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Miniaturists, Little Tich… it’s a small world

On this week's virtual ramble, Diary visits Lisle Street, recalling the demise of a skint Italian nobleman, brushes with art and theatre, and a music hall star who made a little piece of history in the English language

09 November, 2020 — By The Xtra Diary

Lisle Street. Photo: Tom Morris

AS we head back into lockdown, Diary continues our stroll through Westminster from the safety and comfort of our sofa.

You will recall how last week we’d dilly-dallied down Gerrard Street, and now we shall head one block south and turn into Lisle Street, gazing thirstily at the Falcon Pub on its corner: an ancient watering hole, it served customers long before its earliest recorded licensee, John Dent, registered his business there in 1839.

Lisle Street dates from 1682, when it was carved out from the garden of Leicester House. Its first inhabitants were builders, who established a co-operative featuring masons, carpenters, surveyors and plumbers.

In 1718, this yet-to-be-trendy backstreet was the scene of a series of events that would end in Italian nobleman the Marquis de Paleotti being convicted of murder.

Born in Bologna, he had been a soldier but after the Peace of Utretch, ending the decades-long squabble known as the War of the Spanish Succession. De Paleotti quit the army and came to London to visit his sister. It was in the West End where his penchant for gambling and other vices took hold.

He racked up considerable debts, which the suffering sister paid off: when she had had enough, he was thrown into a debtors’ prison. Seeing his plight, the kindly sibling anonymously bought his freedom, vowing it would be the last time.

But his stint on bread and water did not mend his ways, and he continued to spend money he didn’t have on the French card game Faro, a precursor to poker.

One day in the spring of 1718, the Marquis, checking his empty purse, told his servant to go forth and borrow some dough. His employee, who had been turned down by lenders across the West End on previous missions, declined the task – prompting the Marquis to run through the unfortunate man with his sword, killing him instantly.

The Marquis was tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to death.

During his defence, he showed an unenlightened attitude – claiming it was matter of deep disgrace that English law should hang a nobleman for exercising his right to do whatever he pleased to his servants.

He also told the court he believed it ridiculous England’s churches did not offer sanctuary to murderers on the run.

Facing inevitable punishment, he then demanded he should not be hanged with other criminals, and instead should be strung up alone so his body would not be defiled by coming into contact with such riff-raff. His snobbish wish was granted.

Little Tich

On to happier times: in the early 1800s the street became home to a group of miniaturist painters, including friend to the stars Samuel John Stump.

Miniatures had become quite the thing, led originally by amateurs: the self-taught brushwork of a footman called Gervase Spencer and apothecary Samuel Cotes were in demand.

Stump, from his base in Theatreland, took it one step further. He saw a market among the vanities of the stage set and did well producing likenesses of actors in character.

One hundred years later, Lisle Street’s artistic bent continued when the Royal Society of Musicians moved in. Founded in 1738, it was backed by Handel. He handed over the gate money from his first ever performance of the Messiah, and bequeathed £1,000 to the Society in his will.

Their Lisle Street home was designed by Thomas Hopper, whose work earned him a life subscription to the Society. Hopper was a key figure in the English Gothic revival, and he designed magnificent Castle-like piles for posh people who wanted to play at being Medieval knights.

On to No 5, once home to a series of MPs, including the nicely named Bulstrode Peachey Knight. He sat in the Commons between 1722 and 1736 and was hardly a Stakhanovite. Hansard records him voting just once during his spell.

It would become the address of monolinguist actor and theatre impresario Anthony Le Texier: he moved to London from Paris after the Revolution and hosted dramas in his Lisle Street home, with him performing each part. His dashing looks and dress sense made him a hit, and in 1802 cemented his trendy position by being backed by Lady Albinia Buckinghamshire, who paid for Francophile parties featuring reciting the works of Molière.

He had previously executed super-quick costume changes for his Parisian audience, but his English fans felt it was too “pantominic”, as one critic suggested, so instead he chose to simply switch voices as he read from his lectern.

Now, let us recall the music hall star Little Tich, whose surname – shortened from Tichfield – gave us a word to describe someone short in his socks.

Little T was 4ft 6ins and renowned for his prowess as a dancer – his Big Boots routine and comic turns, based on observations of working men, thrilled Victorian and Edwardian audiences and he earned himself a residency in Paris.

But disaster would strike: in 1927, while appearing at the Alhambra Theatre, Leicester Square, he got a blow to the head during one acrobatic routine. He felt giddy, and retired to The Falcon pub for a spirit-lifting restorative libation.

Sadly, here he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered, dying a few months later aged just 60.

The stretch would later have another French connection when it became the UK base for France’s trailblazing cinema firm, Pathé.

Businessman Bernard Natan headed it up during the days Pathé newsreels were shown before features: but rapid expansion of the business followed by the Great Depression saw Pathé go bankrupt in 1935.

Natan was charged with fraud, accused of buying the company on the never-never and fleecing shareholders through a series of shell companies. A disgusting taste of antisemitism hung over his trial – he was also accused of changing his name to hide his Eastern European Jewish roots.

Sent down in 1939, French collaborators handed him over to the Gestapo in 1942 and he was murdered at Auschwitz.

The 1935 Pathé fire sale saw the building bought by St John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin, where surgeons held evening clinics so workers could come for advice without their bosses knowing – and therefore not be sacked for scratching at blemishes that might be the harbinger of a nasty disease.

And on that medical note, we shall depart for another week. Stay well, stay safe.

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