From the outset, the aim of the plaques scheme has been to celebrate the link between person and building, and to emphasise the social and human element of London’s architecture which would not otherwise be widely recognised.
For English Heritage, plaques are as much about these buildings as they are about the subject being commemorated. The form of a building can say a great deal about the character of the particular person who lived or worked there; it can confirm assumptions or, in other cases, come as a complete surprise, casting a new aspect on the individual concerned.
Authenticity of the building
Where the building has been radically altered or demolished, this important relationship is seen to have been broken. It is for this reason that English Heritage does not place plaques on ‘sites’ but only on the authentic buildings that were known to the people being commemorated.
This rule has been formally in place since 1954, but from the 1860s the London-wide scheme has sought to encourage the preservation of ‘houses of historic interest’. When the idea of erecting plaques was first mooted, one correspondent felt that the value of marking ‘in a permanent manner’ the houses of notable persons would be ‘the means of saving many a relic which will otherwise be ruthlessly swept away’.
Importance by association
A number of London’s buildings – comparatively unexceptional from an architectural perspective – have been listed on account of the associations commemorated by the plaques that they bear. For instance, van Gogh’s residence in Stockwell, Oscar Wilde’s Chelsea home, and D. H. Lawrence’s house in Hampstead.
Still, while plaques may generate interest, they cannot actually prevent demolition; over a hundred of London’s blue plaques and the buildings they marked have been lost through demolition over the course of the past 140 years.
Surprise and education
Commemorative plaques have a remarkable power to surprise and educate, and draw out historical associations which would not otherwise be evident. They appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds – to residents and visitors of London alike – and have captured the popular imagination.
The playwright Sir David Hare said at an unveiling in 2003 that a blue plaque remains ‘the only distinction that anybody really wants in life. And the great thing about it is that they never know they have it’. The scheme is an especially effective and tangible way of bringing buildings to life, of bringing the past into the present, of educating people about history and the historic environment, and of increasing local (or even national) pride.