A single mitten on a cold day: discovering small treasures in Brunswick Square

Tracey Emin's mitten in Brunswick Square

The Brunswick Centre, with its multitude of restaurants, cafes, supermarkets and art house cinema, is a familiar meeting-point for SOAS students; however, fewer perhaps venture a few paces further in order to visit Brunswick Square.

On a bleak February morning, with its empty paths and sepulchral stillness, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that they had the Square to themself, but the broad expanse of green grass and leafy borders hide a surprising variety of life.

Bird boxes

Most of the enormous plane trees host wooden bird and bat boxes high up on their trunks, and great efforts have been made to try to encourage wildlife to make the Square its home. Birds regularly spotted include wrens, blue and great tits, robins, song thrushes, goldcrests, blackcaps and jays, not to mention an occasional sparrow hawk keeping all the others on perpetual alert. Of course, it is the pigeons that proliferate: a vast flock of the birds systematically quarter one corner of the grass, searching for scraps of food.

Very few of the original buildings, which once surrounded the Square survive. Georgian townhouses have long since been torn down; replaced instead by Brutalist concrete and office-block uniformity.

Blue plaques

Numerous blue plaques stuck on the walls of modern counterparts reveal the sites where famous tenants once made their home. The Bloomsbury Group is as ubiquitous as the pigeons: Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E. M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and Duncan Grant all lived in the Square. J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, once lived in a building in the southwest corner, close to the site of International Hall, the largest of the University of London’s student residences.

The tall iron railings, which circle the gardens, are a look back to an older age. Common with much of London, the original railings were removed during the Second World War to be made into munitions, but the ones in Brunswick Square were restored to their former glory in 2002. It is on one of the railings that another surprise awaits.

One white mitten

Following the course of the iron palings past the Foundling Museum and the imposing statue of Thomas Coram, founder of the original Foundling Hospital, a small off-white object catches the attention. It appears impaled upon the sharp point of one of the railings: a child’s single white mitten; a pathetic lost item, tiny and insignificant. However, this is not a forlorn garment looking for its twin, but an artwork by Tracey Emin. The tiny, painted bronze sculpture is a powerful image of childhood and loss; an appropriate symbol for a Square originally developed by monies supplied by the Foundling Hospital, and a timely reminder of the small treasures, which Bloomsbury’s historic squares so often conceal.

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