From Dryden to Hendrix, fame brings its plaque

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

July 16, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Fixed to a wall at Kensington Court Place is a plaque that tells all passers-by that T. S. Eliot, the poet, lived and died there

Around the corner, in Kensington Square, another blue circular plaque identifies a house where John Stuart Mill, the English philosopher, lived. Across the square was the abode of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, and on the corner the French statesman Talleyrand lived briefly. It says so over the door.

The little blue plaques are all over London. They testify not only to the great number of personages who were born or sojourned here, but to the English felt need to remember things, and to mark their memories in a concrete way.

"I think it suggests the English have a great sense of their own history," says Victor Belcher, the man who runs what he calls the English Heritage "plaque scheme."

"It all arose out of a suggestion made in Parliament in the last century to mark those houses in London where famous Englishmen have lived," he says.

The first plaque went up in 1867 on Holles Street, in Marylebone, in honor of Lord Byron. But the house it ornamented is gone, and a department store stands in its place.

The oldest plaques that survive were put up in 1875, to John Dryden, in Gerrard Street, in Chinatown, and to Napoleon III, in St. James's.

As this indicates, the English surrendered their exclusivity in the matter a long time ago.

Americans honored by the official plaques include Benjamin Franklin, who lived on Craven Street, off the Strand; Nathaniel Hawthorne, of Pond Street in South London; and Mark Twain, who lived at 213 Tedworth Square, in Chelsea.

English Heritage puts up about 12 plaques but receives between 50 and 60 nominees a year: politicians, scientists, entertainers, artists. Anyone can make a nomination, "and all are taken seriously," says Mr. Belcher.

Writers are inordinately represented. "I think it is because literary people, their names, their fame, tend to endure longer than people in other professions," he says.

The selection process is rigorous: "A person must have made a positive contribution to human happiness. We don't put up plaques to famousmurderers, or famous villains."

The current waiting list has about 60 names, including those of writer James Joyce, playwright Noel Coward and writer Ian Fleming. Mr. Belcher hastens to separate Joyce and Coward from Fleming. "He's some way off, I'm afraid to say."

Jimi Hendrix, a founding father of rock, "has been approved in principle. A plaque for him will probably go up in Brook Street in Mayfair, where he lived in the late 1960s."

To be plaqued you have to have been dead at least 20 years, or born at least 100 years ago.

How many plaques are there? Mr. Belcher estimates that there are just under 600 of the official English Heritage plaques. But that's probably not the half of them. London is full of "unofficial" commemoratives put up by friends of this or that famous person. There is one on New Zealand House, a high rise in Haymarket, which notes that a hotel once existed there where Ho Chi Minh worked as a chef before he went home to become the father of modern Vietnam.

In fact, there are plaques all over this town, vanity plaques, for instance, or plaques put on buildings that replaced buildings that sheltered famous persons.

These, Mr. Belcher believes, are "fairly meaningless."

"We have strict criteria that the original building in which famous people lived must be standing," he says. "The house takes on a certain character because this or that person lived there. We RTC want to be able to look at a door and be able to think that the person being honored walked out of it."

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