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For some reason I had not realised until fairly recently that the general public could visit the 18th century splendours of Spence House close by London’s Green Park and a mere stone’s throw from the Tudor palace of St James. The fact that the mansion is open during the winter months is a boon when so many other stately homes are closed for the season. The 1st Earl Spencer began work on his new mansion in 1756. The exterior and the ground floor interior were designed by John Vardy, an acolyte of William Kent whose work can be seen at Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and Chiswick House. Following in Kent’s footsteps Vardy drew heavily on Ancient Rome for his designs at Spencer House. That proved to be his undoing. Two years into the project, the Earl was persuaded by his close friend, Colonel Gray, to dump Vardy and commission James 'Athenian' Stuart to complete the upper floors in the Greek revival style.
The Earl had wanted his town house to stand as a monument to marital bliss. At the age of 21 he married his sweetheart in private. The guide at Spencer House was at pains to point out that a public ceremony had been planned but that the bride was getting cold feet; hence the clandestine marriage. The wedding ceremony was held on the same day that the Earl came into his majority and gained control of two large fortunes, one of which was from his great grandmother, Sarah Churchill, who built nearby Marlborough House in the opening decades of the 18th century.
The happiness of the 1st Earl’s own marriage did not prove an enduring template for some of the Spencer women who followed him. One such woman became famous for her beauty, her fashionable clothes and for the fact that there were “three people in this marriage”: the young bride, her older husband and his married mistress. In the 18th century Georgiana Spencer, daughter of the first Earl, had to share her husband and her home with his mistress. In the 20th century her kinswoman Diana, Princess of Wales, was not inclined to participate in a ménage à trios and her marriage notoriously ended in divorce. Unlike Georgiana, Diana had not been raised at Spencer House, the family having leased out the property in the 19th century. During World War Two the Spencers removed key architectural pieces, such as doors, chair rails, architrave s and fireplaces, and stored them at Althorp, their ancestral estate in Northampton where Diana was later buried. This spared the items from bomb damage but it had an unexpected consequence when such pieces were incorporated into the fabric of Althorp. In the 1980s Lord Rothschild, whose company leased offices in the house, decided to fund a major restoration of Spencer House and open up the state rooms to the general public. Unfortunately, original pieces sent to Althorp for safe keeping could not be reinstated. After the war Althorp was granted grade one listed building status. As a consequence, anything in situ at the time of the listing had to remain at Althorp. Even the fact they had been originally designed for Spencer House was not deemed a compelling enough argument for their return. However, a solution was found in the commissioning of new pieces from master craftsmen, who were often able to go to the source material to perfect their copies. Expense did not seem to be an issue which is why, for example, the replica fireplaces are so magnificent and in an entirely different class altogether to the modern replicas at the Queen’s House, Greenwich and Marble Hill House.
When I realised I would be obliged to go around the house on a timed tour and not wander at leisure, I decided to abandon my usual modus operandi and tried to discover as much about Spencer House as possible in advance, so I would know what to look out for. In my endeavours I was greatly helped by Arthur Young who wrote “A six weeks tour through the southern counties of England and Wales,” first published in 1768. Arthur was very taken with Spencer House declaring in his book: “I do not apprehend there is a house in Europe of its size better worth the view of the curious in architecture and the fitting up and furnishing great houses than Lord Spencers in St James's Place Nothing can be more pleasingly elegant than the park front which is ornamented to an high degree and yet not with profusion I know not in England a more beautiful piece of architecture Nor is the sitting up and furniture of the rooms inferior to the beauties of the outside.”
When I set out at the weekend I was determined to see whether Arthur Young’s fulsome praises still held water. The Tube took me to the entrance of Green Park. I was determined to take some exterior shots of the house from the park before dusk as I had already ascertained that the gardens were closed to the public during the winter. Whether by accident or design I was able to find breaks in the shrubbery by the park fencing through which to view the exterior of the house. I discovered afterwards that Spencer House originally opened directly onto Green Park. Later, the Crown allowed the surrounding town houses to lease land from the royal park to form private gardens.
Three distinctly weather-beaten statues grace the roof of the façade directly facing the park. They represent Ceres the goddess of fertility flanked on one side by Flora, a lesser goddess but also of fertility on her other side by Bacchus, the original hard living party boy.
I took a short cut between two buildings to get to the side of the house facing the street. It is no longer possible to take a picture which incorporates the whole of this façade. Rather annoyingly, an adjacent 20th century block of flats gets in the way. The location of the block alone makes these flats very expensive. Apparently one recently sold for £13.5 million. Personally, I would rather have had the money than the flat, not that I will ever be in the fortunate position of having to choose between those two stupendous options. Nevertheless, I was able to capture the Venetian window which lights the main staircase and the warm honey tones of this façade which was in contrast to the white stucco of the front overlooking the park.
I bought my ticket in the Entrance Hall. The latter is dominated by an oversized marble bust of Lucius Verus who, until his death, jointly ruled Ancient Rome alongside the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Unlike Marcus, Lucius was deemed a pretty mediocre emperor. If Lucius had been more like his co-ruler then perhaps the fictional “Maximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions” might have been a loyal servant to him as well as to “the true Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.” A bas relief of the latter’s father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, hung above the fireplace. Its dusty condition occasioned the guide to declare that she longed to take a duster to it. The eponymous cinematic Gladiator might well have recognised the sacrificial instruments as well as the beribboned skulls of oxen represented in the Doric frieze. The latter was inspired by the Temple of Jupiter the Thunderer and the tomb of Cecilia Metella, the latter a Roman matron and daughter of a Consul.
I found myself with a quarter of an hour to spare before the tour was scheduled to start and so descended down a stairwell lined with 18th century prints to make use of the facilities below. A statue of a young Roman woman stood on a pedestal by the wash basins. Or perhaps she was a former cloakroom attendant who had been turned to stone.
I then returned to the Morning Room to watch a short film about the house. The Morning Room had a coved ceiling, plaster and timber wall panelling, 6 panel mahogany wooden doors with egg and dart architraves above them, a plain white marble fireplace and Georgian small panelled shutters. Of particular interest to me were the bronze pendant and table lamps and the elaborate gilt door furnishings, fashioned into the letter S for Spencer with a miniature head of Bacchus at the centre. I failed to notice the portraits of King Charles II and his brother James on the wall. Much of what I saw were specially commissioned replicas or else brought to the house from elsewhere, either on loan or purchased as part of the restoration project. To my relief, just as the video ended a young Australian woman came into the Morning Room to join me.It meant I could scribble notes to my hearty's content without feeling obliged to retain a constant eye contact with the guide.
Our guide, Jenny, led us into the Ante Room, which had once formed the Little Eating Parlour for the newly married 1st Earl Spencer and his wife. Henry Holland, one of the men involved in the design of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, made further alterations to Spencer House when it became the property of the 2nd Earl. One such change was the insertion of double doors leading off into the Vestibule. There had been doors before but they were far smaller and positioned within the alcoves flanking the double doors. In the 1st Earl’s time the arrangement would have allowed a permanent sideboard to be placed below the splendid apse, based upon one in the Temple of Venus. Above the marble topped pier table by the other wall was a painting by the 17th century Italian artist Pietro da Cortona. For some reason a reclining marble statue of Venus had been shoved underneath the same table. By the window was a 1740s mahogany knee-hole writing table, which we were informed was a very important piece of furniture, but my attention was fixed on the beautiful mid-18th century oval gilt mirror, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Around the room was a set of 5 mahogany chairs upholstered in red fabric. They had been specially made for Spencer House but over the centuries had been dispersed elsewhere. The restoration project enabled their welcome return.
Henry Holland also made changes to what is now the Library, such as widening the sash windows so that one could step out onto the terrace beyond and enjoy the view across Green Park. The Library steps possess the singular ability to be converted into a table and back again, or so we were told.The green upholstered chairs and sofas all date from the Regency period. Of the prints around the room, one was of my erstwhile neighbour Admiral Lord Nelson who, it seems, was a frequent visitor to Spencer House. I admired the ebony and gilt clock above the fireplace with its seated winged goddess diligently reading a manuscript. The fireplace in this room, as in most of the other state rooms at Spencer House, is a stunning 20th century replica made by the stone and wood carver, Dick Reid. The talented Mr Reid retired in 2004 but his legacy continues on in those he taught and in the spectacular commissioned works he produced.
The fireplace in the Dining Room is another masterpiece from the workshops of Dick Reid. The polished scagliola columns made to imitate Sienna marble reminded me of similar columns in the Ante Room at Syon House. The ceiling was based on Inigo Jones’s compartmented ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall but minus Ruben’s paintings commemorating the Stuart dynasty. The frieze of sacrificial oxen heads and cupids holding garlands was inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome.
Set against the wall at either end of the Dining Room is a pair of console tables designed by John Vardy for Spencer House. Winged lions at the base of the table hold vines, heavy with grapes, in their mouths. A mask of Apollo decorates the centre. As with the red chairs in the Ante Room, the tables were only returned to Spencer House in the 1980s. The appearance of these tables was once rendered even more magnificent by the addition of wine buckets made of solid gold. The unusual glass chandelier was commissioned by King George III as a gift for an Indian prince; hence the storm shades to protect the candles.
In one of the windows overlooking Green Park is a contemporary 18th century political satire in marble showing the infant Hercules, in the guise of William Pitt the Younger, strangling two snakes, with the heads of his political foes Charles James Fox and Lord North. No doubt it occasioned much merriment in the past but now looks distinctly creepy, like some prop from a horror film.
When King Charles II invited John Webb to build him a new palace at Greenwich, Webb was only able to complete a single building before the death of his sovereign prematurely ended his commission. Webb’s King Charles Court is currently home to the Trinity College of Music. I had no idea what plans Webb had for the interior until I went to Spencer House. The so-called Palm Room, where the 1st Earl entertained his male cronies, draws on John Webb’s designs for King Charles’s proposed bedroom at Greenwich. The palm trees were symbols of marital fertility. The libidinous Charles was able to sire plenty of children but not alas a single legitimate heir. The Palm Room at Spencer House has a nude statue of Venus at its centre. Given King Charles’s reputation as a womaniser, he probably had more than his fair share of naked women taking centre stage in his various bedchambers. The gilded frieze of winged griffins (a Spencer heraldic beast) is taken from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, also known as the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife. The Regency lantern purchased for the restored room continues the palm tree motif. The master carver Ben Bacon was commissioned to produce the sofas and chairs in the late 20th century. The original of the replica fireplace is to be found in the Marlborough Room at Althorp. The side tables incorporate authentic 2nd century Roman mosaics in the top and a palm tree design for the base.
The upper part of the staircase reflects James Stuart’s preference for the Ancient Greek. The treads are of stone and the walls painted to resemble stone. The sheet metal balustrades have been painted to give the optical illusions of garlands. James Stuart wanted the barrel vaulted ceiling to give the impression that visitors were inside an ancient Grecian temple. The average Ancient Greek would have been hard pressed to have seen anything on a par with the huge 18th century Venetian lantern suspended from the ceiling. It has gilded statuettes of naked men around the top and lions at the base. It seems this enormous lantern was once one of several placed around the Doge’s state barge. It is amazing the barge was able to keep afloat under what looks to be a considerable weight. The top of the staircase leads to the state rooms decorated by James Smith to which I shall return anon.