Leicester Square And The Big Apple

M@
By M@
Leicester Square And The Big Apple

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A giant apple over newtons house
Image: Public domain. (And, yes, we added the colour for pomaceous effect.)

This bizarre heap could have been London's memorial to Sir Isaac Newton.

An 17th century house, entombed within a pyramid and topped with a giant apple. This is not some headline-seeking intervention from a modern upstart architectural studio, but an 1820s plan to preserve the London home of Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton's main town house stood just south of Leicester Square in St Martin's Street, on the plot of land now occupied by Westminster Reference Library. Indeed, his cellars (which I've visited) still survive beneath. An inscription on the side of the building confirms his dates.

An inscription saying Isaac Newton lived here.
Image: Matt Brown

Newton chose this spot because, at the time, it was at the very edge of London. It offered comparatively dark skies for his rooftop observatory, while still being close to the learned societies of the capital. The house became an intellectual hub, and was preserved for many decades after Newton's death in 1727.

In 1825 — as the centenary of that death approached — the Cambridge academic Thomas Steele wrote to The Times, setting out his ambition for a proper commemoration. The National Memorial would nucleate around Newton's old home, and be topped by a great sphere. Steele explained with lavish punctuation:

"...Among the many splendid improvements which are making in the capital, would it not be a noble, and perhaps the most appropriate, national monument which could be erected, if an azure hemispherical dome, or what would be better, a portion of a sphere greater than a hemisphere, supported on a massive base, were to be reared, like that of Assisi, over the house and observatory of the writer of the Principia?"

Steele's idea was later sketched out by George Scharf, who offers this view of the momentous bauble:

A memorial to Isaac Newton with a sphere on top of a pyramid
Had this thing been built, you just know it would have become a cliched location for disaster movies. Image: public domain.

Steele's idea was three-fold. The structure would continue to serve as a meeting space and repository of knowledge; at the same time, it would protect the fabric of Newton's house from degradation. Finally, the whole structure would serve as a symbolic monument to one of the greatest minds that ever lived:

The house might be fitted up in such a manner as to contain a council-chamber and library for the Royal Society... Protected, by the means which I have described, from the dilapidating influence of rains and winds, the venerable edifice in which Newton studied, or was inspired, — that ‘palace of the soul,’ might stand fast for ages, a British monument more sublime than the Pyramids, though remote antiquity and vastness be combined to create their interest.

It would have been quite unlike anything else in the capital. Appropriate, too, in some ways. The truncated pyramid recalls the prism with which Newton first unweaved the rainbow. The great sphere, 'azure' in colour, presumably symbolises a planet or moon, whose motions through the heavens were first explained by Newton. But it would surely have been likened to a giant apple — the probably apocryphal agent by which Newton first understood mavity gravity.

Map showing memorial to newton in leicester square
A street plan showing the location of the proposed monument. Note, north is down in this map. Image: Public domain, with added colour.

Alas for fans of bizarre architecture, the plans were never taken seriously. Newton's house lingered on for another century with no commemoration other than a plaque. The observatory was sold off in the 1870s (it has never been traced, and may even have been a fake), and the building was eventually dismantled in the 1920s to make way for the library (which, in a nod to its past, briefly toyed with loaning out telescopes as well as books).

Newtons statue at the British Library.
Newton has a couple of big memorials in London today. One is in Westminster Abbey, while this one, based on an illustration by William Blake, stands outside the British Library. Image: Matt Brown

Who knows, had history turned out differently, then Leicester Square might now be famed for heavenly stars rather than the type who attend movie premieres. London might even have become known as the Big Apple.

Last Updated 26 February 2024

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