The sixth oldest square in the capital and the first to be built outside the city centre, Kensington Square was the vision of Thomas Young, a wood carver and joiner of St Martin-in-the-Fields who, in 1682, bought fourteen acres of land in ‘ye parish of Kensyngtoun’. Originally called King’s Square, in honour of James II, Young’s plan was to develop a spare of fashionable houses in an area unrecognized by high society. This fact did not deter Young [or the builders Young leased and sold the majority of the sites to] and house-building began in 1685.
By 1690 the north, east and south sides were largely complete. The south side did not then include No.’s 11 and 12 which lay just outside the square’s perimeter and were added in 1700. The north side lacked No.’s 36 and 37 while one the west side only No. 24 had been completed. [The west side progressed slowly; the last houses to be built – No.’s 34 and 35 – were not erected until 1736-7]. The garden plot is depicted – bordered by trees – in the earliest known plan of the square which is dated 1717. Stables were located on the east side of the square, through the archway next to No.’s 2 and 3, in what is now called Kensington Square Mews. The stables survived until the early 1870s; the southern end of Kensington Court now occupies this site. The Greyhound at No. 1 Kensington Square has been a public house since 1686, although the building was totally rebuilt in 1899. William Makepeace Thackeray, who lived at No. 16 Young Street, made good use of the Greyhound’s colourful clientele in his novel, The History of Henry Esmond .
At least one house on Kensington Square was occupied in 1687 but by 1690 there were still only a dozen inhabitants, leaving thirty or so houses empty. It was the arrival of the King and his Court to Kensington Palace in 1689 that reversed the fate of the square and made it one of the most fashionable addresses in England. This came too late for Thomas Young who was ruined financially and imprisoned for debt. The square was abandoned once more when the aristocracy decamped after George III and Kensington Square remained relatively unoccupied until 1803. This gentle decline resulted in a lack of commercial development which has enabled Kensington Square to retain its eighteenth-century character and charm.
Gallery 19 always displays a limited edition print depicting the four sides of Kensington Square in its window and the artist, Gordon French, is currently developing a new print that superimposes the four sides of the square over an old map of Kensington. Gallery 19 also stocks a charming card of Kensington Square by Matthew Wright as well as a fascinating out-of-print book titled, Records of Kensington Square by Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, who lived at 17 Kensington Square from 1918 until his death in 1946.