Craven Street was described by Henry James as an “inscrutable riverward street, packed to bleakness with accumulations of suffered experience”.
It’s right next to Charing Cross Station, and just a few weeks ago on a whim I turned down it to see what was there. A street of rather gloomy early 18th-century terraces. It was the London Open House Weekend, and some of the houses were open to the public.
The first one I popped in to see was the College of Optometrists (41-42 Craven Street) – which has been gutted and the interior rebuilt. Their conference room is a magnificent, eccentrically-shaped space with a specially designed-to-fit curved conference table.
The College has a fantastic collection of paintings of people wearing spectacles of all descriptions. In an early example of product placement, a Renaissance painting of St Jerome prominently displays his specs, despite the fact the saint’s bible translation work happened many hundreds of years before spectacles were invented. Notwithstanding, the opticians adopted St Jerome as their patron saint. Another wonderful portrait is of a Regency dandy – very Beau Brummel – wearing radical square-frame specs with side panels on the arms in blue-tinted glass. They would work as a really contemporary designer frame. Apparently, these specs were an early form of protective eye-wear for steam engine drivers. What Mr Dandy was doing wearing them for his portrait is a mystery.
The College is very proud of ghostly apparitions in its basement and has consulted all sorts of psychics, ghost researchers, etc to find out more. It seems Craven Street was a very bad neighbourhood before the Georgian attempt at gentrification; all sorts of prostitution, murder and mayhem happened here.
Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals, and the College has a portrait of him wearing them. All very appropriate, as the other house on Craven Street I looked at was Franklin’s London home, 36 Craven Street.
This one hasn’t been modernized and feels wonderfully old and spooky – far better for ghosts than 41-42. The house is now the Benjamin Franklin museum. Very excitingly, they discovered human bones buried in the yard – Franklin’s landlady’s son-in-law ran an anatomical school and presumably he must have buried the remains. Obtaining the bodies for dissection was a bit of a grey area in those days, so possibly crimes were being committed.