The arcade was commissioned by Lord George Cavendish who lived in Burlington House, the oldest remaining mansion on Piccadilly which is now home to the Royal Academy. Not just a pleasant space for the trendy Mayfair crowd to enjoy, it’s also rumoured that Lord Cavendish placed it directly next to his gardens to stop people throwing rubbish over his wall. Another reason to bring it into existence was to provide work opportunities for “industrious females”. As such, six out of the 47 original leases were assigned to women (a respectable feat at the time) and all of the shopkeepers were referred to as “madame”.
Samuel Ware was tasked with the design of the building as the personal architect to Lord Cavendish. Ware is also known for his work on the west side of the Royal Academy. The rows of two-story shops covered by a glass roof to let in natural light, while protecting from rain, reputedly cost £49,000 to build (around £4 million in today’s money). There are sixteen arches running through the 196-yard long walk, making it not only one of the first shopping arcades in the UK but also one of the longest. Originally, the upper floors were the living quarters for the shop owners, though are now store rooms and office spaces for them.
In 1879, the ownership of Burlington Arcade transferred to the Chesham family. You’ll still find their coat of arms and their motto “Cavendo Tutus” (meaning “secure in caution”) on the entrance arches at either end today.
A number of famous names have been spotted shopping here over the decades including Fred Astaire and Ingrid Bergman. It has also been used as a film set on several occasions and can be spotted in 1989’s Scandal, starring John Hurt and Sir Ian McKellen, the 1992 thriller starring Harrison Ford, Patriot Games, and the 1996 version of 101 Dalmatians with Glenn Close.