceptive. A promised good time for £10 turns out to be rather less than a good time: the peep show has a wad of chewing gum stuck over the aperture, the expensive strong drink turns out to be alcoholically-challenged (I speak from hearsay, not personal experience).
Illusion and reality are definitely on only nodding acquaintance in Soho Square itself. In one corner is a lovely 18th-century house complete with a cage crinoline staircase which permitted ladies in their finery to sweep up and down in style. The House of St Barnabas now cares for homeless and destitute women.
In the gardens is a weather-beaten statue of Charles II which looks as if it has been here ever since the square was first laid out in the 17th century and named King Square in his honour. But the statue, like Charles himself, has been on its travels. Its last owner was W S Gilbert, of "G and S" fame, who kept it in the gardens of his house in Harrow Weald. In 1938, after his death, Lady Gilbert returned it to its rightful spot - even though she kept the fountain and river gods.
However, the real dissembler is the wonderful Elizabethan half-timbered building standing behind Charles II. Passers-by stand and argue over its date: 1575? 1581? 1593? In fact, none of these. The potting shed was actually built in 1875.
The gardeners of Soho didn't want just any old shed for storing their tools, they wanted something special. In his typically humourless fashion, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, the art historian, called it "silly". But then follies are meant to be silly.
It is certainly a reminder that, in Soho, things aren't always what they seem.
The potting shed is in the middle of Soho Square, W1
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